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From semba to kizomba: exploring Angola’s musical sensuality

Article - November 26, 2014

Angola may well be one of the most musical countries in Africa.  Over the centuries, Angolans have combined their own music and dance traditions with influences from Europe and, most notably, Brazil. Today, Angola has begun exporting its musical and dance styles, as evidenced by the popularity of kizomba  in clubs and dance halls from Lisbon to Los Angeles.


Any conversation about contemporary Angolan music must necessarily  begin with semba. First popularized in the 1950s, semba is a style of music and dancing that is the main influence behind other genres that have originated from the West African nation, such as kizomba, which took semba’s sensuality to a whole new level, and kuduro, a fast-paced Angolan style of techno and house music.

“The body of the man that comes in contact with the body of the woman at the level of the belly button” – this is one definition of the word semba in the context of dancing, which shows the highly sensual nature of Angola’s popular forms of music and dance.

Semba was strongly influenced by the cultural traditions of the Bantu (a general label for the 300–600 ethnic groups in Africa who speak Bantu languages) and African rhythms such as kazukuta and kabetule. Semba songs are traditionally sung in Kimbundu, a Bantu language widely spoken in north Angola. One of the first modern Angolan bands to sing in Kimbundu was Ngola Ritmos, in the late 40s and 50s. That was a daring move at a time when the language was prohibited in Angola by the Portuguese. The subject matter of semba songs  usually focuses on social events and activities, day-to-day life and, before independence in 1975, the freedom of Angola.

Ngola Ritmos also contributed enormously to the spreading of semba music globally and influenced the guitar-driven style of later semba artists such as Liceu Vieira Dias, José Maria and Nino Ndongo. Barceló de Carvalho, the Angolan singer known as Bonga, is one of the most successful Angolan artists to popularize semba music internationally. A nomad who spent time in Portugal, Germany, Belgium, France, as well as returning to Angola, Bonga remains a hero to many Angolans and was fiercely and openly critical of the political regime that was established following the country’s independence in 1975.   

Initially,  semba was a single dance where a man would move rhythmically in front of a woman. Then, in one sudden movement, he would grab her by the hips and draw her close to him so that their bellies were touching. Nowadays, semba is a couples dance with large, often acrobatic, steps to a fast beat, where there is much room for improvisation.

Following independence in 1975, zouk (an Angolan style of music derived directly from zouk music from the French Caribbean) began to take over at parties. By the beginning of the 1980s, kizomba, a style of music and dance which incorporated both zouk and the semba, was becoming popular.

To the untrained eye of a spectator unfamiliar with the dancing style of kizomba ( a word which can mean both “party” or “dance” in Angola), it has some similarities with tango. But it can certainly seem more sensual, on account of the intense gyrating hip and lower body movements. Partners dance intimately close together on tempo, as well as on the off-beat, and occasionally use syncopation (musical rhythm in which stress is given to the weak beats instead of the strong beats).

Like semba, kizomba music is influenced by traditional African rhythms and, traditionally, by the Kimbundu language, but, like unlike semba, kizomba music is characterized by a slower and usually very romantic rhythm – hence its similarities with tango.

Since its humble origins in Angola in the early 80s, kizomba has gone on to become hugely popular throughout the world, particularly in lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) countries and across West Africa. In recent years, this sensual dance has also taken hold in the United States, particularly in San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Washington DC.

As Kizomba has spread globally, it has naturally taken on new forms and influences from around world, but, “The roots of kizomba are and will always be Angolan,” said Angolan professional dancer and choreographer Pedro Vieira Dias in an interview with Jornal de Angola. “Angola will always be the fountain from which people drink the pure water of Kizomba.”