The artist's father was a guerrilla general in the Angolan civil war. Through "rough kuduro," he tells his family's complex history.
This story rings out midway through the new album by the Angolan-Belgian artist Nazar, whose connection to the Angolan civil war is unusually familial. His father, Alcides Sakala, was a UNITA general; his mother also joined the rebels in her teens. Nazar, born in Belgium, hadn't set foot in Angola until after Savimbi's assassination, in 2002, which ended a near-continuous conflict spanning 27 years. He took his chance to go to his "real home" and began to make music "as a way to connect with my family, as a way to connect with my heritage." Four years after Savimbi's death, Nazar's father published a memoir of his life as a rebel leader. Informed by Sakala's book and Nazar's trips to Angola, Guerrilla is a reckoning with the civil war from multiple perspectives, from eyewitness accounts to Cold War realpolitik.
On "Bunker," we're shown an operation at dusk. Over the sound of cocked guns and helicopter blades, Shannen SP sets the scene: "They might be out of time / They may never see light / Instructions weren't right / And city streets remain quiet." Nazar complements Shannen SP's coolly vivid verse with musical symbols. The drums seem to mimic marching troops or ticking clocks, while the vocal loop winces with each step. Though Nazar uses lots of devices like these to immerse us in the conflict and his family's memories of it—"Bunker" nods to an incident in which his sisters took cover in a hotel from government squads—gun sounds are Guerrilla's ambient hum and rhythmic pulse. As any fan of Vybz Kartel or M.I.A. can tell you, that's hardly novel. But Nazar's singular focus loads a persistent trope with sobering weight.
Nazar makes what he calls "rough kuduro." If your first contact with kuduro was through Buraka Som Sistema or DJ Znobia, who emerged in the late '00s during the style's international breakthrough, you might've thought it was rough enough already. Between its snapping soca rhythms and fang-bearing raps, the music's bite could draw blood. Its intensity, however, was still designed for dance floors. Kuduro means "hard-ass," which is not supposed to draw attention to the sound's toughness so much as the stiff dancing style, which OG kudurist Tony Amado developed after watching this Jean Claude Van Damme scene in Kickboxer. But Nazar thought the music's celebratory bias failed to reflect Angola's astonishing inequality, where Luanda-based oil workers in gated communities pay up to $10 for a Coke while half the population lives on a fifth of that daily.
The roughest rough kuduro on Guerrilla lives up to the billing. Over charging horns and erratic snare sprints, "Arms Deal"'s midrange is filled with raging, Pollocky slashes of tapehead noise. "Why"'s 8-bit Sonic synths, Terrordrome trance leads and rap fragments are also fantastic. Guerrilla can be stealthy, too. Take "Fim-92 Stinger," a carnivalesque hip swinger with shades of the slinky batida from DJ Nigga Fox's Cartas Na Magna. It's a rare gem: fun, seductive, somewhat steady. You could even call it celebratory. But when Nazar says, "The ceasefire should at least last until the duration of this song," his pessimism resurfaces. Sure enough, the next track, "Immortal," illustrates what seems like a bullet-time detachment from conflict. It's possible to make out the ambience of the Angolan bush, stray gunfire and casual bravado, but the clearest sounds in its spectral quiet are an amped-up wheeze and the continuous loading of magazines. You're hearing the itch to fight.
Naturally, Nazar's parents are key characters on Guerrilla. On "Mother," the album's warmest passage, bucolic synths bubble over her memories of joining UNITA. A key moment on "Diverted" comes shortly after two and a half minutes, which represents the moment where, as part of a rebel operation, Nazar's father broke cover to act as a decoy. Their presence on Guerrilla means that Nazar, understandably, treads lightly on the conflict's complex moral dimensions. UNITA, to take one example, was led by a tyrant. Savimbi had the west's support until he lost the 1992 election and returned to guerrilla warfare, by which time his taste for the mass murder of UNITA dissidents and their family members had broken the spell he'd cast on diplomats abroad. You wonder how the weight of Savimbi's cruelty might have fallen on Nazar's father.
The album's last track is meant to capture the relief of ceasefire, but its diaphanous synths also suggest absolution. In the 2010 documentary My Heart Of Darkness, the film's narrator, who fought for the South Africans in the civil war, meets three former enemies to seek forgiveness. But he's not just asking them. "As children grow older," he says, "there comes a day when they find out about their parents' history." The results of Nazar's own discovery suggests an extraordinary generosity of spirit. Guerrilla's rough kuduro is an impressive leap for a mature style. But its most remarkable feature is the artist's unflinching embrace of a distressing legacy. As a memorial to his family's story and Angola's past, Guerrilla is more than a mark of respect. It's an act of love.