Huambo may be Angola’s second largest city, but it isn’t the most likely destination for a death metal festival. After gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, the southern African country plummeted into a 26-year-long civil war, embroiling countries across the region and leaving half a million dead. By the time the conflict drew to an uneasy close in 2002, Huambo’s infrastructure was demolished. That a small but thriving death metal and hardcore scene has taken root there in recent years might come as a surprise, but it shouldn’t. After all, the primary tenets of that music (rebellion, anger, deafeningly loud sounds) resonate more honestly against the city’s war-torn backdrop than pretty much anywhere else. “Rock is the only space where they’re allowed to talk about whatever it is they have in their souls,” says Huambo native Sonia Ferreira, one of the co-founders of the country’s first national rock concert, O Rock Lalimwe Eteke Ifa, of the new generation of Angola musicians who are plugging in. Death Metal Angola, a documentary from New York filmmaker Jeremy Xido, follows Ferreira as she organizes the event with her guitarist boyfriend, Wilker Flores, while also running an orphanage and children’s shelter. On a recent afternoon, just weeks before the concert’s third annual incarnation, we spoke to Ferreira about the healing potential of extreme music.
What’s the biggest challenge in organizing a rock festival in Angola? We live in a city in the interior of the country, which is to say a city that suffered a lot during the war. Angolans still aren’t very used to traveling around the country, because during the war there were practically no open roads. There are still a lot of people who are afraid to come here. But for the festival we did in 2012, we had an audience of more than 2,000 people.
What kind of reputation does rock have in Angola? The perception of rock in Angola is very, very negative. It’s associated with druggies. But more and more it’s becoming acceptable—even the Ministry of Culture is starting to recognize us. People are starting to realize that rock isn’t what they think it is. During the year, when we run into people, they ask, “When is there going to be another concert?”
Last year, we had eight groups play the festival, and over the past year five more groups have formed around the country. If we counted, I think we’d have 30-something rock groups across the country. This year, we’ll have 15 groups play the festival over two days.
What does rock offer Angolans that they can’t get in other popular genres, like kuduro and kizomba? In rock lyrics you can talk about much more than you can in other types of music. For example, we don’t have the right to protest in Angola. When we try to demonstrate against the political system, or the government—which is very bad here—we’re harassed by the police. The only true place where the youth can express what’s in their soul is in music, theater and above all, rock. It really lets them celebrate a little bit—something that really brings them pleasure.
Your day job is running the orphanage Okutiuka. Do you encourage the children to play music?Okutiuka is not a true orphanage. An orphanage is a place exclusively for orphans. Here, we have children who have suffered from various consequences of the war. We have 72 children. A lot of them play music, but the big problem is that we sometimes can’t afford instruments for them to play. So we play with a lot of instruments that we make right here, like the tam-tam and flutes. Okutiuka incentivizes art because it’s one way for these children to free themselves from feelings of isolation from their families and bad memories. Life for them isn’t easy—to know that their families are the way that they are, that they’ve abandoned them.
Are you ready for this year’s festival?We’ve been preparing for a month and a half, and we have just one more month left. This is a non-profit festival—we do all this to help spread rock so that people can get to know it. So we have to find the money for the equipment, lights, food, travel, hotels, campsites, publicity. By the time the concert comes, I’m so tired I can hardly enjoy it. It’s only when I look back after it’s done that I actually see what happened.