Nazar: Kuduro, War & Postmemory

  • words
  • Max Graef Lakin
  • photography
  • Kenneth Owens

nazar, 2020 © borshch

Nazar turns Angolan kuduro into what he dubs ‘rough kuduro’ — an intense, brooding and singular style. With his debut album Guerilla, released on Hyperdub in March 2020, Nazar reimagines the Angolan Civil War, a twenty-seven year long conflict that came to an end in 2002 with the assassination of UNITA guerilla leader Jonas Savimbi under whose leadership Nazar’s father served as a General. 

The history of kuduro is inseparable from the history of war. The genre emerged in the 1980s from the musseques (shantytowns) of Luanda, Angola’s war-torn capital. The word ‘kuduro’ itself means ‘hard-ass’, in reference as much to the ‘hard’ conditions under which it was created, as to its accompanying dance style, first inspired by Claude Van Damme’s inebriated dance/fight scene from the martial arts film, The Kickboxer (1989). Borrowing elements of hip-hop and traditional Angolan dance, early kuduro dance often involved theatrical and bitterly satirical references to war and injury. Dancers would walk on their knees to mimic amputation or contort their bodies into impossible shapes, as if bones were broken or simply not there. For Marissa Moorman, who discusses this history in her article ‘Anatomy of Kuduro’ (2014), “kuduro dance performs contemporary history in, on, and through the body,” functioning as a corporeal reaffirmation of survival and humanity in the context of a long, brutal war.

His music reasserts the historical link between kuduro and conflict, but Nazar didn’t actually experience the violence of Angola’s civil war first hand. Brought up in Brussels, he didn’t set foot in Angola until 2007, five years after the civil war ended. The writer Marianne Hirsch coined the term ‘postmemory’ to describe art created from this kind of perspective. Often relayed by older family members, ‘postmemory’ is what is left of an event to the generation after, who ‘remember’ what they didn’t experience through stories, images and histories. These second hand ‘memories’ are internalised through repetition and imaginative extrapolation, becoming personal and traumatic in their own right.

As Nazar explains: “I talk to my cousins in Angola and they tell me stories about bombs falling on houses in the neighbourhood. It’s surreal, because they look just like me, and they are like me, but they have these experiences that I don’t have. I’ve only been affected by the war indirectly. I’m not trying to represent all Angolans or produce a synopsis of the conflict. All I have is my own perspective and the perspective of my family.’’

Postmemory is an intrinsically creative kind of memory, formed through ‘imaginative investment’ and ‘projection’ rather than direct recollection. Guerilla is an outcome of this creative process. Its structure is highly episodic, with individual tracks devoted to specific events. ‘Bunker’ for example is an expressionistic depiction of the bloody reprisals that followed the failed 1992 election. Guerilla’s sound world, built from the clicks of reloading weapons, stifled shouts and gunshots, supplies sharp imagery and narrative force. But Guerilla is also a postmemorial collage. Creations and projections are placed alongside genuine historical artefacts. These come in the form of recorded speech samples, often from family members, such as on ‘Mother’ where Nazar’s mother tells the story of joining UNITA, or on ‘Diverted’ where his father reads from his war journal.

I quickly learned that all the preconceptions I had about Africa were false

Nazar coins his own term: ‘fake nostalgia’, which he uses a number of times over the course of our conversation. It’s like an inversion of ‘postmemory’, suggesting a vague sentimentality for an imaginary past rather than second-generational trauma. The first time he uses the phrase he’s talking about growing up in Brussels. “The Angolan diaspora community in Belgium gave me a fake-nostalgic view of Angola. I remember attending big parties and weddings with other families from the community. Sometimes we’d go to Holland because there’s a big Angolan community there too. I’d hear stories about living in Angola, and of course I’d hear Angolan music. The culture of the diaspora was just projections from back home, so I got a simplified image — I thought that this was Angola.”

