Voices of
Iberia in
Black Europe

African music
and religious communities
in the Iberian world

VIBE is a creative initiative that focuses on diaspora spaces within Iberia and connects stories and legacies through art, examining racial issues and intersectoral discourse.

VIBE focuses on the experiences of immigrants, who have been invisibilized by the local community, and use music and religion to recreate a collective identity. The project is also concerned with the different forms of multi/intercultural discourse practiced within the Iberian territory, including the role of language in recreating spaces of identity.

Over the last two years VIBE has hosted a series of in person and virtual meetings, with some participants forming the musical collective Yoka Kongo! The band went on to record two studio singles as well as perform in concerts across Portugal. In 2020 Yoka Kongo was selected for a residency in Lisbon. The space was used for rehearsal as well as to host seminars with religious leaders from Afro Cuban, Afro Brazilian and Central African faiths.

The disjunction of different global flows and uncertain panoramas has led to a reflection on demographic plurality and the issue of border negotiations as no longer fixed demarcations, but spaces that point to new forms of multiple belonging. 

In this scenario, the “context of faith” is of great interest, specifically those marked by the identity of an African matrix. In these spaces, the proliferation of difference configures as a strategic movement towards resistance, intervention and the “translation” of ontologies through musicality. Diversity represents a radical rhetoric for the separation of totalized cultures, which are based on the utopia of a mythical memory of a unique collective identity.

Likewise, the “terreiros” of Umbanda and Candomblé and the houses of Santería and Palo Monte established themselves in Portugal and Spain as spaces for racialized Brazilian and Cuban immigrants, immigration from the diaspora brought African-based religiosity with it.


Within these contexts, musicality ended up being the link to issues of race: ngomas, batás, rum, rumpi and lé, these are the percussive elements that are endemic to sacred spaces. The immigrant becomes not just “Brazilian” or “Cuban” but an adherent of the African religious practices that (through colonization by the Iberian world) migrated in today’s world with a double identity: they are Brazilian, they are Cuban, and above all they are black.

Churches (some Catholic but mainly Pentecostal) have played a fundamental role for Central African immigrants in Portugal (especially in Lisbon), serving as benevolent spaces. For many immigrants, making music in churches provides an even stronger sense of belonging. In many of these places, the network of “faith” goes even further by providing support for different strategies of belonging and displacement in a foreign and largely unknown “moral landscape”. Music seems to have a similar function, to act as a pillar, a support for transforming oneself in someone else’s territory.

Many of the musicians can get by without speaking Portuguese. Singing in Lingala (Bantu language, spoken by more than ten million people in Africa) has therefore become a way for social interaction, delimiting spaces and defining a sense of belonging. Another interesting point is many immigrants learned Lingala (or became fluent) in Lisbon, living in predominantly Bacongo spaces.

YOKA KONGO (which means “Listen to the Congo”) is a musical collective comprised of researchers, musicians and artists who have a connection to Central Africa, specifically the Bacongo People and their presence in the diaspora. The members include artists-immigrants  from the D.R.C. (Congo), Angola, Cuba, Brazil  and Portugal. Through music making and other performative artforms the group explores Black Atlantic musicalities based on personal experiences and training. The music is a reflection of the politics and varied paths that brought the individual members into the Iberian world.

How do we communicate with each other musically even though we don’t speak the same language? What makes one song in particular our “lingua franca?” The answer can be found in the complex historical and political connections between the two sides of the Atlantic, specifically within contexts of faith where musicality emerges as a lingua franca. What follows is a dialogue between spiritual beings, musical instruments and religious practitioners, a triangular formation where agency is the connecting principal.

Yoka Kongo brings the street into the studio

People’s first reaction to “Congolese” music, especially Soukous, is that it reminds them of Cuban Son or Merengue. This is not a coincidence but a reference to the music’s origins which can be traced to the political and social trajectories resulting from colonization and slavery on both sides of the Atlantic.


O que escutamos, hoje, neste espaço que é mais do que geográfico, é uma vasta produção musical que se inicia ainda antes das invasões de 1491 na Bacia do Rio Congo, num entrecruzar não simétrico de musicalidades e sons entre África Central, Ibéria e as Américas.  




Reproduzir vídeo

Radio X is a podcast series presenting interviews and music from residents of the Mouraria (Moorish quarter) neighborhood in Lisbon. The Mouraria is home to many African immigrants including some members of the Yoka Kongo collective and considered the most culturally diverse neighborhood in the city.

