Nambuangongo Meu Amor (“Nambuangongo My Love”, translation in the end of this article), a poem by Manuel Alegre, later adapted into a song, is just one of many examples of the arts being used as an outlet for feelings and emotions in a time of hardship and pain, and later as a vehicle to demand change.
The moment is 1962/63 when Manuel Alegre, together with many other young man, is sent to Angola to fight a war that wasn’t his. In fact, during his stay in Angola he is the first army officer to be arrested by the Political Police (PIDE) for voicing his disagreement about said war, and for refusing to continue to fight it.
The poet was stationed in what is considered one of the most horrendous places to be during the Colonial War (if there is a scale that considers that there are nicer places to be during a war…): Nambuangongo, in the north of Angola.
This poem tells us about what he experienced, what many others experienced. It also informs people from a generation that did not have to go through that – people like me, my generation, and future generations.
One of the most accomplished Portuguese poets, his intervention poetry is an anthem to Freedom and Democracy. His poems were his weapon of choice in a fight against the war.
The choice to sing most of his poems came from many Portuguese musical artists, and they turned those poems into songs of freedom, and democracy. Not only that, these songs unite all those who went through the same experience, and helps them share in a country that still does not speak of what happened.
Music played an important, if not crucial role in the fight against dictatorship. And apparently, Portugal is not the only example. Music, specially singing, played an important role in the fight against the Apartheid in South Africa. I am sure similar usage of Music in fights for freedom throughout History can be found.
It appears wikipedia has an entire article on “protest songs“. As good of a source as it is, it seems whenever humans want to unite for a common purpose, they use music and singing to do so.
I believe it’s quite likely that in the case of the poem mentioned in this article, the author’s initial purpose was not so much to write an intervention song but to vent his feelings. An experience like that would have left deep psychological scars. Many (if not all) of the young men who experienced equal events were deeply traumatized, and grew up to be deeply traumatized adults. I have at least 3 uncles in that situation.
Unfortunately, the “let’s-not-talk-about-it” climate lived in Portugal has not helped those young men/traumatized adults at all.
But perhaps those poems, and those songs have: Singing was apparently used constantly for its cathartic function by the young men who were in a constant fear of dying.
Those poems and songs are something they can relate to quite closely, and may perhaps serve as a catalyst for them to express how they feel about it too.
I like to think those songs have helped…I also like to think that one of these days I will assess that scientifically (or that some other researcher will feel inspired to do so…).
I find it appauling the lack of debate around the events of the Colonial War, how so little was taught about it in school (at least for my generation), and how those affected still don’t have the support they deserve. I am fortunate to have a father who always shared his experience but how many grew up with a father with alcohol and violence problems as a direct result of their trauma? How many are still suffering from their lack of coping? We don’t ask these questions enough. We learnt not to ask. And now we still know nothing…
Well, Manuel Alegre tells us a little in his poem with multiple functions: emotional outlet, freedom fighting, historical view, group catharsis…
Nambuangongo My Love (English translation)
In Nambuangongo you didn’t see anything
You didn’t see anything in that long long day
The chopped head
And the bombarded flower
You didn’t see anything in Nambuangongo
You talked about Hiroshima you who have never seen
In each man a dead who doesn’t die
Yes, we know Hiroshima is sad
But listen in Nambuangongo there is
In each man a river that doesn’t run
In Nambuangongo time is but a minute
In Nambuangongo we remember
In Nambuangongo I looked at death and was exposed
You don’t know but I’ll tell you: It hurts very much.
In Nambuangongo there are people who rotten.
In Nambuangongo we think we won’t come back
Each letter is a Goodbye in each letter you die
Each letter is a silence and a revolt.
In Lisbon things remain, that is life goes on.
And in Nambuangongo we think we won’t come back.
It’s fair that you tell me about Hiroshima.
However you know nothing of this long long time
Time exactly on top of our time. Oh Time where the word “life” rhymes with the word “death” in Nambuangongo