Personal history | Angola

The artist with two faces

Between fiction and beats, between Africa and Europe: as an author and musician, Kalaf Epalanga is always travelling between worlds
A middle-aged man stands in front of a simple background. He is wearing a short-sleeved shirt and glasses and is looking sideways into the distance.

As soon as Angola became independent in 1975, civil war broke out. I was born in 1978, just as it fighting began to rage more violently. My parents had four children and we lived in Benguela, a town in the west of the country. As strange as it may sound, war eventually becomes the norm. From an early age, I knew, for example, not to pick up any objects on the street, for fear it was a bomb. In a way, this situation contributed to me becoming a writer. My senses for my environment were sharpened early on.

“War becomes the norm. From an early age, I knew, not to pick up any objects on the street”

For most of the 1980s, Angola was a stage for the Cold War, with the USA and the Soviet Union at loggerheads and South African troops invading the country. This conflict taught me that there are different centres of power in the world and that alliances can change quickly. In 1990, when Mandela was released from prison, there was a brief ceasefire. The South African and Cuban troops left Angola.

On a sunlit sidewalk, two children with backpacks run along the street. The two-story house on the right has countless bullet holes, the windows and doors are broken out.

Traces of the war in the Angolan town of Huambo in 2005, three years after the end of the civil war


But the ceasefire only lasted a few months. I still remember the look of deep disappointment on the faces of my parents and grandparents when fighting started up all over again.

In 1995, as a teenager, I came to Portugal. My mother believed that we would never realise our full potential if we grew up surrounded by war. I learnt many new things in Europe. For example, that you could travel to other countries quite cheaply with an interrail ticket.I went to concerts in Spain and exhibitions in Paris. It was unbelievable! In Africa, we couldn't just hop on a train and travel to Botswana or Mozambique.

My desire to get to know European culture and give something back was huge. I told people about Africa and the effects of neocolonialism. I also started writing poems to initiate an exchange between members of the African diaspora in Europe.

Music was also a big part of my life back then. There were many African influences in Portugal and I admired musicians like Miriam Makeba and Fela Kuti, who were not so well known in Europe at the time. I thought we could express what was on the minds of the younger generation through rap, hip-hop and pop.

 View from the stage down onto a full concert hall. One of the musicians is standing in the foreground and performing; we see him from behind in a white T-shirt with black jeans and sneakers

Kalaf Epalanga performing with his band “Buraka Som Sistema” in Portugal


After I had spent some time writing texts for others, I was offered the opportunity to perform my poems with a trip-hop accompaniment, i.e. electronic music with hip-hop influences. In 1999, I started a solo career and recorded two trip-hop albums.

Around this time, dance music from all over the world was becoming popular in England. For example, Puerto Rican percussion patterns were being used in house music. That gave me the idea that you could do the same with Angolan music. I had always been a fan of kizomba, a sound with a slow, sensual rhythm that is particularly popular with Portuguese-speaking Africans.

“Nobody in Portugal knew Kuduro, an uptempo energetic music style from Angola. We founded the band ‘Buraka Som Sistema’, and our kuduro-inspired music began its triumphant journey”

However, nobody in Portugal knew Kuduro, its faster offshoot. Around 2005, I was lucky enough to meet the right people and we founded the band Buraka Som Sistema. Our kuduro-inspired music began its triumphant journey. Today, when African artists give sold-out concerts in arenas with 10,000 seats, they usually come from the kizomba scene. Buraka Som Sistema was the first kuduro act to pull off such big crowds.

At my international shows, I noticed that people everywhere reacted to the same stimulus: When you shout “Jump!”, they jump into the air! Maybe people from Colombia are a bit more uninhibited than people from Japan, but they all have one thing in common: they want to have fun.

“I often experienced the struggle many have to simply cross borders, especially when I was travelling with my Angolan passport”

In the meantime, I never stopped writing. After my spoken word poetry phase, I started writing a column for the Portuguese newspaper "Publico". In 2009, I moved from Lisbon to Berlin with my wife, who is German, and when we took a break with Buraka Som Sistema in 2015, I had time to focus on a single project.

So I wrote my book “Também os brancos sabem dançar” (“White people can dance too”). In it, I address the struggle many have to simply cross borders. Even as a member of a successful Portuguese band, I often experienced this, especially when I was travelling with my Angolan passport. Although I live in Europe, I know that I am African at heart.