Restoring the glory of Carnival in Angola, on a budget but big on passion

The singer stood nervously in a rubble-strewn courtyard in one of the hard-bitten neighborhoods of Luanda, Angola’s capital, as he lined up the performers for their final rehearsal before the big competition.

“United Af-ri-caaaa,” hummed a voice over a speaker before a percussion-heavy beat began. More than a dozen young people facing singer Tony do Fumo Jr. rotated their hips and arms and stamped their feet.

The group, made up mostly of teenagers, led by Mr do Fumo, was preparing for their opening performance at the Carnival, a celebration – and competition for prize money – that kicks off the Christian Lent. With a sergeant’s gaze, he paced, blew a whistle and waved his arm. The dancers froze. Another whistle and gesture and they were back in time, Mr. do Fumo jumping up and down with them.

The son of an Angolan music legend, Mr. do Fumo grew up under the tutelage of some of the country’s most prominent musicians. He has performed to live audiences and on television around the world. But the pressure for that accomplishment was unlike anything he’d ever felt.

Once a cultural highlight that swept the streets of this south-west African port city, Carnival in Luanda seems to be a rarity these days. The maelstrom of colorful, flowing costumes, semba music, and hip-swinging dances that make up the Mardi Gras-like celebrations is largely confined to three days of a quarter-mile waterfront known as the Marginal. Many blame the event’s demise on the distraction of the day-to-day necessities of life and a lack of financial investment from a government that is few and far between.

Enter Mr. do Fumo, 38, a semba singer performing with immersive passion. He’s among those trying to restore the glory of Carnival – and change what it means to take part.

Organizers have encouraged Angolans to form groups that not only perform at the event but also engage in social and cultural activities throughout the year. That’s what Mr. do Fumo had in mind when he founded his carnival group, União Jovens do Prenda, or United Youth of Prenda, six years ago, named after his former neighborhood in Luanda. It qualified for the competition – and the prize money for the winners – for the first time this year.

And he hoped his group would win a much-needed cash injection to fund activities like buying wheelchairs, feeding the hungry and helping young people resist gangs.

Mr. do Fumo was born with art in his DNA; while his father sang, his mother danced. But his parents died when he was just 6 years old, and he grew up in a rough neighborhood with relatives who had little financial means. He has been attending Carnival since he was 8 years old and sees his group as a vehicle to help young people overcome difficult conditions like him through culture.

“If God gives you an opportunity to get something, it’s not just for you,” said Mr. do Fumo. “What I get as an artist, I share with the community. We all eat the same thing.”

So there he was, just hours before the group was due to face off on a Sunday afternoon late last month, desperate to make sure everything was right. Paint-stained hands and a strained face, he scurried across the courtyard in front of his modest house in Cassequel—a two-room cement block with a corrugated iron roof. His performers packed the rectangle under a scorching sun, the courtyard’s two papaya trees offering no shady relief.

So much remained unfinished. A cardboard cutout of Africa to be painted with each nation’s flag was only half finished. For costumes, fabrics still had to be sewn and beads glued on. Posters needed the finishing touches. A teenager ran green and yellow fabric through a sewing machine while sitting under an umbrella bearing a picture of Angola’s President João Lourenço.

Mr. do Fumo was pacing, drinking Coke from a plastic bottle and barking orders and complaints.

“There’s no money!” he fumed. “I can’t do anything else!”

The government had allocated 1.3 million kwanzas to the group, but these had not yet been paid. Instead, to pay for the costumes and everything else, Mr do Fumo had used 1.5 million kwanzas (nearly $3,000) of his own money, which he had saved to buy a car. And that was barely enough.

The top hats that came with the costumes were made of cardboard and covered with cheap fabric. Most of the large posters carried by the cast were hand drawn and not professionally printed.

“When it comes to culture, they should do more,” Mr do Fumo said of the government.

Filipe Zau, Angola’s culture and tourism minister, acknowledged that money is lacking. The challenge, he said, is that carnival is no longer limited to urban centers, which means there are more groups that need government support. He said attracting more private sponsors, planning earlier and attracting foreign visitors are all part of the government’s strategy to generate more revenue to boost Angola’s carnival, which in Angola dates back a century when Angolans spontaneously took to the streets , to celebrate – and to mock their Portuguese colonizers.

“It’s politically important, it’s culturally important, it’s socially important,” Mr. Zau said.

In an ideal world, a buzzing carnival would help bolster ailing neighborhoods like Cassequel. Drains and streams around the community of tightly packed bungalows are filled with trash and dirty water, and a stench is part of it. Along the rugged dirt roads, women set up wooden stalls to sell fruit and vegetables. Alcohol is often the most important pastime for many young people.

Mr. do Fumo didn’t have time to think about what might be in the future. Showtime was approaching. With the flair of a coach before the big game, he gave the young top performers final instructions.

Focus on the competition, not hanging out with friends. Drink water so you don’t faint. Keep your emotions in check. Breathe.

“We’re going to Marginal to bring the big prize to our community,” he roared, and a great cheer from the dozens of young people around him before boarding buses to the main carnival venue.

When the moment came to appear before the judges in the street with the makeshift stands, somehow all the pieces scattered around the courtyard seemed to click. Two performers led the charge, spinning a painted banner with the name Jovens do Prenda in front of a desert landscape. The dancers immediately followed. Mr. do Fumo, all in white with a brightly colored top hat, hopped up and down between the rows of dancers.

When it was all over, they laughed and joked, and at night returned to the courtyard where the young performers crowded around Mr. do Fumo.

“They really surprised me,” he said, pointing out that there wasn’t a single professional dancer in the group. “The good thing was seeing the commitment from my people and seeing them all united and united.”

A few days later the results were in: Jovens do Prenda finished 14th out of 15 groups in its category. There would be no prize money this year.

But Mr. do Fumo went further.

Shortly before carnival, one of the dancers in the group had told him that her house was in a desolate state. It collapsed after the carnival, said Mr. do Fumo. So he started raising money to buy materials to build her a new house.

“Let’s go now, let’s work,” he said.

Gilberto Neto contributed reporting from Luanda. Restoring the glory of Carnival in Angola, on a budget but big on passion

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