Latedjou | Of Língua Livre, Colonial Remnants And The Complexities Of Not Speaking Your Parents’ Tongue
Language is a tool that enables different levels of agency, meaning, understanding. Perhaps it is the most special superpower of the human race, but also one of the strongest tools for colonisation, and as a consequence, for decolonisation. Linguistic complexities are especially important in defining the social structures, interactions and dynamics that make society, and if on the one hand they play a crucial role in creating people’s identity and in forming a sense of belonging, on the other hand, they open an abyss into the oppression and the generational trauma they conceal.
Not afraid of venturing into these conversations, on the contrary making it the very centre of her artistic practice, Latedjou is the visual artist and self-taught instrumentalist whose art insightfully delves into these themes, through delightful musical and visual journeys.
Her bubbly, curious personality, as well as thirst for creativity, chime through her voice as she talks me through the stages of her artistic development, and the creative process behind her latest project Língua Livre, which investigates the complexity of not speaking your parents’ language.
Angolan-Beninese, Latedjou speaks five languages, she sings, plays the violin, the keyboards and percussion. She didn’t study music academically, but uses her senses and intuition as compasses for composing. Funny enough, what was in retrospective a very serendipitous present from her brother, might have been the trigger of her creative impulse at the age of 17. Now based in Luanda, Latedjou went to university in France, took a year-off in Berlin and then moved to London to do her masters in Critical and Creative Analysis, as she was interested in contemporary art and how it mirrors the complexities of real life. In Berlin she finally had time to take violin lessons and focus entirely on music, while working at a contemporary art gallery.
Once Latedjou came back to Luanda, she started working on her first EP, O Baile Dos Sentidos (2017), where her signature pizzicato style really came to life. “Everything was just like a sort of puzzle: I had everything that I had learned with my teachers in Berlin, I had my own background of everything that I had taught myself, so it was just so natural to make music by myself as I knew how to do it. I started working with this multitrack recorder that only has eight tracks and that’s how I recorded the first EP. When it came out, I was really addicted to that process, so I did it again for the second album, Língua Livre.”
Having grown up in a cultural and linguistic orderly chaos that shaped both her identity and her artistic quest, language has been a recurring theme in her projects, and in Língua Livre, Latedjou follows a character in search of their mother tongue, exploring the complexity that is growing up without speaking one’s mother tongue — especially within the specific context of Angola where local languages occupy a rather secondary place compared to the official language — and examining the inherent violence of the remnants of a colonial tongue in contemporary society.
GRIOT: Your latest EP, Língua Livre, follows a character in search of their mother tongue. How many languages do you speak? What’s your relationship with them? How do they link to your subconscious and manifest in your existence?
Latedjou: I speak four and a half languages, fiveish. In order of how I learnt them: French, Portuguese, English, German and I’m learning Fon, which is one of the local languages spoken in Benin, the language that my mum speaks and that I’m learning with her consciously at an adult age.
I grew up in Luanda, but my mum would always speak Fon on the phone with her sisters. It was very natural for her to speak Fon and not French, the official language, because it’s very natural for people to speak the local language in Benin, which is not really the case here in Angola. That is related to the way the colonial regimes had a very purposeful policy of cultural assimilation and here in Angola it was very violent, even though it’s not spoken about as such. So, I didn’t grow up hearing my father speak Kikongo, his mother tongue, as much as I heard my mum speak Fon, here in a foreign country for her.
My father would speak when my grandma would come home; when they wanted to say something that they didn’t want us to understand. It felt a little bit like a secret language and then it would go back to Portuguese. We also speak French with my parents, that’s they’re lingua franca, the language in which they met and raised us. I used to refer to French as my mother tongue, but I am now very specific about the terms that I use.
In French, as in other colonial languages, « mother tongue » is used to refer to the first language that you learn to speak, which, by extension, would supposedly be the language of the mother. For many of our African countries, this term carries a whole other dimension. I feel like it could be the language of your mother or father but, more than anything, it is the language of your people. And it is even used in opposition to what the official language represents, which holds the status of something foreign, in a sense. I believe that all these realities are what shaped my own questionings about language, as I was growing up.
Portuguese does feel like a language that I learned, so I can still feel the effort a little bit sometimes. I have a distant relationship with it because I was raised speaking French, but also because of the internalised weight that comes with so-called « speaking an official language properly ». I felt this a lot here in Luanda, even more than I felt it with French, probably because I was here, living in a country where I could still sense how colonial violence had permeated the notions of language in general: the use of it, the judgement, categorisation, hierarchisation and dehumanisation that comes with it—all those elements being some of the consequences of colonial domination over culture.
