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'Kuduro,' The Dance That Keeps Angola Going

Kuduro is the infectious, pulsating music and dance that races along at about 140 beats per minute. It's the sound that moves the southwestern African country of Angola. A group called Os Kuduristas — "the kuduro ones" — has been bringing kuduro to clubs and spaces across the globe, including Paris, Amsterdam and, most recently, New York and Washington, D.C. But their story is complicated.

Singer M.I.A. has worked with a kuduro-inspired crew. And reggaeton star Don Omar had an international hit with Lucenzo with a song called "Kuduro Danza."

So what exactly is kuduro? Choreographer Manuel Kanza, who goes by his last name and who has been traveling the world with Os Kuduristas, says it's all about the dance. "It's inspired by so many things around our environment, our world," Kanza says. "Anything can make a kuduro move. For example, we also imitate the movement of a frog, the movement of animals, the marching of soldiers. Everything can make a movement."

It's also music of the streets that spreads virally, says Marissa Moorman, a professor of African history at Indiana University who specializes in this style. "It's sort of everywhere. It's played very widely on what are called candongueiros, which are these collective taxis, essentially, which are maybe 12- or 15-seater vans. It's the most common form of transportation [in the capital Luanda]," she says. "Even though the radio station will play some kuduro, most kuduro is produced in studios in the musseques, which are shantytowns. So most artists will produce in the museq studios and then hand out copies of their CDs to candongueiro drivers and get them to play it in order to popularize it and promote it."

Kuduro is party music, the kind you'd find in clubs anywhere in the world. But it has a deeper meaning in Angola, a country still scarred by a 22-year civil war that just ended only a decade ago.

"You know, when kuduro started, we were a country at war, and our young people and even our older generation was trying to make their kids, children, nieces and nephews and neighbors, etc., feel comfortable and try to transmit, however possible, a sense of normalcy," says a producer and musician who goes by the name of Coréon Dú. He put the Os Kuduristas project together to introduce the music to audiences beyond Angola. "Kuduro was more a celebration of being alive," he adds, "because we did have our family members were in the army, or lost a leg in a land mine, or something like that, but we wanted to focus on the positive."

Coréon Dú might well want to focus on the positive. His real name is Jose Eduardo Paulino dos Santos. It's one of the most famous last names in Africa. He's the son of Angola's president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has been in power for 32 years.

"I don't focus on that," says Coréon Dú, "and, very honestly, it has no impact. It seems like I came from a privileged background, but that's not really the case."

He'd like to be known best as a musician and producer. But a lot of what goes on in Angola is a family affair: Coréon Dú produces much of the programming that runs on TPA 2, the television channel run by his sister. Another brother runs a $5 billion sovereign wealth fund on behalf of the nation.

Angola is the second-largest oil producer in Africa and one of the world's biggest diamond producers; rent on a two-bedroom luxury apartment in Luanda averages $7,000 per month. Yet 80 percent of people living in Luanda live in shantytowns. And most earn less than $2 a day.

Professor Moorman says average Angolans are no better off today than they were 10 years ago. She adds that kuduro reflects what Angolans have endured.

"You can't separate its beginnings from politics," Moorman says, "from this history of the civil war and the ways in which the violence of that war was played out very particularly on the bodies of young men, right? Young men were recruited both by the state and by the rebel forces to fight in the war. I think it's not actually a story of victimization. It's a story of triumph over bone-crushing conditions, essentially."

Choreographer Kanza says kuduro dance transforms these sorrows into something else. "What we do is like trying to have fun out of something that is really serious," he observes. "For example, in the time of war, people would imitate the crippled man walking — so, taking that movement of the crippled person into a movement of dance. Like coming from the dead!"

As a result of the civil war, the median age in Angola is now less than 18 years old — and producer Coréon Dú says those young people are kuduro's main audience.

"Kuduro really is, I would say, the energy of this specific generation, the generation that was born I'd say especially between the mid- to late 1980s and right now," he asserts. "And it's still that sort of really vibrant energy that really reflects the current Angola."

Coréon Dú's love for kuduro seems genuine enough, but you can't help but wonder how much of his recent tour helps the government rebrand itself for international consumption — and how much of his support for the music helps keep a very young Angola loyal to his father.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.