The kuduro artist featured on a hit single when she was just 15 years old, but ended up working menial jobs after losing her royalties. Now, she’s making music on her own terms
Three weeks before lockdown in London, the kind of warm spring day that makes you feel like a bear blinking into the sun after months spent in hibernation. Soon, we’ll all be sent packing back to our bear-caves – but first, Pongo has a plane to catch. “I feel like I’m always running to the next place,” says the musician, before jumping into a cab to the airport. From there, she’ll go to Lisbon, and soon after, Angola, where an awkward reunion with her father awaits. Or so she thinks: in a few weeks’ time, all plans will be on hold as coronavirus grips.
Pongo’s life to date has been full of flights and false starts. For the past half-hour she’s been patiently bringing us up to speed on her story, skipping lightly over periods of intense hardship that, you suspect, could fill whole books on their own. Born in Luanda, she left Angola with her family at the age of eight, when the country’s decades-long civil war flared up again in the late 90s. It was a long and difficult journey, taking in a 12-month stay in Rome that saw her share a bed with her three younger sisters. In Lisbon, things weren’t much better: Pongo’s family came early to the country, at a time when “you didn’t really see African people in Portugal”, and she was subjected to racist abuse at school.
Cut off from her roots and shunned by her classmates, Pongo found herself caught between two cultures. “I was just really angry, I had to defend myself,” she says. “I was looking for some respect for my culture and where I was from; I was young but automatically when you get this kind of reception, you feel it in your soul.” To make matters worse, Pongo was increasingly at odds with her father, a former street dancer in Luanda from whom she inherited her love of music. When she was 12, she threw herself from a seventh-floor apartment window, a desperate bid for freedom from which she somehow escaped with only a broken leg. “It’s hard for me to talk about. It was a moment where I didn’t want to live like this any more, and I was starting to fight for freedom from my family.”
As part of her recovery, Pongo took the train every week from her parents’ home for physiotherapy. One day, she saw a group of dancers on a station platform performing kuduro, an Angolese genre of dance music mixing transatlantic folk and electronic styles that mutated through the clubs of Lisbon in the 00s. Intrigued, she started timing her journeys to coincide with their shows. Finally, when Pongo’s leg had healed, they asked her to join them. “I was so, so happy,” says Pongo. “I felt like finally I’d found my place.” Suspecting her dad would take a different view, she kept her exploits secret from her family, telling them she was doing homework with a friend. They found out when she was asked to do a show in Quinta do Mocho, a “really ghetto suburb” of Lisbon with a growing Angolese community. Her father hit the roof, telling family back home in Luanda that his daughter had fallen in with local gangsters, but Pongo was hooked and, when the group’s singer failed to show at the studio one day for a recording session, she was asked to step in. “I was embarrassed, but they pushed me and we made a recording. When I listen back now the punchline is so (bad), it was like, ‘Who is the boss on the streets? They know! They know!’”
A tape of the recording made its way to Buraka Som Sistema, lynchpins of the local kuduro scene who’d just signed a recording deal with Sony BMG. Impressed, they asked the 15-year-old to join them in the studio, where she contributed vocals to “Kalemba (Wegue Wegue)”, a chart-topping hit for the group in 2008. “They asked me to sing something so I did ‘Wegue Wegue’, which I’d been singing (before working with the group). It was a big success, but things changed (quickly),” recalls Pongo, who says she never saw any royalties for the track. “The song is talking about my father, my story, the street I grew up on in Angola – it’s really personal to me. ‘Wegue Wegue’ means something like champion, winner, it’s a song I’d played in the street with friends, because all expression in my (work) comes from my childhood memories.”
With nothing to show for her first brush with success, Pongo took menial jobs to support her sisters, who she was now bringing up full-time. “People would come up to me and say, ‘I saw you in Mozambique or Belgium’ and I’d be like, ‘Nope, I’m still here!’” says Pongo of the experience, which left her feeling disillusioned with the industry for a long time. “I went to ask the people from Buraka what was happening but they never gave me an explanation. And so it was hard, I was working for survival and I had to fight to become stronger.”
Years later, Pongo heard “Wegue Wegue” on the radio while working as a cleaner, and decided to take a second crack at a music career – only this time, it would be on her terms. Her first EP, last year’s Baia, (re)established her as an ambitious talent taking kuduro in deeply personal new directions. The second, a five-track release called Uwa, puts her Angolese roots front-and-centre while pushing her sound still further to include yearning ballads (“Wafu”) and Latinx pop sung in Portuñol (“Canto”), a creole language spoken in parts of Spain and South America. For the frenetic title track, she made a video in Senegal, an “amazing adventure” that only came about when they were unable to make Angola work for practical reasons.
“I miss my continent, it’s not just Angola,” says Pongo. “We share the same spirit, the same culture – for me it means more than just music. ‘Uwa’ is a word in Kimbundu, the traditional language in Angola, and it means celebration, escape – you scream it like ‘woo hoo!’ Other countries use the same expression, too. Shooting (in Senegal) I was able to share what I want to share with the world, (which is) the beautiful things from Africa – beautiful people, beautiful style, beautiful energy.” The musician takes a last, long drink of coffee before being bundled into a cab by her publicist. “It’s sad,” she says, looking ahead to her trip to Angola, where her father now lives. “He lost that chance to be a good dad.” The family reunion will have to wait a while longer yet, but Pongo’s time is now.