Someone at Buda Musique knows how to do these historical surveys of a nation's popular music legacy right, if the ongoing Ethiopiques series and now this five-CD series on Angola are any indication. Angolan pop music in the '60s became an affirmation of national and African identity in the face of severe repression from Portuguese colonial authorities -- we're talking concentration camp stays for major musicians here -- and the root forms had coalesced into a new, distinctly Angolan mix by the 1970s. Both '70s discs share the same major singers and backing bands (Jovens do Prenda, Os Kiezos, Ngoma Jazz) and are the highlights of the series, but Angola 70's: 1972-1973 is probably the better starting point. The first recording studios in Angola had just opened in 1969 so the sound quality isn't always the greatest, but the music is upbeat, full of exuberance and the promise of life with independence on the horizon. The blues-drenched saudade of Pedrito's "Ngalenga Kubata," Arthur Adriano's acoustic "Belita," and Bonga's "Balumukeno" serve as counterpoint. Lourdes Van Dunem's opening "Ngogngo Ya Biluka" is light and lilting, but the dominant style here is semba, driven by feathery guitar melodies, a sprightly antidote to Césaria Évora's downbeat morna.
Semba rocks the rhumba in a more Caribbean or Brazilian way than the Congolese soukous factory next door, and it's probably no coincidence that the name is just one vowel removed from samba, or that songs by Gambuzinos, David Zé, and Urbano de Castro lean that way. Dionisio Rocha begins to up the tempo and electric ante to excellent effect, and Manuel Faria dips into the saudade tip with active percussion and a vague rhumba feel. But the Congolese connection arrives full force on the next four tracks -- Os Kiezos' "Milhorró" shines behind Marito's crystalline lead guitar, Super Coba pits tart horns against light voices on the very strong "Finpantima," Cabinda Ritmos leans on a riff close to "La Bamba" for "Celestina," and Ngoma Jazz really nails the exuberant galloping soukous rhythm with nice lead guitar licks on "Belita Kiri-Kiri." Interesting oddities like the very '60s organ swirls from Africa Show pop up, but it's appropriate that this compilation ends with Artur Nunes' muted, sad "Tia." The very thorough liner notes paint the social and cultural context for the music, one that includes the sobering reminders that the country's best-known figure, Bonga, has lived in exile since the '70s and Zé, de Castro, and Nunes all died during the post-independence factional infighting, military rebellion, and civil war of mid-'70s Angola. Can't help but make you think about what might have been, but at least some of the music they made passing through has been revisited on Angola 70's: 1972-1973.