Nazar: In Conversation

A lone figure casts its outline against the gloom, spasmodic movements shrouded by the smoke which envelopes the room. Sudden darkness descends leaving senses to attend to sound alone. It is felt as much as it is heard, frequencies resonating beyond the thresholds of audibility. Sounds decoupled from sources suggest their origins but assure of nothing. Sirens; airplanes perhaps; voices patched through faulty intercoms. Impressions are felt. Nothing is exact.

Such is my first encounter with Nazar, the Belgium born Angolan producer who stands behind the decks at South London’s Corsica studios. The latest addition to the Hyperdub roster, he’s playing at their monthly label residency – the obliquely named “Ø”.

It’s the inaugural airing of Enclave: the artist’s latest EP, and his first for Hyperdub. A bold expression of intent, it showcases a sound he calls “rough kuduro” – a weaponised take on the music of his father’s homeland– in an aural examination of the conflict which has defined Angola’s recent history.

In a sense kuduro and the Angolan war have always been inextricably intertwined. Breaking out in 1975, the continent’s longest civil war would go on to be waged for a further twenty-seven years, punctuated only intermittently by a series of short-lived ceasefires. It was in those unsteady interstices that the genre originated, those brief moments of reprieve permitting the infiltration of keyboard workstations -and later home computers- onto which its recombinatorial rhythms were encoded.

Finding its footing in the breaches, kuduro would go on to penetrate horizons previously hemmed in by airstrikes, its proleptic purview the expression of a nation with its attention fixed firmly on the future. Listening to the accounts given by many amongst its mainstream, the genre emanated a kind of attractional force, drawing together the shards of a society shattered by years of war.

Cabo Snoop, one of the country’s foremost kuduristas, likens his shows to a kind of community therapy: “people are able to forget the differences they have from one another and get together at a show.” Others seem to collapse the genres’ formation and Angolan restoration together entirely: “kuduro is the awakening of a society which was perhaps oppressed because we lived in times of war.” states Zoca Zoca, another prominent practitioner in the genre.

Having lumbered on for nearly three decades, the war was brought to a close by a single bullet: the assassination of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in 2002 swiftly lead to his side’s capitulation to the government. Although certainly an inauspicious foundation for lasting peace, the period was nevertheless ignited by a feeling of elation.

Perhaps in an expression of that very sentiment, it was also around this time that Nazar first migrated from Belgium back to the country of his origin, enticed back by the promise of reunification; not just that of his country, but also with his father – a former general in the opposition army.

It was also at this moment that the producer made his first forays into music. His arrival in West Africa acquainted him with an absolutely ubiquitous kuduro culture, “less strictly music, than it is a social culture” he insists, remarking on its total integration with wider Angolan society, as much at home in a taxicab as a club, its frequencies honed to the lo-fi drones of an ambient city.

It was appropriate then that it was through the genre that the producer’s process of assimilation was enacted, echoing that same equivocation between country and kuduro. “That’s what made me move to Angola – just to be closer to my real home,” he states, “and I used kuduro as a way to connect with my family, as a way to connect with my heritage. That’s what pushed me to start making music.”

While he’d previously encountered the genre, it was always at the receiving end of a diasporic broadcast – a line of transmission which, either by chance or design, seemed prone to both delay and redaction. It was only the more “mainstream style”, he states, which made it beyond the country’s frontiers, and even then at a lag of “two or three years”. The picture imparted, he describes, was an immobile image of national unity; a freeze frame of the optimism which inaugurated the Angolan peace accords.

Casting attention to cuts from that period, the mood is certainly consistent with that state of concord. “The happiness we all want! / The happiness we all felt!” intones Rui Helder on his anthem of the armistice, “Felicidade“. Bit rates low, but spirits decidedly higher, Helder preaches a gospel of national unity, one which would come to be definitive of the genre in those early years.

But if those lyrics seem apposite to that moment of reconstruction, then there remains at least one kudurista who remains an apostate of its doctrine. “The regime itself has always touched on that idea of unity” Nazar remarks, “but it’s forced – it’s not truly unity. It’s just for the cameras.”

