Front is media partner of the offline edition of Rewire – on 10, 11, 12 and 18 September 2021 in The Hague. Besides Nazar are also Sarah Davachi, Felicia Atkinson, Loraine James, Machine factory can be seen here. More information can be found on the website from Rewire.
On his debut album Guerrilla, which was released last year on the famous Hyperdub, producer Nazar tells the story of the Angolan civil war, which tore his homeland and his family apart. He does so by finding a niche between the Angolan dance music kuduro and the European electro of Burial, Daft Punk and Justice, incorporating cinematic field recordings and recordings from his father’s war diaries.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Photos: James Griffiths
Nazar watches the Portuguese news in a Brussels apartment. It is 2002, he is about eight years old. On the screen, Nazar – who prefers not to use his real name – sees a photo of his father, Alcides Sakala Simões. Simões senior is Secretary-General for Foreign Affairs of UNITA, the anti-communist party of Angola, the country of Nazar's family, which is currently embroiled in the final year of a bloody civil war that flared up in 1975 after Angola's independence from Portugal and – intermittently – lasted 27 years. It is a war in which civilians are kidnapped, villages are massacred and UNITA manifests itself as a guerrilla organization that makes its money from diamond smuggling and support from the United States and the apartheid regime of South Africa. When the war flares up again after the 1992 elections, Nazar's mother decides to flee to Belgium with her daughters. Nazar himself is born there. Between 1975 and 2002, four million people are displaced and more than half a million people lose their lives.
The newsreader on duty reports that Simões has become one of those people. UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi (dubbed a “freedom fighter” by US President Reagan) is said to have devised a diversionary maneuver near Jamba, a city of some 100,000 on the country's southeastern border. The plan has gone awry, and Simões is killed by troops from President José Eduardo dos Santos's Marxist, Russian-backed MPLA. To this day, Nazar remembers how his mother screamed at his crying sisters to take their little brother to another room.
It is fake news avant la lettre, according to a phone call that Nazar's mother receives a few days later from a UNITA member. Savimbi himself is killed in Jamba, but Simões can retell the story. And he does just so, in 'Diverted', the second track on Guerrilla, his son's debut album that was released in the spring of 2020 on the renowned British electronics label Hyperdub. With that album, the now 27-year-old creates a musical play of the war, his 'coming home' in Angola and the search for his identity. He uses field recordings from Angola and mirrors the noise of bombs and helicopters with twisted beats and cold synthesizers. The photo of his father that Nazar saw on television almost twenty years ago now adorns the album cover.
“I learned little about the war when I grew up in Brussels,” says Nazar via Zoom, who has been based in Manchester for a few years, but spends parts of the corona crisis on the other side of the North Sea with his Dutch girlfriend. He has a deep, soft voice, the camera stays turned off. "Of course I noticed that my father wasn't there, but I didn't think too much about that." Sure, there are some street gangs and his sister is almost kidnapped once, but Nazar experiences a relatively safe childhood in Brussels. His mother has two jobs to ensure that her family can continue to live in a good neighborhood. “It wasn't until I went to high school that I started to need answers. You suddenly lose all your friends and start thinking about who you are. I got bored and depressed, was done with Europe. I told my mother I wanted to go to Africa. Two years before that, I would never have said that. I was so influenced by my white environment that I thought Africa was the worst place on Earth. Ultimately, moving to Africa was the best decision of my life.”
The death of Jonas Savimbi heralded the end of the Angolan Civil War. In August 2002, UNITA's new leaders demobilized the party’s army. The country is devastated, but safe - although every year, people are still hit by landmines that got left behind. Five years later, in 2007, Nazar ‘returns’ with his mother and sisters to the country he has never been to. The family is reunited with his father, now a member of the Angolan parliament on behalf of UNITA, and moves into a house in the capital Luanda. It’s an interesting experience for Nazar: “To start with, I was in a place where most people looked like me for the first time. Black. That had a huge impact on me. I immediately got the feeling that I could just be myself without having to deal with prejudice. I became a normal citizen. Of course I was also shocked, because I ended up in a world where inequality is much greater than I had ever seen.”
Nazar attends secondary school in Angola. There are French-language schools, but Nazar's parents insist that he receives his education in Portuguese. “As a result, I got to experience the culture without a filter, it made me feel at home in the country more quickly. Otherwise, I would have ended up in a small French-speaking community in Angola, just like we had an Angolan community in Brussels. After a year or two I spoke the language fluently.” It helps that getting along with classmates – in most cases children of MPLA members or supporters – turns out to be less difficult than expected. “At that age, politics are not that important. I had led a very different life from my classmates, but we found each other in football and music. It was also difficult for them to express themselves about the state of the country, I think, because it was a direct result of the way their parents acted. The daughter of the police officer who killed George Floyd can't trumpet at school that she thinks the American police force is reprehensible. I understand how uncomfortable that situation may have been for them, so I've always tried not to be too quick to judge them. Of course there are people who still bury their heads in the sand after all these years, but through social media I also see that former classmates are now fighting against the abuse of power and standing up for democracy.”
