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Waldemar Bastos's "Pretaluz"

By Banning Eyre

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  In Waldemar Bastos's homeland, Angola, modern history has been a succession of high hopes dashed by outbreaks of maniacal warfare. Although he is one of the country's most celebrated pop musicians, the only one who can inspire both President José Eduardo dos Santos and perpetual rebel leader Jonas Savimbi to dance, Bastos has twice been forced to leave Angola. He has lost his father and a son to war.

Yet his music -- showcased brilliantly on his fourth release, Pretaluz (Luaka Bop) -- transforms melancholy into visionary optimism with dreamily percolating acoustic grooves and lyricism that soothes the soul. The new album, along with Bastos's hypnotic performances in recent years, has created a buzz in international music circles. As he prepares to bring his band to the Somerville Theatre this Friday, he insists that his sunny outlook is the product of neither denial nor success.

"My optimism isn't just appearance," he explains from his home in Lisbon. "It's absolutely real. I truly believe that there will be happier days for the world."

Bastos's hope springs from his Christian world view but goes back to his childhood and his loving parents. "While most parents are concerned when their children want to become musicians, my parents never castrated me. They are the ones who bought me my first guitar."

Bastos formed his first band, Jovial, when he was nine years old. Growing up in a Portuguese-African nation that is home to the roots of Cuban and Brazilian pop and that borders an Afropop powerhouse, the Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), he had plenty of musical strands to interweave through the strings of his guitar. Following the achievement of independence, Angola descended into civil war, but Bastos kept his sights on art. "In a country that is at war, art and music are not given any value, and yet I was assuming music to have total value in my life. That was a very complex situation."

As his star rose, Bastos faced enticements and intimidation from the warring parties. "They brought great pressure on me to take sides. But I kept my position. I mustn't give any part of myself for blood."

Forced to flee in the early '80s, Bastos launched his recording career abroad, first in Brazil and then in Lisbon, where he recorded hits for the Angolan market. In 1990, he made a daring return, performing for 200,000 in the Angolan capitol, Luanda. "They thought that because I had made a good recording they wouldn't make problems for me, but it was dangerous to stay there, and I fled again." For now, a return to Angola remains out of the question. "I don't want to put my art to the service of one party or the other, but I pay a high price for that."

Pretaluz, Bastos's first work to receive wide distribution, was produced in New York by Arto Lindsay, and it marries Bastos's sweetly yearning melodies and guitar interplay with Lindsay's inventive, sometimes quirky arranging. One standout track, "Kuribota," assails a jealous gossip with the line, "Your beauty is an evil tongue." It opens with a nylon-string guitar ostinato and Bastos's clear voice quivering in accusation. Lindsay's electric guitar lingers in the background, an ornery whine. The song's refrain is buoyed by percussive pump and tangling guitar chatter.

The marriage works, but Bastos says his chemistry with Lindsay didn't come easily. "The first impression was a shock." Lindsay was a celebrated musician from the New York downtown scene who returned to his childhood home, Brazil, to become a celebrated pop producer. Bastos had his own history of carnival marches, rumbas, boleros, and rock. "Arto found in me a person who already had a place in music. It was obvious that we could underestimate each other."

One "shock" came with the song "Rainha Ginga," which begins as a quietly melancholy rumba and then shifts to simmering soukous. "Arto said it's two musics and I said it was one. Arto said that usually happens in classical music. But I didn't do that for that reason. I remember as a child in Africa hearing a song that was slow and then suddenly became fast. I compare that with nature: in Africa it can be very sunny and then it starts raining and gets dark. With me, music has a direct link to nature."

Bastos's work fits the continuing trend toward natural, acoustic textures in African pop. He eschews electronics as an "expression of consumerism" and a shield that talentless artists hide behind. "But the river runs," he says, returning to his habitual, visionary optimism, "and that which is true always comes forth in the end."

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