 This fake nostalgia was based on an image of Angola divorced from reality, an image that while positive, seemed set in a remote past, bearing little relation to the current situation in Angola and excluding the possibility of any return to the country itself. “I had no interest in setting foot in the actual country. I saw it from a Eurocentric perspective — you just feel like all there is in Angola is misery, and nothing good can come out of it. I was proud of being born in Brussels and being Belgian-Angolan, rather than Angolan.”

nazar, 2020 © borshch

Over time Nazar’s relationship to his own Angolan identity changed: “As I grew up I started to feel that I didn’t belong in Belgium — I experienced a few racist incidents, I hated school, I started to feel depressed. I wanted to run away, and most of all I wanted to meet my dad. When I was growing up I wasn’t that conscious about what the absence of my dad represented to me. But when I reached thirteen it became more important, and I started to ask those questions.”

 In 2007 Nazar moved with his mother and siblings to Angola where he met his father, Alcides Sakala Simões, now a high profile politician for UNITA, who remain Angola’s largest opposition party. Simões is the man in the picture on the cover of Guerilla, a central yet largely absent figure in Nazar’s personal history. This particular image is taken from some well known footage: “The regime are constantly revisiting the war, through TV documentaries about the past, and they often use this footage of my dad to humiliate him. The image is from the end of the conflict — my dad had been in the jungle for three years, going from base to base around Angola. These were the roughest years when UNITA had lost a lot of support. I remember growing up feeling angry and humiliated by how they used this image. But as I got older I realised it’s just one interpretation. The image is there, I can reclaim it by using it and not being ashamed of it.”

If you go to a big party in Angola, there’s always distortion

Guerilla is a portrait of its key characters – most prominently Nazar’s father and mother. But it can also be viewed as a landscape. Within its intricate sound world there’s a powerful sense of place. Angola is evoked stylistically through the use of kuduro rhythms, but also symbolic reference to the people, the heat of the jungle, and the insects. “Music is always there in our environment. When I make a track I’m trying to capture all the things about that environment and put it into an MP3.” Guerilla’s opening track ‘Retaliation’ sets the scene vividly. We’re given the sound of heavy rain and singing birds. A piercing synth line rings out like an alarm, disturbing the initial sense of natural balance. Then we hear what sounds like the voices of children singing. It’s an ominous but affectionate introduction to Angola: you can sense the danger, but also the warmth. 

There’s a similar duality in how Nazar describes his first impressions of Angola. The realities of Angolan society, one of the world’s most unequal countries despite a wealth of natural resources, were distressing. He describes the first time he saw Luanda’s musseques on the drive home from the airport. “I knew that it was a country that had only reached peace a few years ago. I remember the journey to my family’s home when I first arrived. I was exposed to all these shantytowns, favelas everywhere — that was very shocking. I remember the first thing I asked my mother was ‘why are there so many people walking on the street?’ – It’s because the taxi fare is so expensive, so many people from the outskirts of Luanda will walk for hours to get into town.”

nazar, 2020 © borshch

Nazar also recounts a more positive cultural shock. “I quickly learned that all the preconceptions I had about Africa were false.” He becomes animated as the conversation turns to music. “I remember noticing straight away that the kuduro in Luanda was just out of this world. In Belgium, the kuduro was very old fashioned — the older generations would listen and break some moves out, but it sounded so retro. It was at least five years behind what I heard in Luanda.”

Nazar’s early exposure to kuduro was through cheap CD compilations often bought on the street or through the window of his family’s car while they were stuck at a red light. “I would buy kuduro compilations all the time, burn them onto my laptop and listen over and over again.” He recalls discovering music made with “really experimental nature, with loads of distortion, because people didn’t have access to mastering or anything. The kicks would be so blown out and heavy.”

Nazar drew mental connections between these hard-edged sounds and the intentionally overdriven beats of French artists he followed like Sebastian and Justice. He sketched the outlines of ‘rough kuduro’ on a demo version of Fruity Loops installed on his father’s laptop. His early production stories are a reminder that so often in electronic music, the raw, unpredictable disposition of cheap equipment is what sparks innovation. “I didn’t have speakers or anything in Angola, so I’d test my beats on this small TV we had at the house. They’d come out sounding like shit, distorted and noisy, and I’d be thinking ‘hmm this is actually pretty nice.’” To Nazar there’s something authentically Angolan about the sound too: “Many people in Angola, when they consume music, would do it through that kind of equipment. If you go to a big party in Angola, there’s always distortion.”

