Pongo Turns Her Struggles Into Pop

LISBON — At an intimate recent gig to celebrate the release of a new EP, the Angolan-Portuguese pop star Pongo’s karate-style kicks punctured the air.

She high-kicks a lot. She can fire off dozens in a single song, followed by joyous twerks that send her sequined outfits sparkling.

Pongo’s songs are a punchy, self-assured take on the musical style known as kuduro, blending frenetic African rhythms with blaring techno beats and rapping. And they are largely about overcoming the struggles she has endured as a young African woman trying to make it in Portugal’s music scene.

Pongo originally broke through in Portugal in 2008, when she was just 15, rapping on the track “Kalemba (Wegue Wegue)” with the dance music collective Buraka Som Sistema. The song has had more than 11 million views on YouTube. But then Pongo left the group and years of setbacks followed. She wasn’t sure if she would get another shot.

In an interview before the gig, Pongo, now 27, cited a famous church in Lisbon that took several centuries to complete, and with which she shares her real name, Engrácia. (Her last name is Silva).

“There is a saying,” she said, laughing, “that when something is taking a long time, you say: ‘It’s like the Church of St. Engrácia.’ That’s like my career.”

Her patience is now paying off. Pongo recently won the Music Moves Europe Talent Awards, a new prize for pop music in the European Union, which aims to celebrate “the European sound of today and tomorrow.” Her profile is growing around the Continent, particularly in France, where she is about to go on a national tour, and in Britain, where she will appear at festivals this summer.

Pongo’s two most recent releases, including “Uwa,” the EP that came out on Feb. 7, aim to do for kuduro what the Spanish pop star Rosalía has done for flamenco. Rosalía brought Spanish-language songs to a wider audience and, likewise, Pongo eschews English and raps largely in Portuguese and in Kimbundu, a language spoken in Angola.

Kuduro is an energetic trans-Atlantic clash of genres — including hip-hop, house, zouk and soca — and Pongo adds extra layers, blending them with current electronic styles and mixing in a contemporary pop flavor.

Mário Lopes, a music journalist at Público, a daily newspaper in Portugal, said in an email exchange that Pongo was “approaching kuduro as an omnivorous rhythm,” which could explain why her music was connecting abroad.

She was expanding the genre’s “sonic palette,” he added, by “incorporating other musical languages,” like “electronic sounds, or some Latin flourishes.”

Pongo was eight when her family left Angola in the 1990s during a period of civil unrest there. In Portugal, her mother worked as a cleaner, her father in construction, and the family of five lived in a single room in a hostel for a year, she said. She shared a bed with her two sisters.

When the family moved to a largely white area of northern Lisbon, they found integration difficult, Pongo said, adding that she experienced discrimination from her classmates in school. “It was difficult to have friends because they saw me as different, something strange,” she said.

At home, her strict father wouldn’t allow Pongo and her sisters to have a social life, she said. Her life took an even darker turn when, at just 12, she threw herself out of a seventh-story window.

“It was a mixture of everything: the difficulty of integration, the lack of friends to talk to and the dictatorship imposed by my father,” Pongo said.

She escaped with only a broken leg, but the experience put her on a path toward music. To reach her physiotherapist across town, Pongo would get off at the train station in Queluz, a diverse neighborhood where many African immigrants lived. It was there that she saw the kuduro dance group Denon Squad performing on the street.

When her injury healed, she began dancing with the group, then rapping. “It was through music that I realized that I wanted to live,” she said.

Her participation in Denon Squad led to her discovery by Buraka Som Sistema, and she performed with the group for two years.

But things turned sour, and there was a dispute over royalties for ‘Wegue Wegue,’ Pongo said. “After ‘Wegue’s success, they were very hard on me,” she said, adding, “I was so young that I couldn’t really understand what happened.” João Barbosa, a member of Buraka Som Sistema, said that Pongo had only ever been a guest vocalist, and that the group had decided to work with another singer, who was also a dancer.

Pongo left and took menial jobs to support her sisters after her father walked out on the family, she said.

Then, one day, she had an epiphany.

“I was cleaning a house, and I heard ‘Wegue Wegue’ on the radio,” she said. “At that moment, I felt it was time to fight” for her career.

Pongo’s reinvention as a solo artist came as other Lisbon musicians from Portuguese-speaking Africa were putting their roots front and center. The city’s scene features a unique postcolonial mesh of nationalities — Angolan, Guinean, Cape Verdean and Mozambican among them — and the music reflects that diversity.

Dino D’Santiago, whose music riffs on the traditional funaná style from Cape Verde, said in a phone interview that, until recently, many Portuguese artists had tried to replicate the sound of American or French music. Now, he added, he was bringing in “ancestral sounds” from Africa, as were artists like Pongo and the singer Mayra Andrade.

Two years ago, he added, this music would not have been played on mainstream radio in Portugal, only in nightclubs.

Andrea Miranda, 28, was in the audience for the gig celebrating the release of Pongo’s record. She was pleased to see greater visibility for Afro-Portuguese artists. “I’m an African woman, and it’s important to see myself represented onstage,” she said, adding, “African women are underestimated, and when we do something good, we need to talk about it.”

Pongo said people of all backgrounds attended her shows. “Even though I was with Buraka for a short time,” she said, “I understood that it’s not just about attracting big audiences, it’s about bringing people together, and joining communities, in order to break taboos, like racial prejudice.”

“For me, that’s the most important thing,” she said. “When you feel music, you don’t see color.”

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