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Kizomba Dance: From Market Success to Controversial National Brand

Updated: Feb 12, 2023

This paper aims to analyze how the global contra-flow of a dance style — kizomba — generated an impact on the symbolic representation of a nation — Angola — nd the controversies this national branding involves. The kizomba couple dance style became popular in some Portuguese-speaking African cities and nightclubs in Lisbon in the 1980s. In the mid-1990s, the style underwent commodification in Portugal. In less than ten years, it went onto become a global dance industry in which teachers compete to attract students and correspondingly triggering heated debates on the Angolan-ness, Cape-Verdean-ness, African-ness or the global character of kizomba to legitimize their own practices. In this context, the Angolan state has also capitalized on kizomba’s global success to claim the music and the dance as national symbols. Our conclusion points to how global industries have gained greater influence over the definition of national symbols in late modernity, a process to which former colonies would seem more vulnerable.

Introduction: The Kizomba Battlefield in Context

The couple dance popularly known as kizomba became fashionable in the 1980s in the Portuguese-speaking “African” communities living in Africa and Europe sharing transnational ties. It was danced to zouk music from the West Indies 'Martinique & Guadeloupe' (Guilbault, 1993) and derived from musical styles produced by artists from the PALOPs2 (Cidra, 2010a) that entered into popularity in that period. Musical hits developed by artists from the French Antilles, produced in Paris and labelled as zouk became a great success from the 1980s onwards in France, parts of West Africa, America, Asia and certain cities in Europe through transnational connections. By the 1990s, the most emblematic Antillean zoukband, Kassav, was touring Portuguese-speaking Africa and fostering the already existing passion for their music in that region.

In each context, people danced in many different ways in keeping with the influence of local styles, such as the popular semba dance in Angola (Moorman, 2008) or coladera in Cape Verde (Cidra, 2011). Even though the myth of origins held by most dance school teachers in Europe generally points to Angola as its original source, the dance derives from the result of deep transoceanic, inter-African and transnational connections (Jiménez, 2020). In the 1990s, it was commodified in Portugal and attained great success in dance schools and clubs, shrinking the hitherto wide variety of existing dancing styles into a pack of “basic steps”. In less than one decade, it became a global phenomenon following in the footsteps of the transnational salsa circuits of teachers and festivals, spreading not only through Europe and the USA but also through Eastern Europe, Asia, as well as North and West Africa (Kabir, 2014; Soares, 2015; Jiménez, 2019).

This paper’s objective involves analysing how the successful globalization of a dance style — kizomba —impacted on the symbolic representation of a nation — Angola — in a neoliberal context in which nations have turned into competitive brands in the global economy (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2009). The key argument is that global market forces have become especially powerful and capable of defining national symbols in the specific case of contra-flows (Thussu, 2007) such as kizomba. Those nations placed in weaker positions in political, economic and symbolic terms and in need of establishing their global market brand are correspondingly more likely to rely on whatever cultural industry that happens to succeed internationally. As I seek to demonstrate through the kizomba case, even those music and dance performances originally rejected as “foreign” and “unauthentic” by cultural authorities at the state level, may subsequently turn into symbols claimed and fiercely defended as properly national by the very same actors in the wake of its global success. In other words, global market dynamics return a greater impact as regards the definition of national symbols for nations that experience weaker economic and political positions within the international context. For the empirical case of kizomba, Angola constitutes a country that only became independent in 1975, following a long national independence conflict, followed by twenty-eight years of civil war that devastated what infrastructures then existed, damaged social institutions and left the country in extremely precarious conditions. During the first decades of this century, while the Angolan state has tried to recover and rebuild the country, the international financial crisis had a major impact on Portugal, resulting in a particularly high unemployment rate. In this international context, diverse actors sought to capitalize on a dance that dancing crowds worldwide associated with modernity and cosmopolitanism in order to gain and/or boost their own global visibility: whether the Angolan state, the city of Lisbon or the individual performers competing in the transnational kizomba industry. This paper sets out the context in which these national claims make sense and are duly contested. Within this goal, this provides a description and analysis of some of the most relevant competing narratives on the nationality of kizomba: the discourses around “Angolan”kizomba, “Cape-Verdean” kizomba, “African” kizomba, global kizomba and “Lusophone” kizomba.

