Your browser (Internet Explorer 6) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

Posts tagged ‘angola culture’


Semba, Kizomba & Capoeira: Angolan Culture and Customs (Part 4)

As I mentioned earlier semba is perhaps Angola´s most popular dance form. But there are others also worth mentioning.  This week let us take a closer look at semba, Kizomba, Capoeira de Angola and Luanda’s Carnival.


Semba is a high tempo dance that gets its name from “Masemba”, a word which means “a touch of the bellies”, the motion that characterizes this type of dancing. Semba originated in the seventeenth century in the coastal areas of Angola around Luanda and Benguela. It was a dance that celebrated special events such as births, marriages, and good harvests because it is capable of conveying a broad spectrum of emotions. Before the arrival of the Portuguese the semba dance was part of traditional religion. Dancing accompanied the worship of the godess Kianda, in honour of whom food, clothing and other gifts were thrown into the sea.

Many Angolans believe that semba may have given birth to Samba, Brazil´s national music. The transatlantic slave trade of the seventeenth century forced the relocation of countless enslaved Africans, who took some of their cultural traditions with them.

Semba is often accompanied by music played on traditional Angolan musical instruments such as the tarolas (snare drums) and the dilongas (bass drums). However semba is far from being merely an archaic tradition. Semba keeps pace with the times through the efforts of innovators such as DiaKiemuezo and Bonga, who strive to popularize this music and dance internationally. Other young artists and groups, are joining veteran semba musicians to reclaim the style’s old popularity, which had began to decline somewhat. Examples of musicians “taking this route” are Flores and Maravilha, a band formed in the early 1990s. They are all worth a listen.

Kizomba and Tarachinha

Kizomba and tarachinha are similar to semba but are more intimate, sensuous, and slower than semba.

The origins of kizomba are unclear. Some defend that it is of Angolan origin with influences from other Lusophone countries, others hold that it originated on the Cape Verde Islands. Whatever its origins, what cannot be debated is that kizomba is known, and danced, throughout Lusophone Africa as well as in Portugal itself. In fact, kizomba is usually sung in Portuguese with African rhythms. Angolan musicians who play kizomba include Flores, Paim, Murras, Irmãos Verdades, and Don Kikas.

Tarachinha is an even more seductive dance than kizomba. While kizomba is normally danced with the partner held in a light embrace, in tarachinha dancing partners are locked in a rather tight, sensual embrace and dance in a very slow manner, almost not moving.


Throughout Angola´s history, due to the slave trade of the 16th and 17th centuries, there have been constant exchanges in culture and customs between Angola and Brazil. One example of this type of exchange is the mbulumbumba. The mbulumbumba is a bowed instrument, which is indigenous to Southern Africa but is better known by its Brazilian name, berimbau. The berimbau is played by holding a stick (baqueta) in the right hand, striking the wire of the bow (arame) and controlling the resulting sound by pressing the gourd (cabaça) towards or away from the abdomen.

The berimbau is integral to the practice of Capoeira de Angola, a martial art and acrobatic dance form that is a popular Brazilian national tradition. While Capoeira de Angola is that is more identified with Brazil than Angola, its roots are from Africa. There are even some who say that Capoeira was practiced in Angola during pre-colonial times and that it was banned by the Portuguese colonialists. In Brazil Capoeira was a way by which enslaved Africans confronted slavery. In its original form, Capoeira’s martial art aspect was subtle and disguised, hidden “beneath” the acrobatic dance. Hidden in plain sight!


Definitely not hidden, or subtle in any way, is Luanda’s Mardi Gras parade. This parade is one of Angola´s most important cultural events. The Mardi Gras Carnival was inherited from the Portuguese, with much infusion of African culture through costume and music. This three-day carnival draws a very large crowd. It features a parade of grupos carnavalescos (carnival groups), drawn from Luanda and its neighborhoods, colorfully attired, in masks and decorated headgear. All these groups compete for prizes based on the quality of their dance and music.

