- Intonations: a social history of music and nation in Luanda, Angola, from 1945 to recent times
This evocative social history underlines the significance of everyday cultural practices to the processes of decolonization and nation building in Angola from 1945 to the present. Focusing on the music produced in the musseques, the shantytowns at the periphery of Angola’s cities, and particularly Luanda, Marissa Moorman convincingly demonstrates that culture not only reflected, but was also constitutive of national identity. She shows that ordinary folks and non-political elites played as big a part in the construction of independent Angola as those involved in the liberation struggle. Moorman thus reverses a common trend in Angolan historiography which reads culture through the lens of politics; instead, she ‘travels to politics through cultural practice’ (p. 13). She also initiates a corrective to the literature of Angolan nationalism by focusing on urban spaces and their cultural manifestations rather than on liberated areas, guerrilla outposts and the exiled leadership. Intonations, as the title suggests, works on several semantic levels. First, it calls attention to the hands-on act of urban Angolans ‘intoning’ their nation, in the very musical sense of the word. Second, it draws on the idea of modulating voice and meaning, thus alluding to the different connotations with which lyrics or, for that matter, concepts of [End Page 504] nation can be imbued. Third, Moorman transforms ‘intonations’ into ‘ “into nations”’, thus illustrating the fact that ‘Angolan musicians and their audiences in part developed their politics and sense of nation in and through the activity of producing and consuming music: buying records, hanging out with friends and family, and dancing in clubs moved them “into nation”’ (p. 8).
These intonations Moorman charts over six chapters framed by an Introduction and an Epilogue, proceeding in quasi-chronological order from culture in the early days of the nationalist struggle, 1947–61 (Chapter 2) to ‘Music, dissent, and nation building after independence, 1975–90s’ (Chapter 6). The book, however, is anything but a bland sequential account. It is an engaging, gracefully written narrative which focuses on particular cultural manifestations at specific, often overlapping, moments of history. Frequently, these practices and developments are read through (and against) existing discourses and scholarship, be they social science or standard historical narratives, but also less ‘scholarly’ discourses, such as the representation of social realities in creative writing. Chapter 1, ‘Musseques and urban culture’, is a good case in point. Here Moorman maps out the socio-spatial composition of urban shantytowns and their representations, reading literary nationalists and pro-Angolan academics against colonial social science and the myth of ‘lusotropicalism’ which claimed that Portuguese colonialism created affable, multi-ethnic societies. The strength of the book, however, does not lie in the author’s critical engagement with available academic texts; this merely confirms her rigorous scholarship. The true assets are the scattered archival materials Moorman has unearthed in various Angolan collections (including those of the Portuguese secret police), and her extensive engagement with oral testimonies of artists and audiences. Moorman utilizes the contradictions and tensions inherent in the many interviews she conducted to go beyond the usual discussion of music and politics in Angola – largely limited to the 1950s band Ngola Ritmos – to include the lives and musical practices of those who did not fight in the liberation war. She thus demonstrates that the processes of decolonization and emerging nationalism had ‘neither a single source nor a single trajectory’ (p. 79).
The book is at its best when steeped in oral accounts, and when it goes right to the heart of the music. Chapter 3, for example, focuses on the production of gendered subjectivities in the music clubs of the musseques, telling us about masculinities and ‘duelling bands’, and the age-old predicament of female artists and audiences attempting to position themselves between ‘vice’ and ‘virtue’. Chapter...