“Kuduro was one of the few things that made me feel Angolan”
Perhaps the most impressive thing that happens to Nazar in Angola is his re-acquaintance with kuduro, a fiery type of dance music that originated in Angola in the eighties, when producers mixed samples from traditional Afro-Caribbean movements such as soca and zouk with techno and house. For the young generation, kuduro is a straw of optimism during the civil war. “I got to know kuduro in the nineties, when I still lived in Belgium”, says Nazar. “It was one of the few things that made me feel Angolan, it made me fantasize about what it would be like if I moved to Angola. But the kuduro we heard was very old school, almost vintage, like 'A Felicidade' by Sebem. We were, of course, far from the source, so when something reached us, the people of Angola were already doing another type of kuduro. When I was young, kuduro was mainly party music from Angolan uncles. It wasn't until I moved to Angola that I really got to know kuduro. It caused an explosion in my brain. I was completely absorbed: as we drove around the city, I could feel the vibrations through the windows when a taxi with big speakers drove by. That's how it goes in Luanda: kuduristas give their music away to taxi drivers so that they can distribute it. That is also good for them: the better the music is, the more young customers want to ride with them.”
Inspired by producers like Os Lambas - whose ‘Comboio 2’ is regarded as the biggest kuduro hit ever - and Bruno M, Nazar starts making kuduro himself on his father's laptop. His demo from production program Fruity Loops doesn't allow him to save songs while working on them, so he often works for hours on end to finish his songs right away. “I felt proud to be part of that culture, of a culture where you just see people dancing in the street.”
Meanwhile, Nazar gets to know Angola better and better. He speaks with relatives he has never met, and the stories he hears from his parents about the war become more and more detailed. It lays the foundation for his debut album, which at that time is nothing more than a vague dot on a distant horizon. For example, 'Bunker', a collaboration with British-Zambian-Zimbabwean DJ Shannen SP, is based on a story about Nazar's older sister, who hid in a hotel with foreign journalists during the 1992 elections, one of the few buildings where the MPLA military is not looking for opposition members. Violence flares up for two months, killing more than 12,000 people.
At other times, Guerrilla sounds like a collage of newspaper clippings. We hear recordings made by Nazar in the Angolan countryside, at his grandparents' ruined house. Ronald Reagan makes an appearance in ‘Fim-92 Stinger’, with a recording in which he promises to supply Josef Savimbi the American-made rocket of the same name. Nazar's father reads from his published diary, Memorias de Um Guerrilheiro (Memoirs of a Guerrilla), and his mother recounts the day she joined UNITA as a 14-year-old girl in ‘Mother’. They speak umbundu, the main African language of Angola. “It was important to me that umbunde is the first language you hear on the album, even though I don't speak the language myself. In Angola, many people are still more proud to speak Portuguese than to speak umbundu. I think people should be less ashamed of their origin.”
It's those kinds of choices that make Guerrilla more than a description of the Civil War. The album also enables Nazar and his followers to transcend their traumas and to get closer. In particular, the bond between the producer and his father grew stronger as the album progressed. “Finally I got answers to the questions I had growing up. Why isn't my father here? What's he doing? Is he thinking of me? Many of the passages in his book are dedicated to my sisters and me. The album is not only about the war and my father's involvement in it, but also about my childhood without him.”
Although Angola is in every fiber of Guerrilla, Nazar never quite becomes part of the local scene. He immersed himself in kuduro, but was also always addicted to the European electro that he got to know in Brussels. His stage name is derived from 'Waters of Nazareth', a track by the French duo Justice. “The riff of that song is so fat. I love how acts like Justice and Daft Punk express emotions with a mix of soft and hard sounds. Their music is experimental, but also follows the codes of mainstream electronic music. Especially when I started making music they were great sources of inspiration for me, just like British producers like Burial and Actress. I was finding my place in Angola and their music helped me cling to the place where I was born. Later I let go of electro a bit and started making more kuduro. In the end I stopped in the middle: not quite electro, not quite kuduro, but a balance between the two.”
'Rough kuduro', that's how Nazar calls his style when he puts music on Soundcloud for the first time. Shortly after moving to Manchester – “London is too busy and too expensive, and I have some family here” – he forwards his productions to Steve Goodman aka Kode9, a Scottish producer and DJ who has been rocking the music scene since the 1990s. British dubstep, bass and garage, and as the founder of the leading label Hyperdub, played an important role in the careers of forward-thinking producers such as Burial, Loraine James, Laurel Halo and Fatima Al Qadiri. Two weeks later, he receives an answer: there is no talk of a release on Hyperdub yet, but Goodman does put Nazar in touch with the aforementioned Shannen SP, who in turn invites Nazar for a set on the tasteful radio station NTS. In March 2018, Nazar's debut follows Hyperdub's monthly club night Ø at London's Corsica Studios. “It was my first DJ set ever. In Angola you don't just come across equipment with which you can practice, that infrastructure does not exist. I just went for it and played my hardest set ever. Not just to impress, but to release everything I'd held back.” Nazar signs on Hyperdub and releases his EP Enclave in November 2018. It turns out to be just a build-up to the album that has been forming in his head for a long time.
That album, which has now been out for close to a year, was well received. Nazar's parents were thrilled when he was interviewed by Portuguese media, but Pitchfork also picked up the producer. And in Angola? “There are some people interested in my music, but it won't become mainstream. People also have less access to the internet. Here in Europe it's kind of a birthright, but there, it's only available to people with money. And since I no longer live there, I can't just give my music to a taxi driver to distribute it."
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.