In Luanda, kuduro is ubiquitous and diverse. “There’s melodic kuduro, the mainstream kuduro, then there’s the underground kuduro made by gangs — the Angolan equivalent of gangster rap basically.” To me the tough basslines on Guerilla recall hip-hop, particularly trap and UK drill. To my surprise when I ask about it he turns the question on its head. Instead of acting as an influence, hip-hop reminds Nazar of kuduro: ‘“I could show you tracks from decades ago that sound like UK drill. As for trap, when I first heard Migos using that triplet flow I realised that the world is finally catching up, in Angola they’ve been rapping like that forever.”

I want to talk about race and identity. I want to feel proud of whatever I’m doing

Nazar’s perspective challenges the Eurocentric tendency to see genres like kuduro as peripheral club styles to be cherry picked from and used to spice up a techno set. Cities like Luanda act as centers of their own musical systems beyond the jurisdiction of London or Berlin. “One of the things that amazed me about Angola, was the level of experimentation going on within the scene there, without any connection to Europe or whatever. It’s another message to my music – that new styles are being constructed everywhere in the world, there’s so much to explore outside your own narrow perspective.”

Somewhere within kuduro’s many subdivisions Nazar saw space to explore his own ideas and fuse his teenage obsessions, music and politics. As well as making beats, Nazar passed time in Angola going through the pile of newspapers that his father brought home every day, forming critical opinions on the complexities of Angolan history and current affairs. “I wanted to be an activist. I think if I didn’t get into music I probably would be. But I wanted to find a way to merge both activities. I saw the potential to make kuduro into whatever I wanted it to be. I realised I could implement my own feelings and stories through this music.” On his early EP’s, Nazar’s political messaging was direct and impassioned. One of them, ‘Mount Sumi (Interlude)’ from his Hubris EP (Track Meet, 2016) and the accompanying video, tells the story of the 2015 regime-led massacre of a Christian doomsday sect in Angola’s southern highlands. It’s a moving and sharply critical piece of art, and an unflinching confrontation of violence and injustice. 


nazar, 2020 © borshch

Coming to the UK, where he was introduced to Kode9 and Shannen SP of Hyperdub, supplied the final musical piece to Nazar’s puzzle: “I got into the UK scene late, I don’t think I’d heard Burial’s ‘Untrue’ (2007) until 2013. In Angola I was listening to dubstep and 2-step, but it wasn’t until I came to the UK that I heard actual bass music in a club.” As well as Burial, Nazar talks at length about Actress, singling these two artists out for their ability to build worlds with their music: “It’s interesting how they’re able to digest and communicate quite complex emotions through dance music. I used to go through Actress tracks and analyse them, asking what are the specific things that make this track recognisably Actress. I knew this was something I wanted to achieve with my own music.” One more surprising influence Nazar names is lo-fi house, the deliberately but ambiguously retro YouTube microgenre. “I was always interested in that genre, because it’s very nostalgic, but again it’s fake nostalgia. There are tracks on Guerilla, like ‘Why’ where I tried to get that same feeling across.” It’s a surprise because of the striking extent to which Nazar’s music, unlike lo-fi house, completely resists pastiche. Nazar’s unique set of influences allows him to avoid clichés of futurism, revivalism, deconstruction or Burial’s referential and reflexive post-hardcore mourning.

It’s also surprising because ‘nostalgia’ is not the first word that comes to mind when you hear Nazar’s music. Guerilla is the sonic result of one artist coming to terms with a complicated and disturbing past. It’s an emotional recreation of traumatic events, reshaped by generational transmission. But it’s an expression of a more wistful and contemplative kind of memory too, concerning family and place, and rooted as much in fondness as it is in post memorial trauma. 

Guerilla is also the result of a long, deeply personal learning process. Nazar seems still driven by the insatiable curiosity that made him buy kuduro compilations through car windows or pore over his father’s newspapers as a teenager. One result of this drive to fully understand everything – family history, Angolan politics, music production – is a startlingly clear vision of his own trajectory. “I decided to make this album five years ago and I knew it was going to be about my family. The next album is going to be just as introspective, but it’s going to be less about the past, maybe more about the future and about my own life. I want to talk about race and identity. I want to feel proud of whatever I’m doing.

published first in borshch 6