Congolese RUMBA
a brief history

During the transatlantic slave trade Havana was the maritime center for the Spanish fleet and by the end of the 16th century it was a cultural hub. This was the consequence of the constant influx of populations mainly from the Kingdom of the Kongo, where early contact with the Portuguese in 1491 had led to profound religious exchange.

At that time religion was the great vehicle for music. Its formal organization created and sustained musical groups nurturing a kind of cultural unit referred to as “Kongo,” which was connected and tuned in to both sides of the Atlantic. Centuries of forced migration resulted in musicalities that drifted and restructured themselves in rural areas known in Cuba as ingenios. The Central African sound became the foundation of what would later be called Cuban Rumba, regarded as “proto world music.”


It all began with the Cha cha cha orchestras, then the Rumba which was born on post-abolition estates in large cities, where newly freed Blacks found dwelling after migrating from sugar plantations.

This peasant music  (known in Cuba as Son) was evolving and acquiring new shapes and sounds.  Instruments were being modified: the drums previously made from local wood were now being made out of barrels that  transported supplies from the ports.


Son Cubano arrived in the Kongo by way of the Cuban bands Trio Matamoros and  Sexteto Habanero, and arrived under another name — Rumba. Although there had been continual back and forth flow into the 19th century, the  Kongo as a cultural complex only “returned” around 1930, when what musicologists refer to as the “GV series” of albums (music derived from Kongo but produced in Cuba) were “repatriated” to the continent. It was a musical return rather than a repatriation of people.  

“it seems that Cuban music became popular in the Congo not only because it retained elements of 'traditional' African musical and performative aesthetics, but also because it represented a form of urban cosmopolitanism that was something different from European”

By the 1940s and 50s, Kinshasa already had its own major labels like Opika and Longanisa. To differentiate themselves from the Cuban original, the Congolese called their musical version Congolese rumba.


At first they sang in Spanish (influenced by the Cubans), then in French (because of colonization) and eventually in Lingala which was to shape not only the musical identity from that period (Congolese is also known as rumba) but also the politics. Although the GV series and other popular music produced in Brazzaville and Kinshasa gave Congolese artists the opportunity to absorb European and American musical styles, Cuban music was by far  the most influential.

Cha cha cha, guaguancó, Cuban rumba and other variations of these sounds, were not only  heard in Kinshasa and Brazzaville, but throughout all of West Africa. The Congolese quickly recognized the intoxicating sound and began adding new elements. The most important and distinguishing feature of the new genre, was the electric guitar, an instrument that originated in Iberia, evolved in North American and would later become an indelible part of Congolese musical identity. 

The classic song “Marie Louise,”  recorded in 1948 by Wendo Kolosoy and Henri Bowane and considered the original Congolese Rumba contains intricate  guitar solos. These sounds were inspired by the traditional hand piano of the Lower Congo, the likembe – also known as mbira – a string instrument played throughout the region. This is where the  seben was born — the unique style  of playing and dancing particular to Soukous, a polyrhythm and musical system, similar to the Cuban Rumba.

Franco, Dr. Nico, Tabu Ley Rochereau and many others formed orchestras including the most famous Ok Jazz. Dr Nico (Nico Kasanda) influenced generations of Congolese guitarists. At 14 he joined  the group l’Africa Jazz with the well-known musician Joseph Kabasele – Le Grand Kallé and went on to write “Table Ronde” a popular Congolese rumba written for the Congolese liberation movement’s round table talks in Belgium.

Franco & Le O​.​K. Jazz

The musical comings and goings between Cuba and Central Africa were also deeply influenced by politics.

The Orquesta Aragón‘s unforgettable concert in the Congo in the 1970s had strong political undertones — the Cuban Revolution was aware and took advantage of the fact that musicality was another form of personal identity and representation. Mobutu Sese Seko also entrusted Congolese rumba with the great task of  post-independence nationalism. In this context, music was not only entertainment, but most importantly as in the case of this quadrilateral Cuba, Brazil, Iberia and West Africa a form of resistance.


Voices of Iberia in Black Europe is a project that aims to promote and create a space for dialogue and creative production for the Afro Iberian community in Lisbon. 


Ana Stela Cunha

Chantal James

Raphael Durão

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