History of Semba

  • What Is Semba? ©
  • Music Genre ©
  • Semba Dance ©

Semba (masemba in plural) is a traditional music10 genre and dance genre from Angola that became popular in the 50’s. It is the product of an evolution as it was influenced by different ethno linguistic groups from Angola11 as well as several different African rythms. In the context of dancing, the word Semba means “the body of the man that comes in contact with the body of the woman at the level of the belly button”.

In one of the national Angolan languages called Kimbundu12, Semba can also have the meaning of “Umbigada”. Umbigada describes also a dance movement when the contact between the two bodies is provoked by the man who suddenly takes the woman on the hip and brings her towards his belly button. The Umbigada movement is exactly what is still done today in the traditional dance from Angola called Rebita and other African dances.

10 Traditional music can be considered to have links with the distant past, transmitted orally from one generation to the next, as part of popular customs. This had a strong influence on popular music which grew up around the city of Luanda. The word “folklore” is often used to define this. The word is English in origin (1846), the result of joining the words “folk” (people) and “lore”(science). Folk-lore: the science of a people, the science of traditions, of a country’s popular arts. By extension (1877), folklore: traditions; songs; national and local popular legends.

As time went by, folklore took on a new meaning, one which we find in “good” dictionaries: “picturesque aspect but without importance, or without profound significance” and the colloquial expression: “it’s folklore, it’s not important”. It was the latter meaning of the word which took hold in Africa. Thus, we can deduce that the word “folklores” was used to describe certain art forms which to Europeans, were associated typically with common people, as opposed to “high culture”.


11 The largest ethno linguistic group in Angola has distinct cultural profiles as well as different political loyalties. Most numerous are the Ovimbundu, who are located in the central and southern areas and speak Umbundu. The Mbundu are concentrated in the capital, Luanda, and in the central and northern areas and speak Kimbundu. The Bakongo speak variants of the Kikongo language and also live in the north, spanning the borders with Congo and the Congo Republic. Other important groups include the Lundu, Chokwe, and Nganguela peoples, whose settlements are in the east. A small but important minority of mystic’s (Portuguese – Africans) live in larger cities, especially Luanda. See http://www.angolaembassy.hu/index.php?lang=en

Before 1975, Angola had one of the largest white minorities in Africa, many of whom had never seen Portugal, but most left at the threat of independence. See http://www.angola.org/index.php?page=culture 


12 North Mbundu, or Kimbundu, one of two Bantu languages called Mbundu (see Umbundu) is one of the most widely spoken Bantu languages in Angola, concentrated in the north-west of the country, notably in the Luanda Province, the Bengo Province, the Malanje Province and the Cuanza Norte Province. It is spoken by the Ambundu (Ambundu is the short form for Akwa Mbundu and ‘Akwa’ means ‘from’, or ‘of’, or more originally ‘originally from’ and ‘belonging to’. In Kimbundu language the particle Akwa is shortened into simply A, so that instead of Akwa Mbndu it becomes Ambundu; similarly the term Akwa Ngola becomes Angola, then Angola; Ngola was title for kings in Northern Angolan kingdom in the past, before the Portuguese invasion. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Mbundu_language

Semba is the predecessor of a variety of music styles originated from Angola of which three of the most famous are Samba (from Brazil)13, Kizomba (from Angola) and Kuduro.


During the 17th century, slavery exported the musical culture of Angola to both North and South America. The sea voyages of the seventeenth century set up an exchange between people from the Iberian peninsula and the Amerindians, which gave rise to new rhythm.14 The Angolan musicians had a common will to live and they absorbed different foreign influences which were Angolan rhythms and dances which slaves had taken away with them, later returning in a modified version and thus influencing Angolan singers who sought their identity in them.15


The cultural origins of Angola are tied to the traditions of the central Bantu people and the ancient kingdom of Kongo. Therefore, Semba music has been much influed by their tradition. Furthermore, Kazukuta and Kabetule rhythms strongly influenced Semba music as well. We can say that semba is an alteration of the Kazukuta rhythm.


It is important to understand the lyrics of Semba music. They deal with stories regarding day-to-day life, social events and activities. Often, the message of Semba was also about the freedom of Angola. This was especially relevant during the Angolan War of 1961–1975. Semba lyrics often contained messages of freedom to open the eyes of the people. Tradionally, Semba songs are sung in Kimbundu but also in other national languages such as Umbundo and Kikongo. Other than in Kizomba, Portuguese is not used in traditional Semba music production. However, some young Angolan singers started using Portuguese in modern Semba songs as well.

Barceló de Carvalho, the Angolan singer known as Bonga16, is one of the most successful Angolan artists to popularize Semba music internationally. The band Ngola Ritmos also contributed enormously to the spreading of Semba music. This band has done much to maintain our Angolan culture and identity. Other icons include Liceu Vieira Dias, Domingos Van-Dúnem, Mário da Silva Araújo, Manuel dos Passos and Nino Ndongo.

