Kalaf Epalanga (trans. Daniel Hahn)

Whites Can Dance Too

From Whites Can Dance Too by Kalaf Epalanga, translated by Daniel Hahn, and published by Faber and Faber, out 15th of June 2023.

9 AUGUST 2008
When the guns turn meek
Kuduro will still speak
’Cause a voice can make bullets seem weak.
—Bruno M, ‘Já Respeita Né’


I guess I must have got distracted by those Bruno M lines, because I didn’t even register the bus slowing and parking on the side of the road, amid an exuberant green. I didn’t notice when we crossed the Svinesund canal, separating Sweden from Norway, over the new bridge built across the Iddefjord and baptised with the same name as the old one beside it: Svinesund. I would have liked to have seen it, this being my first time visiting the northern lands, but couldn’t help falling asleep. We’re 113 km south of Oslo and 180 km north of Gothenburg, where last night at the Way Out West festival a crowd of well mannered blond Swedes danced frantically to our blended Kuduro, house and tropical techno, as if it were the last August of their lives, and as if the cities of Luanda and Lisbon were not so distant and unknown.

The door opened and two police officers, both in plain clothes, with badges round their necks, boarded the vehi- cle. The man, tall and blond the way only a Viking can be, introduced himself to the passengers. I don’t recall his exact words, but my mind immediately went back over the reply I’d practised dozens of times just in case I were to come across border officers at any point on the three and a half thousand kilometres I had covered since Lisbon. I was travelling without a passport, having lost it somewhere in a hotel in Paris, a few weeks earlier. A nightmare which, at the time, had forced my band Buraka Som Sistema to cancel a series of engagements, because in addition – since misfortune always brings a plus-one to the party – I am an Angolan citizen. When you are an ordinary Angolan citizen, the last thing you want is to lose your papers. I’d give anything for it to have been my phone, or the suitcase with my clothes, my laptop, just not the passport, as this meant travelling to Luanda, find- ing a handler, paying an expediting fee and then praying to Kianda, our Saint Iphigenia, for her to bless the com- puters of the Angolan Migration and Foreigners Service for the system not to fail.

And I prayed now, I prayed to Saint Elesbão and to Saint Benedict that I would not falter, I prayed for my voice not to fail me when my turn came to present my papers, for the lie I’d prepared for the occasion to come out convincingly. But it did not. I showed my residency card and the blond man looked at it suspiciously, asked for my passport. I lied, saying I had it in my suitcase. The other officer, a brunette who looked like she might be a professional judo player, joined us. Apparently I was the only person on the bus with a suspect document – I’m sure no other foreigner with a residency card issued by the Portuguese Immigration and Borders Service had ever crossed that border before.

The blond man, who could easily have been in our audience the previous night, asked me to go fetch my passport, instructing the driver to open the luggage compartment. The two officers escorted me to my suitcase, and in those few metres I even considered turning back and telling them the truth: confessing that the passport I had to show them was an old expired one, so devastated by time that nobody in their right mind would ever allow me passage with a document in such a condition. Not only had it expired back when the Angolan revolutionary Jonas Savimbi was still alive and wreaking havoc, but the space for a photograph was occupied by what now looked more like a painting by the impressionist master Willem de Kooning.

My legs trembling, but with the most confident attitude I’d ever boasted, I held out the passport, just like that, ‘rotten-faced’, as the Angolans say, and my bold and irre- sponsible gesture must have set off every alarm in those two officers’ heads. Only a madman – or a really first-rate criminal – would attempt to cross the whole of Europe by bus and train with the threadbare excuse that he’s a musi- cian in a Lisbon band and that he was due to play a concert that night at one of the continent’s most iconic festivals of electronic music. I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I had been in their position.

The officers invited me to retrieve my luggage and accompany them to the nearest police station for ques- tioning. I didn’t say a word, I felt the sweat forming on my brow, my mouth dry, heart pounding. I was sure any sudden movement would make me throw up.

Nobody had asked me to turn missionary, to travel the world from the slums of Luanda like a Mormon Elder, spreading the gospel of kuduro – a musical genre born in the intersection of house, techno and kizomba in the late 1980s, when the Angolan civil war was at its peak and the youth desperately needed something that could help make sense of the chaos surrounding them.
The two officers hadn’t exchanged a word since they had got into the car, and with so much silence, I did consider explaining myself, somewhere between begging for my freedom and telling them the truth, the whole truth. But what truth? What good would it do for me to explain kuduro to them? In any case, I’m sure the two officers would not have been interested in my truth. I kept my mouth shut and fixed my eyes on the landscape – this might be my last chance to see Scandinavia. I would give anything to be alone, able to lose myself in that green and think freely.


Everything will be OK. I repeated this mantra to help me bear the silence inside that car. I will be able to prove I’m a musician, a ‘cultural agitator’ – as the Portuguese jour- nalists like to characterise me. Travelling without a valid passport is not wise, but I’m not trying to fool anyone. I’m just a non-musician musician, a singer-poet, trying to make it to Oslo. If I start my statement with this con- fession, they might set me free, on time to make it to the festival. History is crammed full of musicians living on the edges of the law, who use their careers as a front, and get up to all sorts behind the curtain. I didn’t want to give in to the paranoid thoughts that were forming in my head, but the possibility of being mistaken for a drug trafficker was starting to seem likely. To what other activity could African musicians arrested crossing a bor- der without papers be applying their talents? Everyone knows how hard it is to make a living from music. My own mother, however happy she is to see her son following his dreams, if asked about the sort of life she’d like me to lead, I’m sure would give a reply involving a desk and a nine-to-five schedule. That’s what mothers are like, always wanting the best for us.