His return to Angola confronted the producer with a very different reality from the postcard picture imparted abroad. The scene was one of disaffection and denial; an incongruous state of stark inequality and still persistent persecution set to the bright beat of kuduro. “I couldn’t express my frustrations with what I was seeing on a daily basis” Nazar recalls in a statement accompanying Enclave, “the existing kuduro was too upbeat.”

“What frustrated me most,” he elaborates in our conversation, “was just being in Angola in social situations where you feel that you are almost in Europe. But as soon as you pass those gates, go out into the city and into the shanty towns you see the suffering.”

The immediate post-war years saw the Angolan economy swell artificially from the exploitation of petroleum. But if the state prospered, its proceeds were apportioned with prejudice; the comforts conferred to the privileged compounds contrasted against the scarcity prevailing outside. In the capital of Luanda swollen slums squat beneath the shadows of abortive skyscrapers, their skeletal structures as much synonyms as they are symptoms for the hollowness of the reconstruction effort.

“I felt for a time that nothing would ever change,” Nazar recalls, “because of the way the situation is; and the way the regime was. I was in a very dark and frustrating bubble of pessimism. There was a feeling that if something were to change, we would go back to civil war.”

Given that apprehension, it is significant that Nazar’s path out of his malaise would find him conjuring that very conflict into existence once more.

Enclave appears as a simulation of the battlefield, as a cartography of its contrasts rendered in sonar. Vision deleted, sounds are alienated from their origins, the experience all the more disorientating for this fact. The listener stumbles lost, orientating against sound alone. But the danger at least remains palpable. Textures zoom close overhead before crashing with dull thuds, their resonances clipped. Stereo-imaged, the terror is rendered three-dimensional.

It seems the affective audio-experience of war looms large in his family’s memory of the conflict. ‘Airstrike’ recounts their experience endured under aerial assault. “You never see the plane” Nazar informs me ominously, “you just hear the high-pitched screech.” Thankfully, he was spared a first-hand encounter having been evacuated to Belgium at the time of the conflict. “But all this fear got transmitted to me and my younger sister.”

That much remains clear. One of the more lyrical cuts on the record, its verse remains laconic. “32 wives and their children / Only one room to stay hidden / Airstrike” he repeatedly recites with the dazed air of someone shaken, even shell-shocked.

On Enclave Angola’s apocalyptic past returns as a kind of spectral presence haunting the present. Time is desynchronised; the war is here once more.

But then again, perhaps it never really ended. Certainly, peace accords were signed – over fifteen years ago at the point of writing; but there has long been a disjuncture between official record and lived reality in Angola.

2015 saw the embers of war burst into flame once more when government troops advanced on a Christian doomsday sect sitting atop Mount Sumi, a former opposition stronghold in the country’s Central Highlands. The events which unfolded atop that mountain remain cloaked in a cloud of obscurity.

Despite official insistence that a mere thirteen died in the ensuing skirmish, Human Rights advocates have put the casualties as high as a thousand. So too the causes of the incident remain a sight of contest. Nominally a reprisal for the alleged murder of policemen by adherents of the group, Nazar points to a distinct meaning of the massacre. “The government wanted to send a message to the people. The South is generally less accepting of the regime and its policies, so the massacre was a message by the government to show their disrespect for these peoples’ lives.”

A survey of state channels will reveal scant mention of the incident, the inhabitants of the mountain seemingly spirited out of existence. A military base remains occupying the plot where they once resided. Against systematic attempts at erasure, it has required those operating outside such auspices to keep their memories alive.

Nazar ranks among them, having aurally exhumed the incident in his 2016 piece “Mount Sumi (Interlude)”. In an amorphous blend of mournful music and found footage the piece depicts life atop the mountain – from the arcane rituals which sensationalised the sect, to the more mundane passings of everyday life. It’s a humanising portrait, one which throws the savagery to which they were subjected into sharp relief. As soldiers advance on the summit the video abruptly cuts to black. Their fate remains erased, but the implication is evident.

