An artist's body language and attitude can break down all language barriers with a listener. Even if Kimbundu or Angolan Portuguese aren't your native languages, when you watch Pongo's video for Tambulaya you quickly understand what this song is about. The lead actress in the middle of a circle of stylishly dressed dancing people grips the microphone firmly and looks straight into the camera with a confident look. That's exactly how the Angolan Pongo - real name Engrácia - feels. But she had to travel a long way to do that. Between the moving boxes in her new home in Lisbon, the 26-year-old artist talks about her childhood, being admitted to a dance collective with a broken leg and her mission to bring genres and cultures together.
Written by: Dave Coenen
“When I left Angola for Portugal, I was eight years old. I left behind all my friends, my school and my family. Finding my own place in Lisbon was difficult: I didn't do well at school, I had few friends and I felt different from the rest of the children. After all, I was one of the only African children in the city (Pontinha, north of Lisbon, ed.) and was bullied. Even though the languages and dialects have similarities, Angola and Portugal are culturally different. That made it very hard at times. My parents and their friends have always been deeply involved in Angolan culture; there were regular private parties at our house full of dance and music. I played, sang and made up my own words with the children there. In Portugal, on the other hand, I had not yet found a connection with people or culture, but the need to participate and belong was definitely there.”
Years of searching for meaning in a “new” country ensures that Pongo seeks refuge in dance and music. “When I was fourteen, I was quite reckless. I attempted an acrobatic dance move, lost my balance, and fell several floors out of the window. Luckily I got away with broken bones in my leg, but the injury was so serious that I had to completely adapt my life to it for a while: I had to go to another school and regularly attended physical therapy far from my parental home.” The accident eventually leads to a special encounter that will change her life.
“On my way to my physical therapist, I met a musical collective in Queluz train station that is involved in kuduro (an energetic style of music that originated in Angola in the eighties, but later also spread to Portugal, ed.). They call themselves The Denon Squad and they sing and dance in a style close to my homeland. That's how I got in touch with my roots again after all these years! We clicked, and The Denon Squad soon included me in the group to dance and sing along - even though I walked with crutches for a while. It made a big difference in my happiness in life: I finally found my place in Portugal.”
In addition to dance performances in the streets, part of The Denon Squad also records music in the ghettos of Lisbon. There the aspiring producers, MCs and vocalists venture into Rihanna covers and their own improvised tracks. “One day we ended up in our studio, where a track was being mixed at that moment. Suddenly I was asked if I had ideas for the vocals in the chorus, because the producer and the original vocalist couldn't figure it out themselves. At first I was too shy to just start singing in, but my friends insisted that I give it a try - it wasn't all that serious after all. I gathered all my confidence and went into the studio. When the recording was finished, it turned out that the producer had just sent the track to Buraka Som Sistema, a collective (now defunct) befriended collective from the Buraca district.”
Two weeks later, Buraka, at that time on the verge of an international breakthrough, is on the phone with Pongo. They ask if she wants to come by. “We really love your voice and your flow. And uh... we're looking for a new vocalist. That can be you.'” From that moment on everything evolves quickly: Pongo went to the studio with Buraka Som Sistema, uninhibitedly and inexperienced, where she takes care of the vocals on the uptempo kuduro track 'Kalemba (Wegue Wegue)'. The song will become the collective's biggest hit within a few years. “Suddenly I was allowed to tour with Buraka Som Sistema, where I could sing their entire repertoire. And now I'm here, haha!”
But a lot has happened since that brief career boost. Eleven years elapse between the release of Buraka Som Sistema's Black Diamond(2008) and Pongo's first solo EP Baia (2019). During that time, Pongo - initially as Pongo Love, later without the suffix - tries to launch a solo career between performances with The Denon Squad, but her numerous attempts fail. “I was very young and naive at the time. A newbie in a tough industry. But I dared to take risks. I just wanted a fair share of the rights to the songs and features I wrote, and I wasn't afraid to say so. Whenever I started the conversation about my rights or when that payment would finally come in, it caused conflict, or sometimes even broken ties with producers.” After ten years of trial and error, Pongo finally finds a good team around her to go full steam ahead.
The result of the right team and hard work is Baia, six melodically rich, penetrating and above all danceable songs on the interface of kuduro, dancehall, pop and EDM. There is absolutely no chance left unturned to make it clear that Pongo stands behind her new work full of energy, self-confidence and with complete control. “Baia means something like 'pay attention', I have something to say. It's a term we often use in Angolan Portuguese, for example for a street performance with the Squad. If you want that rowdy crowd to pay attention, say 'baia'."
Baia has barely been released when new music is already being unleashed on the world. 'Quem Manda No Mic' is the autobiographical, musical embodiment of an artist who has long been searching for her own place, voice and stage, but now she is completely in her own power - just like great example Erykah Badu, not coincidentally in the track namedropped. The rousing track with house piano, low dancehall basses and traditional African rhythms asks the question 'who's in charge behind the mic?' As if there was any doubt about that. Pongo grabs the microphone, takes her moment and speaks in full control: she's the boss.
And with that creative peak and full focus, Pongo just keeps on delivering. A new EP will follow in February 2020, exploring other facets within the interface of EDM and kuduro. For example, upcoming single 'Canto' highlights Pongo's love for Latin and more famous producers are invited. Her live show is also getting a major update - all to accomplish the highest goal. “My mission is to blend my culture with that of others. Bringing everything together, breaking free of boxes - from genres, to people, to cultures - is what I want with my music.” Pongo has found her sound and is fully committed to her mission. Now she won't let go.
This article is the first in a series of articles in collaboration with the Footprints festival. Pongo will play at this festival in TivoliVredenburg, Utrecht on Saturday 8 February. For more information, click
here. Pongo will also be playing at Eurosonic on Friday 17 January.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.