If you live in the U.S., you've probably been to at least one music festival over the course of your lifetime. (There's one every weekend, practically.) But in the war-torn country of Angola, putting on a rock concert is basically a pipe dream -- one that comes true in the "Death Metal Angola," a documentary that hits iTunes Friday.
The film, directed by Jeremy Xido, follows orphanage employee Sonia Ferreira and her death metal musician boyfriend Wilker Flores as they attempt to put together Angola's first-ever national rock concert -- all in the shadow of years of warfare that shattered families and left thousands of children without homes. Metal acts as a form of release for the people of Huambo -- the second biggest city in Angola -- and for Ferreira and Flores, who pour their own money and resources into the event.
Xido took a moment this morning during his journey to the film's opening event in New York -- an event that will feature a performance by longtime supporters Unlocking The Truth -- to tell MTV a bit about how the film came to be, as well as about the impact of death metal on Angola.
MTV: So how did you learn about this death metal movement in Angola? Where did the idea come from?
Jeremy Xido: I was in Angola working on a completely different film about Chinese construction workers rebuilding their railway line to the middle of the country. The story that I tell is that I just wanted a cup of coffee really badly and there was only one place in town that served a decent cup of coffee. And so I went to it and while I was there, and, in this little patio area, sort of sitting about 10 feet away from me, was a young man in a very conservative button-down blue shirt oxford and little dreadlocks. And he kind of waved at me and called me over.
So I went over and started talking to him and he asked what I was doing and I told him I was making this movie. And then I asked him what he did and he said that he was a musician. I said, 'That’s awesome, what do you play?' And he said death metal. And I was just stunned. I would have never thought that I would hear somebody say that. And I asked for him to play for me that night and he got very excited and said, 'Yes, of course. Why don’t you meet me tonight?' and gave me an address. He said, 'Meet me at the orphanage,' which I thought was a club.
MTV: And it wasn't, right? It was a literal orphanage. Wow.
Xido: I invited a group of Chinese construction workers to go to this concert at the orphanage, Okutiuka, which you see at the center of the film. This bombed-out milk factory. And there was Wilker [the man from the coffee shop]. There was no electricity so he was siphoning electricity from his neighbor to plug in his amplifier and we lit [him] with the headlights of an SUV. And he proceeded to play this harrowing, just inconceivable, sort of open-air concert in the half dark, in the middle of the night in the bombed-out milk factory with shadows of children running around.
And that’s how I got to know him and his partner Sonia. But it wasn’t until a year later when I was going back to film a bit more on the train film that I called up Wilker and Sonia and asked if they would be around and they got excited and said, 'Yes, of course. We’re organizing the first-ever national rock concert and you are going to film it.' And that’s how it happened.
MTV: So how did death metal start to flourish there? Where did it come from?
Xido: No one really knows. But as best as I can figure out from folks who are in it, experienced it, rock existed in Angola for a while. And I think one of the reasons [was] during the civil war in like the '70s and '80s, a lot of –- if you were lucky you could get your kid out of Angola. You would often send them to Portugal where they would have family. You would get them out of Angola so they wouldn’t have to go to the war. They wouldn’t get killed.
[During that] period of time in Portugal there was the overthrow of the dictator, [António de Oliveira] Salazar. And it was kind of a moment where rock was embraced as a youth culture, as a sort of form of liberation. It was sort of an expression of youth, possibility, and the future and a sort of confrontation with past authority.
A lot of these Angolan kids who had escaped from the war were suddenly in that culture and they got a taste of it. And whenever they came back to Angola they’d bring it back. They’d bring the sound back with them and they started up a bunch of bands.
MTV: So when did it really start to take hold there?
Xido: At the end of the wars in 2002, a couple of really important changes happened in Angola. One is that the infrastructure of the country started to be rebuilt so it was the first time that you could actually communicate with different parts of the country and later on travel to different parts of the country. But there’s also an Internet revolution that took place that allowed people in different parts of the country [to connect] -- even if they couldn’t travel because of landmines, destroyed roads and things like that. Through satellites, Internet technologies became really cheap and prevalent throughout the country, and you could actually get in touch with musicians playing music in different parts of the country.
MTV: Why death metal? Why not pop or EDM or whatever? Why did that genre take hold?
Xido: There’s something about just the sound that is cathartic -- the ability to get together with a group of people and scream.
I think in terms of lyrics, it’s really interesting because when you think of metal and death metal in particular -- and black metal or more extreme metal that come from Northern Europe or the States or Poland or elsewhere -- you think that the lyrics are sort of phantasmagoric -- imagery surrounding death and destruction. And what’s sort of fantastical and phantasmagoric in sort of a Northern European context is almost journalistic in an Angolan context. These are folks who are using the stories that they tell us -- stories for the most part either that they’ve heard from family or that they have seen themselves or that have been around them.
I think it’s a kind of a music that can withstand the sorts of stories that they have to tell.
MTV: And it also reflects what happens during the war?
Xido: During the war people would play a lot of sad songs. People were just sad and lost. And that after the war, basically, hard sounds started to come out. The hard sound is maybe like the scream after the tears. It’s the way you can actually confront reality and move into the future with a sense of empowerment.
And I think that for a bunch of people who have felt for quite a long period of time of being disempowered, this kind of music actually gives a sense of power, a sense of presence, an ability to speak and stand and to say things, and to say it as a group.
I think in Angola -- where there are a lot of issues that people are trying to deal with from the past and current political issues and things they are trying to address -- it’s a form that allows you to talk about stuff that you just can’t talk about otherwise. I think that’s an important part of it.
MTV: Have any of these bands managed to break out? Become popular beyond Angola?
Xido: So the one band that plays outside of Angola so far is the band Before Crush. They were invited to perform in Germany along with the film. And I think there are a couple of the bands that are good enough that they can play internationally.
I think part of it is that so few people know about Angola, so it's hard to hear the music or get a sense of it. It’s been difficult to break out into a global market. But I think they’re actually getting closer and closer to being able to do it. There’s some pretty big bands in the states and in Europe that are asserting the idea of bringing an Angolan band along as an opening act for a major tour. So now I think it’s just a matter of time. And hopefully the film can put some focus on the community there. I think that at some point in probably not the too-distant-future one of the bands is going to make it out.