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Recovering from a near-fatal accident led Pongo to kuduro stardom

After escaping Angola's civil war, Pongo is channelling her homeland's musical influence in her rise to stardom

  • Words: Tanya Akinola | Photo: Felix Dot Maillot
  • 6 March 2020

When an eight-year-old Engrácia – she prefers not to share her surname – arrived with her family in Portugal after fleeing Angola’s lengthy civil war, she was too young to realise the magnitude of the situation. To her, it was an adventure. Twenty years later, those childhood years in Angola remain a source of inspiration behind the music that has led her to current status as a rising star. “I keep those memories like gold in my life,” she says over the phone from her home in Lisbon, pots clanging and a dog barking in the background. “All my inspiration for music comes from those good memories, from everything that I left in Angola.”

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She was initially entranced by her unfamiliar surroundings (“It was like a totally different planet!”), but settling into her new life was a challenge. Living in a small town north of Lisbon with a sparse African community, she felt like a novelty, often taunted by her classmates for her dark skin and Angolan-inflected accent. “I was just a child and I didn’t understand why people didn’t see me as the same as them,” she recalls. Her personal life also deteriorated as her family struggled to integrate into a country so far away from the familiarity of home.

But rather than linger on those difficult times, she’s chosen to fuse the best of both cultural experiences into her music. It’s this intersection of Angolan heritage and Portuguese experience that provides the alchemy behind her music – something six million Spotify streams to date can confirm. And her hybrid sound is also connecting with audiences far outside of Lisbon. Last year she played across France, sold out her debut London show and performed alongside an array of artists from Kampire and HAAi to Paula Temple and Mayra Andrade.

This is actually Pongo’s second wave of success. Following a near-fatal accident (she fell several storeys from a window, miraculously breaking only an ankle) and the intensive physiotherapy in inner city Lisbon that followed, a teenage Pongo found inspiration in the African community dancing and singing kuduro on the busy streets surrounding Lisbon’s Quelez station. She soon joined in, and through this she wound up singing with Buraka Som Sistema after her demos found their way to the crew. Then known as Pongolove, she would ultimately deliver one of their biggest hits, ‘Kalemba (Wegue Wegue)’.

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Pongo’s time with the band was as short as it was eventful. Following creative differences, she quit Buraka Som Sistema and spent a decade in pursuit of her solo project – which has finally come to fruition. Following on from 2018’s ‘Baia’, this February she releases ‘Uwa’, a five-track EP that unfolds like an autobiography, touching on her history, love for music and visions for the future. Exploring a cross-section of kuduro, electronic and pop, conceptually the project is Pongo’s most raw and honest. “My message,” she says, “is to show my experiences and my vision about what we can do to be better, feel happy, manage the struggles and enjoy life.”

‘Uwa’ is out now on Caroline International

Tanya Akinola is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter

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