“War is hell”, General Sherman reportedly said. Civil wars seem particularly hellish. As a country consumes itself from within, what happens to identity, to culture, and to art? Since 1945, many civil wars have been postcolonial in nature. When Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975, one of Africa’s longest conflicts began. Lasting almost thirty years, the war took half a million lives. External powers weighed in, fighting the Cold War by proxy. But Angola’s struggle would outlast that intangible war by a decade. We might wonder how art can begin to register the impact and complexities of such a conflict. Nazar is the right person to attempt it.
Following his 2018 EP, Nazar returns with a full-length album, again on Hyperdub. The sounds are from the rough underbelly of contemporary electronic music. But the subject is personal. The artist’s father, Alcides Sakala Simões, is an Angolan political figure. His wartime journal was published in 2006. Guerrilla partly uses vocals to narrate this history. The opening track loops the innocent chanting of female voices. Birdsong is heard. Ominous ambient synth coalesces, before a simple five-note melody repeats like a loud, reverberating fire alarm. Some tracks incorporate archival spoken word fragments. “Bunker” features dual male/female rapping. Here, machine guns and helicopters contribute to the sonic texture. The references to “guns in my hand” and “clips on my vest” could be from any hip-hop track, but take on a new context of journalistic reportage.
Since 2002, Angola has gradually become known for its rejuvenated vibrancy as well as its legacy of violence. The modern kuduro style is a dance, a musical genre, and a street culture. It takes traditional dance rhythms and merges them with modern techno. Nazar talks about “weaponizing” kuduro, to confront the darker side of the country’s past. The result is an eclectic palette of bass, beats, discordance, and glimpsed melodies.
“Arms Deal” might be described as “acid bass”, with rapid squelches from the synth over a troubling low-end atmosphere. In the final minute, insistent carnival rhythms kick in. The BPM ranges across the album, from military drumming, to dub and industrial territory, and on to upbeat dancehall. As a whole, the album is reminiscent of Muslimgauze, in its subject matter, its dark and abrasive textures, and its mish-mashing of styles. Nazar similarly works in Manchester. Of course, Bryn Jones’s passion was the geographically distant Arab–Israeli conflict, in which he seemingly had less of a personal stake.
The other key difference is that Nazar produces music after the advent of grime and related offshoots of contemporary bass music. He channels and alters their cadences, as in “Diverted” with its off-kilter beat and subterranean bass. The familiar sound effect of a gun being cocked is transformed into an arsenal of twitchy clicks and scrapes.
Whilst socio-historical context can accentuate the power of an album, music must stand on its own merits too. Knowing nothing about the artist or his origins, listeners will find Guerrilla a gripping, unusual record. Its aesthetic is cool, gritty and contemporary, but there’s nothing superficial about its dark undertones. (Samuel Rogers)