Volume 11, Issue 1
Marissa J. Moorman. Intonations: A Social History of Music and Nation in Luanda, Angola from 1945 to Recent Times. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Intonations takes the reader deep into the heart of the urban shantytowns (musseques) of Luanda to reconstruct the forging of the Angolan nation in this unique crucible. Through the prism of popular music, Moorman examines the intertwined processes of nation and nationalism across the colonial–post-colonial divide in order to contest the dominant narrative of Angolan independence that privileges the activities of guerrilla movements and political exiles in neighboring states. By shifting the angle back into the colony-cum-country and focusing on domestic events and developments and, in particular, the culture of popular music in Luanda’s musseques, Moorman compellingly argues that musical instruments, intimate dances and infectious rhythms were every bit as important to the process of nation as were the weapons of war, guerilla maneuvers and political slogans that heretofore have dominated the history and historiography of Angolan independence.
The vivid reconstructions of Luanda’s musseques and the ways that Moorman brings these spaces and their denizens alive are arguably Intonations’ greatest contributions. Often conceived of in both historical and contemporary imaginations as a teeming, sprawling, unruly space with blurry – if even distinguishable – geographical or social borders, Moorman draws upon colonial social science research and a collection of rich oral testimony to help the reader make sense of this seemingly impenetrable area. Not only does she unpack the physical space, rendering the musseques into series of interconnected, yet saliently distinct neighborhoods, but Moorman also reconstructs the web of social relations both across and within these (sub-)spaces and the ways these changed over time. In the process, the book illuminates class and gender divisions, but also the ways that residents disregarded them, especially as the music began to thump and the dancing correspondingly intensified.
Moorman’s examination of popular music also helps draw attention to the somewhat inadvertent, yet irrefutably important, ways in which it contributed to the development of nationalism in colonial Angola and, by contrast, the heavy-handed manner in which the post-independent Angolan government employed it. While scholars elsewhere have identified music (namely, songs) as a form of resistance that typically expressed anti-colonial sentiments, Moorman’s understandings of the roles of popular music in Angolan history are both more subtle and complex. Through her examination of the social relations related to the production and consumption of music, Intonations demonstrates how men and women forged a sense of national identity, or “Angolanness,” in the late colonial era. As both musicians and their audiences began to imagine an Angola on their own terms during this “golden age of music,” they were engaged in a psychological and expressive process of “cultural sovereignty” that was also inescapably political. Thus, rather than portraying the production and consumption of popular music as feeding or reflecting a narrowly defined political nationalism, Moorman explores a cultural process that helped unite people in an imagined, and ultimately independent, nation. It would be difficult to imagine a more political act.
For all of its myriad contributions, Intonations does require some extrapolative leaps of faith, both within the musseques and, perhaps more problematically, emanating outwards from the capital to the rest of Angola. In both cases it is difficult to assess how broadly popular music culture penetrated individuals’ consciousness and imagination. Within the musseques, the popular music process undeniably shaped the sentiments of the reasonably small numbers of young club-goers and musicians—the vast majority of Moorman’s informants—but it is not clear exactly how demographically transcendent this phenomenon was. Elderly, or even middle-aged, musseque residents are largely absent from the text, while women also remain largely silenced, figuring mainly as anonymous audience members and musicians’ girlfriends. Yet, because the book’s central argument operates at the collective level, greater access and insight into these constitutive sub-populations is arguably essential. Further, even if these groups did participate in “the forging of the nation,” surely they did not experience it in a uniform way? If so, this would suggest a singular (reductive) process of “Angolanness.” Instead, we must assume that generational, gender and class factors shaped the way people imagined and forged the nation—even if Moorman does a superb job in explaining how music eroded many of these divisions.
The book's cogency also wanes due to a thinning of the evidence as Moorman exports the process of nation beyond the capital city to the far-flung regions of the country. Indeed, despite her assessment of how radio might have facilitated the reterritorialization of this cultural process from Luanda’s shantytowns to the Angolan countryside, virtually all of the constitutive elements that made the shantytowns such a unique space are lacking in the latter setting. While some residents of rural areas or smaller cities certainly listened in, the cosmopolitanism and “cultural sovereignty” that marked the musseques and which are so central to the book’s argument were absent in these settings, or are at least unexplored. Without a vibrant club scene, competing bands, ethnic and class mixing, etc. it is difficult to envisage rural residents imagining the nation in an identical manner to shantytown residents. In a sense, Moorman is a victim of her own cogency: her argument related to the uniqueness of the musseques in the forging of the nation is so persuasive that simply extrapolating this phenomenon to the rest of Angola is problematic. Interviews with residents from these settings would potentially have made this less of a leap of faith and more of a confident stride.
Although upper-level undergraduate students may be able to grasp much of this much-welcomed contribution to the regrettably small body of Angolan historiography, Intonations is probably best-suited for a graduate-level course. Readers who have not previously explored the relationship between culture and politics may find these recurring passages somewhat inaccessible. Further, Moorman is at her best when she is engaging and problematizing existing historiography and the dominant nationalist narrative. While scholars and graduate students will likely appreciate these pursuits, undergraduate students may find them distracting. For similar reasons, the book’s complexity and scholarly tone are unlikely to appeal to a general audience, though Moorman’s prose is a delight and at times even exhibits a playful approach, as she implores readers to figuratively escape with her into the labyrinthine musseques.
Todd Cleveland Augustana College