In an essay accompanying the piece, Nazar heralds “a war of the image” waged against the regime.

The producers’ comments bear striking resemblance to insights offered by cultural theorist Paul Virilio. “A war of pictures and sounds is replacing the war of objects (projectiles and missiles)” he states in his War and Cinema: the Logistics of Perception, charting the increasing displacement of conventional weaponry by its aesthetic analogues. “War can never break free from the magical spectacle because its very purpose is to produce that spectacle: to fell the enemy is not so much to capture as to ‘captivate’ him.”

Cohering with that forecast, the Angolan conflict has seemingly undergone a state change. Perhaps conventionally disarmed, the new incarnation of the Angolan opposition addresses the disequilibrium with an arsenal of sonic weaponry. Against the prohibition of conventional protest, new sonic strategies are resourced, challenging the regime’s attempts at full spectrum dominance. And the terms of engagement are set to the template of kuduro.

Always uncannily attuned to Angola’s ebbs and flows, kuduro went from soundtracking the optimism afforded by the peace accords to progressively charting the corruption of its message. The overcrowded confines of urban slums become decentred networks of production, each node transmitting the tensions of urban existence. Eluding the glare of state enforced surveillance, messages from the messquates spill out in the hiss of digital distortion. Kuduro dancers perform disability, their choreographed incoordination mimicking the contortions wrought by the landmines still peppering the country.

Urgency escalading coded drums are set to BPMs migrating increasingly upwards. Always the beating heart of Angola, contemporary kuduro finds the country’s pulse palpitating.

If that is so, Enclave might appear to capture it flatlining, Angola’s very future foreclosed as time folds back in on itself, the country collapsing catatonically back into its past.

But such an appraisal seems at odds with the producer’s outlook. Throughout our conversation, the idea of an impasse is continually referenced, but never in a way which seems unassailable. The producer seems assured of what it takes to move forward. “The tensions are still high,” he states, “but that’s because there’s no truly good foundation for progress.”

By his own admission, part of the closure sought is his own. “[Enclave] is a personal attempt to connect with my family. The rest of my siblings grew up in middle of the war, so there was always a disconnect and it was amplified by the fact that I was born in Belgium. So, I guess me making those tracks was an attempt to find closure with all the things that I had learned, and to just move forward.”

But evidently the comments made bear broader application. At several points in our conversation he characterises himself as a kind of vector in an oral tradition of cultural transmission. In this rendering of the album’s purpose, Enclave is situated as a both vital link to the country’s past and a potential participant in the passage to its progress, albeit one painstakingly reached through piecemeal efforts. “Despite being one of the longest running conflicts in Africa” he observes, “it’s not very talked about at all. And there’s a lot of things that have to be said which can help the healing process.”

Nazar is emphatic that the country will remain mired in the moment so long as its past remains unresolved. Far from an exercise in morbidity then, it is precisely through the war’s retelling that Nazar finds a route to his country’s awakening.

And, although the terrain may remain unstable, he evidently sees the country on firmer footing already. “I remember I had lost all hope with the political situation,” he recalls, “but, two years from the moment I left Angola a lot of things have changed and now people are starting to talk more, they are not afraid just to speak up.”

Having relocated to England in recent years, he appears intent on revisiting Angola. As our interview draws to a close, he relates plans to revisit the country once more. He’s currently working on the follow up to Enclave he says, a project which will revisit its themes, but will be “more visceral, more violent, but more hopeful as well.”

“Me going to Angola is just to finish the whole process, to do the things that I need to wrap the whole thing up.” He’s talking about his music here, but one gets the sense that those comments could equally apply to his country’s revival, a cause to which he’s evidently equally committed. And perhaps, after all, there’s not so great a distinction.

Nazar’s Enclave EP is out now on Hyperdub. 

Buy it here.

Words: Franklin Dawson

Featured Image: Chris kets

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