The kizomba case holds particular interest to analysis of just how the nation is imagined through kinetic signifiers that develop in transnational contexts for several reasons. First, this dance represents an interesting counter-example in the literature of dance globalization as kizomba was first commodified and exported from a peripheral South European city (Lisbon) instead of a global city (Sassen, 2005). For this reason, kizomba emerged from a less advantageous position in the global dance industry, turning it into a contrasting case with those dances commodified in and globalized from New York or Paris, such as salsa, hip hop or tango. In this sense, the transnational spread of kizomba may be considered an example of what Thussu calls a “contra-flow” (Thussu, 2007). A contra-flow is a cultural trend exported from a peripheral region in the world economy whose success challenges hegemonic circuits of globalization, such as the “Americanization” paradigm3. From this perspective, even though kizomba’s success is not comparable to those genres that have become mainstream through these hegemonic flows, such as hip hop, we nevertheless reference the “great success” of kizomba throughout this paper. By this, we refer to its remarkable though marginal international spread within the context of a highly competitive global market. Second, the dance represents an unusual case when compared with national ballets, “traditional” and “folkloric” dances, institutionalized and defined directly by state agents. Just as in the case of semba in Angola, this constitutes an example of nationalism “from below” based on everyday popular practices (Moorman, 2008; see also Pacini-Hernández, 2014). Interestingly enough, Angola claimed the performance as a national symbol only after it achieved global success. Third, its history of deep transoceanic connections involves a complex process of métissage, resulting in a multi-layered performance that turns kizomba into great material for symbolizing many different and even contradictory imagined communities (Anderson, 1983; Turino, 2000). As we shall see, Angola, Cape Verde, and even a vague idea of “Luso-land” (De La Barre and Vanspauwen, 2013) are imagined through kizomba. In this sense, its swift globalization process has led to multiple appropriations in each local context alongside fusions with other dance styles. This furthermore drove aficionados/as to wonder about its nature and cultural origins, promoting intense transnational debates on online platforms such as Facebook and Youtube.

excerpt: Livia Jiménez Sedano Link to the orginal source

Snippets from the full paper:

"The fact that the term kizomba was chosen in dance schools, leaving out other labels widely used in “African discos” such as passada or batida, held negative consequences for some teachers in the context of these legitimation struggles. Dance labels constitute devices through which many statements on national/ethnic belonging are made (Guilbault, 1997) and it is common to search for the origins of a dance by starting with the etymology of its term of designation. In this sense, it does seem clear that the word kizomba is a Kimbundu term, with Kimbundu the language spoken by one of the three biggest ethnolinguistic groups of Angola, the “Ambundu” people (Moorman, 2008). In general terms, it means “party” and “social encounter” (Moorman, 2008; Cidra, 2010b, Chatelein, 1896). One of the oldest references I have found came from Chatelein, an anthropologist who did fieldwork in Angola at the end of the nineteenth century. In a paper published in 1896, he refers to kizomba as a society gathering for ritual purposes, especially funerals:"

"Mestre Pechú - A few years later, he was invited to hold a kizomba workshop; at first, he took this as a joke before then later accepting. Whenever someone asks him about the origins of this dance, he explains he is writing a book on the real history of kizomba. According to his perspective, this dance is one hundred per cent “Angolan”; born in Luanda (the capital) and its surroundings during the 1980s and he experienced this style himself directly when younger. According to his perspective, kizomba derives from semba, which is itself a dance style inheriting still older Angolan dances such as massemba, rebita, kazekuta or kabetula."