If you would like to know more about Angolan Dance, the Carnival is a good place to start!


Angolan Culture and Customs: Part 2 – Chockwe Masks and Sculpture.

Hi again everyone! Let us continue our exploration of Angolan Art by examining the influence of the Chockwe. The Chokwe kingdom rose to power during the late nineteenth century, primarily because of the profitable trade of ivory, wax, and rubber with the Portuguese. Besides providing wealth, these same raw materials were used by the Chockwe to create functional artifacts which were in turn, transformed these into prestige objects. The importance of their influence can be seen in the fact that:  Chockwe Art is much sought the world over and; other ethnic groups in Angola have been greatly influenced by Chokwe art. Two types of objects particularly representative of the Chockwe approach to Art are Masks and Sculpture.

Chockwe Masks

Mask carving is one of the most popular forms of traditional art in Angola. Angolan Masks are of various types and come in different shapes, sizes, and artistic quality. Masks are often carved out of wood, bronze, and other metals, and they usually represent the spirit of lineage, clan, or family ancestors; deities; mythological figures; and even animals.

Masks are not intended to be decorative; they were believed to possess great magical powers and, therefore, could only be worn by designated people, often men, after a proper initiation or induction rite had been performed. The wearer of the mask was believed to be in communion with the spirit world of deities and departed ancestors represented by the mask. The masks were then used in initiation ceremonies such as healing, circumcision, fertility, and puberty rites.

Some of the best known examples of Chokwe Masks are the Mask of Mwana Pwo and the Mask of Chihongo. The Mask of Mwana Pwo (the young maiden), represents the female ancestor. This mask is used in puberty and fertility rituals. It is traditionally worn by male dancers dressed like women and sporting false breasts. The wooden mask has a facial appearance depicting deceased person. Its facial scarification is a symbol of the pain of death, as Mwana Pwo was said to have died young. The mask is adorned with beads, forehead cruciforms, woven headpieces, and other ornaments. Although the Chokwe ritual is performed by men, its mask is regarded as an embodiment of feminine beauty, which bestows fertility on women and prosperity on the people in general.

The male companion of Mwana Pwo is the Mask of Cihongo (spirit of wealth). The Cihongo mask is different from its female Pwo counterpart. Rather than a gaunt expression characteristic of the Pwo mask, Cihongo sports a fierce expression with wide mouth, elaborately painted white teeth, and exaggerated horizontal beard. This mask, which is carved from wood, and worn exclusively by a chief or his sons, represents age, wealth, and chiefly power and authority.

Chocke masks depict not only human faces. There are also masks that depict various animals. Animal masks are quite popular because animals often feature in the mythology of many Angolan groups. Antelope, buffalo, elephant, zebra, monkey, leopard, rhino, pig, baboon, snake, and lizard masks are common. These masks, carved primarily in wood and sometimes in metal, are beautiful pieces of art which also served primarily as ritual objects in different kinds of ceremonies, such as initiation rites.

This shows that traditional arts and crafts of Angola have historical links to the culture of its people. Art did not exist merely for aesthetic value. Art was sacred. It was an integral part of ritual performances and other traditional ceremonies and festivals. In modern Angola, a new emphasis placed on the aesthetic value of Art. Art has become become the object of museum and gallery exhibits.

Chockwe Sculpture

The Chokwe are particularly adept sculptors who have produced some of the most famous sculptures as well as ornate carvings of everyday objects. Such statues are usually carved in solid wood and sometimes adorned with decorative metal. Typical examples include statues of royal figures such as kings, queens, and nobles; powerful warriors, hunters, and healers; musicians and ceremonial dancers; ancestors and deities; and mythical beings.

