In September 2009, Jeremy Xido, a New York-based filmmaker, went to Angola with a colleague and two hand-held video cameras to research a film he hoped to make about the reconstruction by the Chinese of the Benguela railroad, a major artery that once stretched 1,000 miles from the Atlantic coast through the belly of the country into southern Congo.
The railroad was built by the British, over three decades starting in 1902, to get at the copper deposits in the Congo and Zambia. It was destroyed during the 27-year-long civil war that followed Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975. Soon after arriving in Huambo, a city in west-central Angola that had been a key hub on the railroad, a chance encounter in a café touched off a chain of events that led Xido to a very different story, one he never imagined.
JX: Café Imperial is the only place in Huambo where you can get a good cup of coffee, and I had taken to starting my days there. One morning, I walked into the café and this guy I recognized as the boyfriend of Sonia, the woman who had helped me get situated in Huambo—sort of my fixer-lite—waved me over to his table. We introduced ourselves, and I told him what I was doing. His name was Wilker, and he said he was a musician. I asked what kind. “Death metal.” I’m sorry, what? Wilker was probably 28 or so, and he was in jeans and a blue oxford. It didn’t say death metal. I later learned that his day job was in IT; he was helping set up the voting systems for the upcoming election, the first democratic election they’d had in, like, 20 years. I said that he had to play for us, and he got very excited that I was interested. I didn’t know it then, but even though rock music has a rich underground history in Angola, going back to at least the ’80s, it generally isn’t popular. Some even consider it demonic. So for Wilker, it was rare that someone was actually interested in hearing about it. He said he would find someplace to play for us.
The performance happened at night, lit by the headlights of an SUV, in an orphanage that Sonia ran on the city’s outskirts. As Wilker plugged into a small amp and began to play, the kids from the orphanage emerged from the darkness. He played uninterrupted for about forty-five minutes while Xido filmed in the dim light. He was mesmerized.
JX: We invited Linda, this Chinese translator who we had met in Huambo. She and her driver picked us up and we followed Wilker out of Huambo to this neighborhood that seemed to have no electricity. I didn’t know what he meant by “the orphanage”; I thought it might be a club or something. The road was very dark but as we passed you could see it was very busy, there were people everywhere. Eventually we went through this gate and parked in a courtyard.
At this point, I still didn’t understand the larger significance of death metal in Angola. The way I had been thinking about the train story was as a geopolitical narrative in which white people were totally irrelevant. For me, there was this big question: Is this really a moment in the 21st century when China and Africa can build something that benefits both, or is it just a new beginning to the same old story of colonial exploitation? Angola has replaced Saudi Arabia as China’s biggest supplier of oil, and once the landmines are cleared, there is a lot of arable land in Angola. The Angolans didn’t necessarily trust the Chinese, but they felt they were doing business with them, that they were partners, not supplicants. I was interested in stories of places where Chinese and Angolans met, and how new power relationships were negotiated. So this moment in the courtyard, bringing these different worlds together—Linda, us, the kids—around music that is associated with Norway and Sweden it was this big pot of confusion, but also a big party. After Wilker finished playing, the kids tried out their Mandarin on Linda, and she practiced her Portuguese on them. My feeling was that Wilker and his death metal could potentially be a point in this larger story I was interested in telling. Along the railroad, all these stories are unfolding that don’t look like any Africa you think you know.
Xido spent the next year trying to raise money for his train film. There was interest, but it eventually became clear that to get enough money he would have to go back to Angola with better equipment and get better material. But he needed a way to fund the return trip. In late 2010, he messaged Wilker on Facebook, “just to make sure he was still there,” and Wilker told him that he and Sonia were organizing Angola’s first-ever national rock concert for the following summer, at the orphanage, and that Xido must come film it. Xido decided that he could sell a short film on the concert as a way to fund his return trip to Angola. Soon, though, a much richer story began to emerge.
JX: Wilker became my social-media fixer, connecting me with different bands and their blogs and Facebook pages, pointing me to their performances on YouTube. I totally researched this story through social media. I would be walking down the street in New York, arranging interviews in Huambo through Facebook. Slowly, I started to understand who the characters were, but also that there was something much larger, and more significant, than a rock concert going on here. It became clear that I needed to produce a full film on this concert.
This is the music of the generation of people growing up with the failed promises of the post-war world in Angola. During the war, people talked about how, when the war is over, we will do this, we will fix that. But so much of that promise hasn’t been realized. They see themselves as being at the beginning of a new history. Through the music and the truth it expresses, they are picking up the fragments and starting to tell a compelling new story. In this way, the music is about creating a vibrant and viable and joyful future.
There are lots of different types of music in Angola, but only a couple that engage contemporary political issues. There is a hard hip-hop-flavored house music called kuduro, which translates as “hardass.” It has a punk energy and a hard, staccato rhythm, and is very popular. There is a version that’s all bling, and another that’s political. Other than that, only the rock guys deal with what’s going on in the country. The tradition of rock in the country has been mostly classic rock. What is new, with this younger generation, is the phenomenon of hardcore metal, black metal, death metal. And its appeal is spreading. The guys who are into it have realized, through the advent of Facebook and other social media, that there are a lot of other people who are into it, too, around the country, and they have been connecting.
Many of the songs are about poverty, hunger, the endless effort to remove the landmines that menace the countryside. One band calls itself Dor Fantasma—literally “phantom pain”—in honor of the thousands of people in Huambo who have lost limbs to land mines. Huambo was one of the hardest-hit cities in the war, and so there is great symbolic importance in having this concert here. They brought people from all over the country to the heart of the war, to have this first-ever national rock concert. Wilker and Sonia wanted to give this music to the people of Huambo.
Death metal is not just at the fringe of Angolan society, the people who are into it are at a very confrontational edge within themselves. For them to walk around in their chains and their studs, in a society that is very conformist and still very much afraid, is a bold statement. This music is a way for them to deal with the trauma of the war, and also express their anger at what’s happened since. But it’s the opposite of the nihilism we associate with death metal. The concerts themselves are very life-affirming events. There is a joy they feel when they play, this tremendous release—they almost go into a trance state. All the stuff that they’ve never been able to talk about, all the residue of the war, comes pouring out.The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.