"Hélio Santos is a kizomba teacher of Cape-Verdean origin who lives in Lisbon. His background is in contemporary dance and the “traditional dances of Cape Verde”. He arrived in Portugal in 1999 after touring with a “Cape Verdean” contemporary dance company (Raiz Bipolon). He started teaching “traditional Cape Verdean dances” before he was invited to teach kizomba and join the first group of artists in this experiment. Within the context of an interview about his life story, he told me his version of this dance’s history. According to him, its name is passada in Cape Verde and its deep roots reach back to “Cape Verdean folkloric dances”, such as coladera, mazurka, funaná, san jon, tabanka, landum, batuko, and contradança among others. Clearly, there are thus at least two different genealogies of the dance built up in order to support a particular idea as to its national property. Both narratives establish deep roots distant in time. Indeed, the deeper in time the history is, the more powerful it becomes in symbolic terms."

"Zé Barbosa is a dance teacher who left Cape Verde and arrived in Portugal in 1998, through an artist exchange programme between the two countries (“Preto no Branco”14). He covers diverse artistic domains such as theatre, dance and painting. At the end of the 1990s, after performing “Cape Verdean traditional dances” professionally, he was invited to teach kizomba at a dance school. The promoter of this idea was Quim, a producer labelled “White” and “Portuguese” by research participants, who also turned to Petchú, Hélio and others. Quim usually frequented “Angolan discos” in Lisbon and the word he had heard for referring to the dance was kizomba. Nevertheless, Zé Barbosa called it passada and decided to label his workshops kizomba na passada15. As one of the first, alongside Petchú, he is one of the most respected and recognized teachers in the field. In any case, kizomba was the label chosen in the commodification process. During a kizomba festival in Spain (Feeling Festival 2012), Beatriz Soto, a kizombeira who makes interviews in festivals and posts them on Youtube, asked Zé Barbosa about this debate on the Angolan-ness vs. Cape-Verdean-ness of the dance. This is what he replied:

I am not against Angolans saying that kizomba is from Angola. Cape-Verdeans never said anything like that. Guineans never said anything like that. I think, I am sure that some time ago, the only Angolan we know who was teaching kizomba was Petchú. The others didn’t teach Europeans to dance kizomba. And now all that work that we have been doing for a long time to reach this point involved people from diverse countries teaching. Now, Angolans should be a bit more humble and say: kizomba is not only Angolan, because the Cape-Verdean didn’t go to Angola to learn kizomba, Guineans didn’t go to Angola to learn kizomba. Guineans call kizomba batida, they learnt it in Guinea. Cape-Verdeans call it passada, they learnt it in Cape Verde. Angolans call it kizomba, they learnt in Angola. This is not the property of one or another. Most of the music comes from Cape Verde. But Angolans say they dance better. It’s ok […]. I feel so sad when I go to teach somewhere, in a different country, and I am asked: ‘Are you Angolan?’ And I say ‘No’, ‘Then you cannot teach it because you are not Angolan’. What is that about?” (Interview with Zé Barbosa by Beatriz Soto16, posted on 22/03/2013)"

" These kizomba school authorities were asked to set out rules not only for movements but also for the mythology of these dancing symbols. Students started demanding a coherent story behind the symbols they were embodying and consuming. In the meanwhile, in “African discos” all over the transnational space, there were many diverse ways of dancing, flexible rules of body movement that changed from context to context and from time to time, and a rich variety of meanings condensed around their respective attachments. How to create a simple and unitary history out of this? Some placed the origins in Cape Verde while others placed them in Angola. Some decided to set them down by writing works on the history of kizomba. Although to the best of my knowledge no one has yet published any book, many did state that they were working on this during interviews. Within the context of the symbolic struggle, this simply became a new strategy for fixing symbols and establishing themselves as the definitive authorities in the field.

23In summary, a social dance, which was formerly associated with moments of relaxation and socialization through pleasurable encounters, turned into a source of conflict expressed in terms of national symbols by virtue of commodification and globalization. In this context, the Angolan Ministry of Culture tried to capitalize on symbolic associations with the kizombaphenomenon to better position itself."

