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A Struggle for Unity

'Artists . . . have a certain obligation to fight for a better understanding,' says Angolan-born Waldemar Bastos. He performs Sunday at UCLA.


Waldemar Bastos describes his music--and himself--as a product of paradox.

"I am a professional musician who barely studied music; an African performer whose first album was recorded in South America; an artist from a war-torn country whose principal themes are peace and optimism; a singer-songwriter who is considered to be the voice of Angola, although I presently live in Portugal."

Given the circumstances, paradox sounds like the right description. Bastos, who performs with a quintet Sunday at UCLA's Royce Hall, is not the first African artist to experience the life-threatening hazards of the continent's many conflicts (Somali singer Maryam Mursal's long trek across the desert to safety is a particularly striking example). But Bastos, born in Angola in 1954, spent virtually his entire youth in a battle-permeated environment, first during the war of liberation from Portugal in the '60s and '70s, then during a decades-long civil war.

Having been imprisoned during the colonial period, Bastos realized that the Soviet-supported government that succeeded the Portuguese was even more repressive, and he defected while visiting Portugal with a cultural delegation in 1982. For the balance of the '80s he lived in Brazil and Paris, then settled in Portugal in the '90s.

At that point, he was presented with yet another paradox. His music, enormously popular in Angola, was claimed by both sides in the civil war. Bastos notes wryly, "It is said that only my songs have the power to make both President Dos Santos and rebel leader Jonas Savimbi dance."

But Bastos has refused to be identified with one side or the other in the Angolan troubles, preferring to view the situation from a less political, more philosophical and humanistic perspective.

"My main aim is the unity of all human beings," he says. "As a consequence, people of both sides listen to my music."

Bastos' music, which he sings in Portuguese, positions his sweet-sounding tenor voice in the context of gently floating rhythms redolent with African and Brazilian qualities. He often describes Angola in idyllic terms, but some songs are tinged with the pain of the many years of war and suffering.

The first track on his latest album, "Pretaluz" (Luaka Bop Records), for instance, is titled "Sofrimento"--"Suffering." But Bastos refuses to be confined by negativity, balancing his sorrowful memories with the optimism of such songs as "Querida Angola" ("Beloved Angola"), in which he sings, "Our marvelous people / People full of tenderness. . . . You need love / To be happy someday."

"Artists in general have a certain obligation to fight for a better understanding," he explains. "More humanity, fraternity. It is not important which country the problems belong to. Each problem affects everybody. We are not always faced with what we would like to meet in our life. When life doesn't laugh at people, people need to laugh at life. The life of each person is an enigma. Life is mystic. So we need to be prepared for paradoxes, as they also form our life."

As with the other paradoxical aspects of his life, Bastos came to music somewhat unexpectedly. At the age of 7, he simply picked up his father's accordion and began to play songs. Although he was given music lessons, he never actually learned to read music, because he could play by ear virtually anything he heard.

"I realized," he says, "that I had been blessed with what in Portuguese is referred to as a dadiva, a profound gift, or natural talent, for music."

Because both parents worked as traveling nurses, he was exposed to a wide array of indigenous languages, cultures and musical traditions. At the same time, radio provided him with the sounds of the Beatles, rock, Brazil and jazz.

With Angola playing such a central role in his creative vision, however, the question of whether he will ever return to his native land inevitably arises. Typically, he deals with it from a far broader perspective.

"One day, when human values are put back in the right position, then I could imagine returning--as an inhabitant of the world, but not as an Angolan," he says. "But I don't fight for going back. I don't live with saudade [Portuguese for "longing"]. My home country is humanity."


Waldemar Bastos, Sunday at Royce Hall, UCLA, 8 p.m. $20 to $32. $11 for UCLA students. (310) 825-2101.

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