We believe that tradional music such as Semba will continue being an important part of Angolan history as it contains information about the country’s past. Music is maybe the purest of all arts which enables us to pass on the strongest and purest emotions.

13 Antonio de Assis Junior (1877-1960) “was the first president of the African National League in 1930”. He published a wonderful Kimbundu-Portuguese dictionary, which also contained proverbs. Voto Neves “used to be the treasurer of Luanda Municipal Council.” He played guitar and sang African and Portuguese songs. He could read music and even taught it. He developed his own opinions on the subject “he explained the similarity, at least in the sweet melody, between Brazilian and Angolan music, saying that music from Baia itself had African roots” “Liceu”(1919-1994) defended the same theory some years later.


14 The meeting in Brazil between the Portuguese and black people and a part of Amerindian culture with the Angolan rhythm, semba, led to samba, a controversial word. Semba and masemba are one and the same. Semba is singular. The prefix “ma” in masemba, indicates the plural. Samba is directly linked to masemba and semba. Samba is not what the Brazilians think, a piece of folklore to which they attributed this name. Samba is the infinitive of kuzamba (to pray). It was natural, as I have already said that as opposed to what Camara Cascudo claims, in those big isolated plantations with the master tucked away in his big house with his family, at night, outside in the yard, the slaves should gather around and ask God to take them back to their homeland. So they used the term semba which they confused with samba, which was to pray, beg and plead with God, in the form of ethnic dance and music, as was common in all primitive peoples. The plantation owners thought it was some kind of social activity and not a religious one. This was how a religious act came to be associated with a festive one. This is what took place. See http://www.angolaembassy.hu/index.php?p=dance#cr


15 Examples include the Tango, Samba, Blues and jazz… There was talk of Tango in Argentina as far back as 1864. In Bantu, it is written “tangu”, which in Kimbundu means “branch”. It comes from the milonga rhythm, but there are no documents to prove whether or not there was a rhythm in Angola with this name. When one hears the milonga rhythm in Argentina, we recognize a link to kaduke/semba in Angola. Milonga is the plural of Mulonga, which Cordeiro da Matta defines as: crime; mystery; offence; resentment. Assis Junior attributes it the meanings of contentions; problems; quarrels; disagreements.


16 In 1972, while in Holland, Bonga launched his first album, entitled Angola 72.
A warrant from Angola to arrest him was issued because of his anti-colonial and politically charged album. During this period he adopted the African name, Bonga kwenda, which means, “he who is ahead and in constant movement”.

In the beginning17, Semba was also called dança de roda (circle dance), lundu18, batucada19, varina and several other names especially when we talk about Semba for carnival (single dance).

Initially, Semba was a single dance in which the man danced in front of a woman. The man would then put his hand on the woman’s hips and would bring her with a sudden mouvement to him which would provoque a choc (Semba).

Moreover, also Kabetule, Kazukuta and Bungula steps where used while dancing Semba.

Today, Semba has evolved into a couple dance with large steps on a fast beat. The steps can be very acrobatic. There is a lot of room for improvisation. Semba movements are similar to Milonga steps.20

In Angola’s capital Luanda, many Semba competitions are organised in order to continue promoting the culture and to give the opportunity to young people to enjoy great moments. Afternoons called “Tarde de Semba” are frequently organised in the “Centro Cultural e Recreativos” such as, Gajajeira, Kilamba, Kubita, Agustinho Neto, Mãe Preta, Kadama, Cha de Caxinde and others, offering Semba demonstrations, competitions, a lot of social dancing and live music.



This is semba (Carnaval style, with Carnaval music and dance elements), the way “Bruxo and Bruxa” used to dance it in the 80’s.
“Bruxo and Bruxa” were two men dancing together.


The “carnaval element” is actually the “Kazukuta” rhythm pattern. When you remove the “carnal elements” you simply get “semba (social)”.


Nowadays in Angola, semba is rarely danced with Carnaval elements because our current semba music has hardly it’s Kazukata rhythm pattern.

17 Semba, popularly known as Varina, originated from the old-established families of the coast (Isle of Luanda, Samba large and small, Cacuaco, Mussulo, Barra do Kwanza …), century-long bonded to living with the sea, or with cultural groups of the same origin but who settled in muceque, and who are culturally linked to the traditions of the sea people. See MACEDO, J. Carnaval da Victoria 1985. Entre a tradiçao e a modernidade, p.37.


18 The Lundu is a dance-song with its origins in the African Bantu people. The dance spread across various regions in central Africa, Angola and Cape Verde. It became more prominent after it was brought to Brazil by Angolan slaves during the 18th century. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lundu_(dance)


19 A meeting of black people to come together to sing and dance. They made a circle and danced in this formation.


20 There are similarities between Semba and Milonga (also Tango), as Angolan slaves were brought to South America bringing along with them Angolan culture and also Angolan dance culture.

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(José N’dongala Kizombalove Methodology teachers course – KIZOMBA TEACHERS COURSE, p. 17-21)