Semba, transvestites and chicken feathers: Angola rediscovers carnival

March 2007 -

During the war the parades and festivities were primarily limited to the capital city Luanda, where the violence only roared in the background and daily life went on. But since peace resumed in 2002, carnival is once again Angola's people's celebration.


photo: Inge Ruigrok

Women crowned with fruit wiggle their hips as they parade. They are followed by a warrior with his hair in a giant Afro, dressed in a tiger skirt and armed with a green and white spear. Soon the main street of Lubango, a town in southern Angola, transforms into a parade of transvestites, with richly padded bras and blond wigs. Although they are clearly having a great time, all of the more than forty grupos carnavalesco have only one objective: seducing the jury that will select the winner of the fifteen-hundred dollar prize.

photo (c) Inge Ruigrok

photo: Inge Ruigrok

Portuguese ships brought carnival to Angola. But the character of the festivities soon changed, when the slaves added their local traditions to the celebrations. Angolans started to write songs in their own language, bringing instruments, masks and dances from their own culture. Carnival evolved into something more than an imported colonial phenomenon: the perfect opportunity for resistance and a source of worry for the Portuguese, who prohibited the parades when the struggle for independence erupted in 1961.


photo: Inge Ruigrok

The satire is modest nowadays. The cardboard signs carried by the groups concern contemporary issues, such as luta contra violência doméstica: the war on domestic violence. An orange wheelbarrow loaded with bricks symbolizes the country's reconstruction. Prince Carnival is a pair of newlyweds, in tuxedo and veil, being carried on a truck covered with white sheets. The carnival is clearly a DIY affair. Headdresses with chicken feathers, masks made of cardboard and straw, bodies embellished with jute bags: dress up in what ever you can find appears to be the dress code.

But if it is up to the Angolans, some day their carnival will rival the festivities in Rio de Janeiro. Although the daily cultural diet in Angola contains a particularly unhealthy dose of Brazilian soap operas these days, the influence was not always one-way. The rhythms of Brazil's carnival are an inheritance from slaves born in Angola. Angola's primary carnival music is called the semba. That's right, almost samba.