Waldemar Bastos has become a de facto lightning rod for his country, Angola's, struggles – from the day he was arrested as an innocent schoolchild by the Portuguese secret police, to the more recent moment when his eldest son was killed by one of the factions who turned a war of independence into a savage civil one.
Artistically stifled by his own Communist-bloc government he fled to Lisbon in 1982, then eventually Brazil, where sympathetic musicians confirmed him in a global trajectory. David Byrne's Luaka Bop label helped him to US acclaim, but he remains a lusophone phenomenon. His latest, 2004 album Renascence, is the first to be made with Angola at peace, and relatively safe for him again.
You would hardly guess this horrible struggle from his playing, at first. It is comforting, easy music, with circling, plunging Latin rhythms that gently roll for 10 minutes at a time. Bastos, 54, leads his band on acoustic guitar looking like an Iberian balladeer. He has an operatic voice that bounces off the back of the hall, a taste I don't wholly acquire.
But, halfway through the night, when he has given up speaking English to a crowd clearly heavy with sympathetic souls from Portugal and her ex-colonies, "Lubango" casts a different spell. He sings in a barely broken, gorgeous murmur, and it sounds like a national lullaby. He steps away from the mic, and lets the crowd, who really sing and feel these songs, take over. Some beer-hall baritones break the delicacy, but reinforce this as community singing, which old revolutionary comrades, or their victims, might drunkenly weep to. The combination of Bastos and these few from the Angolan diaspora whispering together is music at its most magical: the sound of exiled longing.
You can hear Bastos's sonic travels in the electric rock guitar on "Santa Ana", which loops in bossa nova's gentleness then fado's sad soul. African high-life guitar briefly dances over the top of ceaseless, bass-bolted beats from two drummers. Bastos calls Renascence's sound "Afropean", and the common point it finds between Brazil, Portugal, the US, Turkey (on its Asian strings) and Angola barely sounds African. But the national aches which last until the closing "Carnival" make this a deep private party for his sprawling community. These profound personal connections, more than purely musical moments, made tonight special.