"Nevertheless, the final goal does not involve promoting the dance itself as Jomo Fortunato has explained on several occasions. This strategy rather seeks to attract wider public audiences towards other aspects of “Angolan” culture(other dances, literature, music, etc.). In other words, this aims to feed and strengthen the national brand of Angola and ultimately to encourage tourism and other business flows. Indeed, in the beginning, the musicians that became authorities in Angola did not consider kizomba an “Angolan” genre. As demonstrated in the following excerpt from an interview with the musician Eduardo Paim, even Jomo Fortunato, the man who designed the Kizomba Nation project, was rather critical about kizomba:

Journalist: “The arts critic Jomo Fortunato said that kizomba was a poor imitation of zouk. Eduardo Paim: “Why does he think that it is a bad imitation? Who told him it is an imitation? Let’s start by saying that no one has that right. For that reason, one has to make assertions taking into account the consequences they may bring. It is easy to criticize, it is difficult to do. And we do: there you have the proof. Anyway, the rhythmic similarities are obvious…” (Online interview with Eduardo Paim)29

28Following the success of kizomba at the global level, its status changed dramatically to the Angolan administration. It passed from being overlooked and disregarded as a foreign form of music and just a passing dance fashion to take up a full role in the set of national symbols. As such, it was performed and exhibited at official events such as national celebrations organized by embassies abroad. In other words, kizomba was validated through this visibility as Goertzen and Azzi (1999) assert for the case of tango. However, the promotion of kizomba by the Angolan state represents only one means of serving a broader plan for promoting a country that is now in the middle of its reconstruction process."

"Lito Graça: “For me, kizomba as a music style does not exist […]; for me it’s zouk. […] If you write it on a stave and you see the pattern… and taking into account that what defines the musical style is the percussive base, with a cord instrument that is the bass, you’re going to see a written pattern of kizomba and a written pattern of zouk and it’s the same thing, the rhythmic base is the same.

Calo Pascoal: “[...] but Antilleans wouldn’t accept that what Angolans sing, even with their instrumental base, is zouk.

Nelo Paim: “[...] For me, Antillean music, zouk, is the music made by Antilleans, kizomba is made by us.”"

"In order to convey an idea of the nationalist feelings underlying this heated debate, there are below two of the comments posted when the program launched on Youtube. Some people had become rather upset about Lito’s statements about kizomba being equivalent to zouk in musical terms even though he was one of the oldest, most experienced and most respected musicians in the country:"

"“The modern generation born in the diaspora has chosen a controverted style as regards its positioning in the classificatory table of Cape Verdean music. It is a rhythm originated in the USA and the Netherlands, more influential in the latter, called ‘zouk love’ by young people. As its name indicates, it is no more than a reproduction of Antillean ‘zouk’, therefore, according to critiques, distant from the vernacular Cape Verdean line. […] These objectors defend that the influence of foreign music, in this appropriation, distorts Cape Verde.” (Tavares, 2005: 39)"

"Cape Verde constitutes an interesting contrasting case in this context. Even though many “Cape Verdean” teachers have contributed to the conflicts within the global kizomba industry by arguing that their performance is legitimate, their government has not invested in this strategic approach for promoting the country. In Cape Verde, within the context of the 1960s independence movements, the musical styles converted into official symbols of the new nation were mainly morna and coladera, those that then represented the social elite (Cidra, 2011). It was only later, during the late-1970s and the early 1980s, that funaná,cola san jon and tabanka, popular genres among lower classes, got integrated as legitimate symbols of the nation (Cidra, 2011). In the second half of the 1980s, zouk became fashionable and people commonly named it after the generic term passada (set of steps) used to dance the style. However, the term passada does not appear in the list of “Cape Verdean” dances drafted by intellectuals and experts: batuco, lundum, mazurka, contradança, morna, funaná and coladera are those most cited as proper “Cape-Verdean” dances (Tavares, 2005). In the 1980s, musicians called the new fashionable music style zouk, zouk love, or ghetto-zouk, thereby recognizing the clear influence of zouk music in these labels (Hoffman, 2008). Just as happened in Angola, traditionalists and nationalists considered the style a foreign influence that might pollute the pure essence of national music:"

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