Another testament to the importance of the Chockwe influence on Angolan art is the Chokwe statue the “Thinker” (“Pensador” in Portuguese). The Thinker is one of the most beautiful pieces of Chokwe origin one of the oldest artifacts in Angola. It represents all Angolans by being a symbol of national culture. The statue is can be seen as either man or a woman and depicts wisdom and knowledge. It is carved in a bent posture, hands on head and legs crossed, a posture symbolizing reflection.

In addition to statues of humans, carvings of court items and paraphernalia depict the glory, dignity, and pomp of royalty. In traditional precolonial societies, sculpture exclusively done by professional carvers known as the songi, who often worked exclusively for the court and other prominent chieftaincies. They are noted for many royal carvings including chairs, stools, decorated thrones, ceremonial staffs, spears, and scepters.


Angolan Culture and Customs: Part 1 – An Introduction

Africa is huge. As the second largest continent, it is four times the size of the United States (excluding Alaska). Angola, in turn is also large, the seventh largest country in Africa. At about twice the size of the state of Texas, it covers more than 481,354 square miles spread across coastal lowlands, hills and mountains, and the great plateau. Angola is home to approximately 100 ethno – linguistic groups. The most prominent of these groups are the Ovimbundu, the Mbundu, the Bakongo, the Nganguela (Ganguela), and the Lunda-Chokwe. From such a large melting pot,and so many influences, it is only natural to expect much diversity in culture. Angola doesn’t disappoint!

Join me as I share with you my “unofficial guide” to the culture and customs of Angola. Over several installments I will deal with a distinct aspect of Angolan Culture: Art; Literature; Cuisine; Religion; Customs and Music.

To begin an exploration of Angola´s culture and customs we need look no further than Luanda, Angola’s largest city and main social and cultural center.

The sensuous dance, Semba, was born here. Semba gets its name from “Masemba”, meaning “a touch of the bellies”, the motion that characterizes this type of dancing. Semba music is capable of conveying a broad spectrum of emotions and, therefore is heard at a wide variety of Angolan social gatherings. In the late 80s producers began to mix traditional carnival music like zouk and soca from the Caribbean and semba around a fast beat, producing the “Kuduro” style. A very popular example of this style of music is the popular “Danza Kuduro” music video (by Lucenzo and Don Omar ) on YouTube,  which has over 300 million views! Perhaps you have seen it too?

Luanda´s cultural importance doesn’t end with music though.  It has much, much more to offer! Visitors can view impressive collections of African arts especially Chokwe masks and sculptures. To me Chokwe masks are particularly interesting. They symbolize various ancestral beliefs and were used during rites of passage circumcisions, fertility and puberty rites. Chokwe art much appreciated in many western countries and is often found on display in major art museums and galleries in Europe, the United States, and Japan.  In Luanda such pieces can be viewed are the Humbi-Humbi Gallery and; the Museu Nacional de Antropologia (National Anthropology Museum).

Other galleries in the city are Galeria Cenarius, Espelho da Moda, and Galeria SOSO-Arte Contemporânea. The Museu do Dundo (Dundo Museum), in the northeastern province of Lunda Norte, has been in existence since the colonial era. It houses one of the finest collections of Chokwe art found anywhere in the world. More contemporary museums located in Luanda include the Museu de Angola (Museum of Angola), the Centro Cultural Português (Portuguese Cultural Center), the Museu Nacional de História Natural (National Museum of Natural History), and the Military Museum (housed in a historic fortress).  Another popular museum, not dealing specifically with Art, is the Museu da Escravatura (Museum of Slavery). This museum, supposedly located at the very place where African captives were kept before being shipped to New World! The museum preserves the unfortunate history of the Atlantic slave trade on the Angolan coast.

In January 2005 the Minister of Culture, Boaventura Cardoso, called for special attention to the restoration of monuments and historic sites in Angola. This will ensure that Angola’s culture and customs will thus not be forgotten.

Join me soon, for Part 2 in which I will delve more deeply into Angolan Art and Architecture, focusing primarily on Chokwe influences.