Music of the Ovimbundu in Angola

Various performers

Acoustic Music Records 319.1141.2

The Ovimbundu are a Bantu speaking people, living in the central highlands of Angola, and on the evidence of this CD, they have - or more probably had in 1971/2, when the recordings were made - a rich and varied musical culture.  The disc culls 29 items from more than 700 recorded by Ulrich Martini, then working as a teacher in the region.  By the early seventies, as co-annotator Hermann Pössinger points out, the pre-colonial way of life, in which the women were responsible for agriculture, and the men for trade, war, building and metal working, had been much changed.  Cover pictureChristianity had been overlaid on older beliefs, also bringing monogamy in its wake; the authority of traditional healers and the tribal chiefs had been sapped by the Portuguese administration; the Ovimbundu men had become wage workers on the coffee plantations; and traditional agricultural practices were no longer enough to ensure self-sufficiency.

As someone who thinks that history is mostly a record of changes in the mode of human suffering, I'm not as sure as Pössinger appears to be that all this represents a decline from a Golden Age; but there seems no reason to doubt his contention that by the seventies, music had also become more of an entertainment, and less an integral part of daily life and ritual.  Nor can it be doubted that life became much worse for the Ovimbundu, a peace-loving people, often derided by other tribes as lackeys of the Portuguese, after civil war broke out in 1975.  They now live in an area devastated by war, over-cultivated, and sown with land mines.  Probably of less moment in the day-to-day struggle for existence, but significant in the context of this CD, the deaths of older musicians and the disruptions of war have resulted in the disappearance of many songs, and even some musical instruments.

As heard from a quarter of a century ago, Ovimbundu singing favours antiphony, with the older people still using a pentatonic scale, and the youngsters influenced by Western music.  play Sound ClipHere, accompanied by an okatchaka (a ball-shaped rattle) is a group of girls, with the enchanting Tchakandikila Upangue. (sound clip)  It would be sad to think that this had been lost!  Other tracks feature drum ensembles, which sound like what many an outsider thinks of as typically African music - play Sound Clipwhich is not to say that the tonal variety and the rhythmic complexity of Ovimbundu drum music are other than impressive, as may be heard from the ensemble accompanying Tambula Oh Sala, a pentatonic dance song, mostly harmonised in thirds. (sound clip)

Also widely dispersed through sub-Saharan Africa are lamellophones, and several tracks feature instruments with the metal keys usually heard nowadays; of considerable interest is the otchimbwetete, already exceedingly rare 25 years ago.  This instrument's keys are made from palm tree bark, and its woody twangings give a most unusual timbre.  On a larger scale, but similar in sound to some lamellophones is the alimba, an important instrument at festivities; it is described in the notes as a "bowed xylophone", which would indeed be unusual; fortunately the photograph makes it clear that this merely means that its 14 keys, and their calabash amplifiers, are mounted on the arc of a circle!   The Ovimbundu also play(ed?) the very archaic earth bow, the mouth bow, and a number of portable bows with gourd or basket resonators.  The ombumbumba, pretty clearly an ancestor of the Brazilian berimbao, consists of a finger-stopped strip of antelope skin, tapped with a string; a calabash is used as a resonator, play Sound Clipand "the sonorous quality of the instrument is modulated by opening or closing the hole in the gourd with the stomach."  The interaction of all these elements produces a remarkably varied and compelling sonority. (sound clip)

A number of Ovimbundu instruments descend from or are inspired by European instruments; the presence of home-made guitars comes as no surprise, although unfortunately the musician heard on two tracks is a rather limited player.  play Sound ClipMore unusual is the chordal drone of the okatchiyeke, a three stringed viola, chorded with the left-hand thumb over the neck, and seemingly now extinct. (sound clip)  Most unusual of all is the olombendu; from the illustrations it is clearly a locally carved replication of the alto recorder, which was probably introduced to Angola by missionaries in the 18th century.  play Sound ClipAs the polyphony and the (to Western ears) exotic harmonies of Siku Chivange and two of his grandchildren demonstrate, it has become thoroughly integrated into the local musical culture. (sound clip)

Or perhaps one should write that by 1971 it had become thoroughly integrated into the local musical culture; excellently recorded and remarkably varied though it is, this CD documents musical expressions that have vanished, are under threat, or at best are increasingly detached from the social and religious functions they formerly served.  It is, I suppose, a tribute to the power of music, and of the human spirit, that the music of the Ovimbundu, so far away in time, space and meaning from most of those who will hear it, emerges from CD speakers with such immediacy and energy, and with its importance to the society that created it instantly and vibrantly apparent.

Chris Smith - 20.9.98

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