The moment I realised I was being taken to an airport, my heart began to beat easier. I thought I was going to be deported. ‘Rygge’, I read in the neon that hung from one facade. The blond Viking man hurried to open my door, reached over and pulled me out. I offered him no resistance. I was too tired to struggle and I allowed him to exercise his authority over me as if I were a child, or may- be even a criminal. He put his hand on my head so that I might avoid hitting it on my way out. And I would have appreciated his care, had I been brought there under any other circumstances.

At that moment, all I wanted was to put an end to that humiliation, and I turned to the police officers to ask about my belongings. ‘Don’t worry, just keep walking,’ was their only response. It was immediately after my question that I felt the touch, a light push to my back, the first of sev- eral that would be repeated whenever I slowed down. I still don’t know whether the touch is to maintain speed or whether it is common procedure for the police whenev- er they are escorting suspects to the station. People were watching us and, as a way of showing you’re doing your job, nothing beats a little shove to make a point. It must be protocol, one of those protracted guidelines fulfilled to the letter, which was repeated over and over, even after we had walked through the door to the building, and even inside the station, a place so sterile it looked more like a tax office.

The faces of the officers we walked past were almost as grey as the walls. I was led briskly to a door, where I was asked for my papers. I handed them to the blond Viking at the same moment the judoka was opening the door to a room, and, employing the same pleasant gesture they’d used to convey me from the car, with a push to my back, she invited me to go in. I ignored it, I knew that brusqueness of hers was part of the game. They wanted to test me, to see how far my air of serenity could go, my haughtiness even, as if I were so sure that it was all just a mistake and I’d soon be free to continue on my way.

The room was just as you would expect: grey, no windows and a chicken-coop light on the ceiling. It smelled new, like a building only recently completed. The floor was the same colour as the walls, in a material I was unable to identify. It didn’t matter to me. My eyes were fixed on the single piece of furniture against the far wall, whose ends connected the two side walls. It might have been a desk, and was too hard to be a bed – I nonetheless, since there were no chairs, decided it would be a bed and lay down. There was nothing else for me to do. My fate was now in the hands of the Scandinavian gods and, since I was well aware that divine interventions are never particularly speedy, I closed my eyes.

But my mind refused to shut down. I couldn’t avoid running through answers in my head in case the officers asked me what had brought me to Norway. I can start by saying I’m an artist. An Angolan expatriate, an artist- expat, and what makes me jump out of bed and travel the world, cross borders, even without valid documents, at the risk of running into the police and landing up in a Norwegian jail, is a need to meet the other. It’s the only exercise I know how to undertake that will allow me to materialise into words, not too many of them if possible, what I know about myself. My name, for example, says more about me than any adjective, and I didn’t even know its exact meaning. Imagine what it’s like for a five-year- old kid to accept that they have a strange name when the other members of his family had, for the most part, names inspired by Catholic saints. At a moment when most kids were obsessed with finding out where babies came from, all I wanted was to be told the origins of my own name, given an explanation as to why I hadn’t been assigned a simple, neutral Gustavo or Felipe? I never got an answer. Some old guys back in the day used to tease me, singing a song by this guy called Luís Kalaff, a merengue singer from the Dominican Republic.

I only know how to whistle one refrain from my double-f namesake, the one they’d assault me with whenever they heard my name. ‘La Mecha, La Mecha, Ai Maria . . .’ And that’s it. But whatever the old guys in Benguela thought, I know that the ‘La Mecha’ we knew is actually performed by Tabito Pequero, the second vocalist in Luís Kalaff’s Los Alegres Dominicanos – The Happy Dominicans – and it’s the track that opens the record El Rey del Merengue, released in 1962. To this day, I wonder whether my ending up in music was influenced by the name I bear. I’m not one of those people who believes in destiny, but I can’t help smiling at an odd coincidence. The old Kalaff was a prolific composer, who put his name to more than two thousand compositions, some of them covered by giants of Latin music, like Fernanda Villalona’s El Niño Mimado, as well as by the most romantic ex-goalkeeper of all time, Julio Iglesias. Not bad for the son of a humble Dominican woman, Dona Bernavelina Pérez, and Juan Kalaff, a Lebanese merchant who, at the age of fourteen, when he was working as a carpenter, made his first guitar out of the remains of an instrument he’d found on the street. A trajectory almost biblical in outline, since it was on this guitar that his son began to spread the gospel of merengue, of mangulina and of bolero from Santo Domingo to the world.

Kalaf Epalanga is an Angolan musician and writer. Best known internationally for fronting the Lisbon-based dance collective Buraka Som Sistema, he is a celebrated columnist in Angola and Portugal. Whites Can Dance Too is his acclaimed debut novel; it was first published in Portugal by Editorial Caminho (2017). Epalanga is currently based in Berlin.

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Image Credit: Felipe Avila.

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