I do have a quarrel with the Portuguese language in the context of colonisation, and part of that quarrel, I wanted to explore through Língua Livre. There are many questions that are tied to the use of this language, and that are delicate subjects to me: the fact that it can be used as a reference to determine where you are from, what your social, cultural background and class are, according to how you speak and the words that you use—and how all that can be used to favour or disfavour you in some way, be it in the general social context, or in the specific sphere of employment, for example. To me, all of this is indissociable from the history of a compulsory official language imposed in a context of violence, where, as a result, local peoples from different cultural backgrounds have established complex relationships with it. So, the official language is sort of your language because you need it and speak it to navigate your every-day, but it also isn’t in a way, because you don’t speak it within the confines of its imposed canon, or because it isn’t the language of your family.
There are also many things that are present in the language itself, that are cumbersome, and are a direct reflection of its history of domination and hierarchisation of peoples. I am specifically thinking about the plethora of words used here to refer to one’s skin tone, features, hair texture or accent, for example. And how all those words participate actively in the objectification and othering of bodies, taking the hegemony of whiteness as a reference for legitimate and subjective Being.
All the countries that have survived the plight of colonialism are still grappling with those issues, but I feel like we sometimes do not speak as openly about them as in the Diaspora, for example. There is perhaps the assumption that, because we inhabit spaces where the majority of us are Black, we do not have to firmly and intentionally confront the complexities of the violences and pains that white supremacy has brought and still brings, but we do. Take colourism, for example – a byproduct of racism equally rooted in the hierarchisation of bodies built to sustain the myth of white supremacy, and also a strong instrument of social othering – it is something that happens here quite frequently, but that we do not dare to look at openly, because we perhaps think that it is not a relevant conversation to have.
What are the analogies between yourself and the character whose story you retrace in the EP?
I do find myself in that character — I do like to play with characters, it was a very interesting thing that happened quite naturally in the first EP when I shot the experimental short film Ancêtre de Sable Rouge. But there is also a part of me that doesn’t find themselves in this character, because our identities are so complex, so sometimes I even reject it. My own notions of identity shifted as I was moving around.
In the album, it was important to stress the fact that the character openly declares themselves an orphan that has lost their mother tongue, because there’s also a feeling of shame that is attached to one not speaking it. So it did make some sense to expose that consciousness of having grown up without that cultural information.
You use the film medium in a very powerful way. Tell me about your filmmaking passion and your visuals. What are these places you show us? What do they represent? What’s the creative process like?
I started to explore a visual language while filming O Baile dos Sentidos. I really wanted to start exploring my senses and mostly my intuition, because it is really the compass that I use to compose. I really tried to detach myself from thinking too much or being too critical. I was here in the house in Luanda, looking at things that matched the words, the senses and I would capture them with my camera, with my own eye, that’s how I started doing the first video.
Ancêtre de Sable Rouge was mostly filmed in Benin, but I filmed some parts in Luanda and it was tied to the sounds that I was calling: I wanted to see the water, a woman; I wanted to see red, and I wanted to embrace the screen, to feel the textures, so I really played with the camera, putting it in between curtains, doing close ups etc.
I also directed a short-film called Ndozi Blues, which looks at the remnants of a colonial regulation that affects names. Here in Angola, it can oftentimes be difficult for parents to register their children with a first name in an African language, should they wish to do so. The regulation in question requires that the child’s middle name be in a latin language, so as to determine the child’s gender (as most African names don’t reveal the gender). This is hardly ever presented as a reason at the registration office—which perhaps makes it a rather informal regulation as such – but names in African languages do indeed get refused countless times. Very often, parents are forced to change the name of the child on the spot. The character in the film experiences the result of that institutional violence, as they find themselves caught up in the duality of the name that is refused, Ndozi, and the new name that is given to them as a replacement, Sonha, which is actually a Portuguese almost-translation of the word «ndozi», that in Kikongo means «dream». The making of this film also influenced my relationship to image in general, to exploring colours on screen, and to the practice of story-telling through visuals.
The video for Zola-Na-Luz-Água, the first single on Língua Livre, follows a character that experiences traumatic flashbacks every time they get in contact with water and light. Both components serve as metaphors for all those colonial elements and occurrences that are very much present in everyday life and that erupt as violent triggers to our psyche. It was both interesting and intriguing to bring those analogies to the visual form.
For Ai Tché Do Nu Mi, I was in Benin. I went on a trip to the north, it was my first time going to the North of Benin. Nature is really breathtaking there and everything that I was filming I was seeing for the very first time, so I think it translates the gaze of being in awe of what I was seeing. I actually started filming before I recorded the song, I just had the melody in my head and I knew the length of it in each shot. Ai Tché Do Nu Mi, means ‘my soul told me’. It is the literal group of words that you use to translate the word ‘intuition’ in Fon, and when I found out I thought that you could not translate the word ‘intuition’ better. I wanted to name the album ‘intuition’ at first and I was looking for words. That’s when my mum told me what intuition meant in Fon and I thought it was so beautiful, it was going to be the name of one song.
One can certainly find lots of hidden messages everywhere in your work, both visually and at a meaning level. Tell me about the EP’s cover: who is she? What is outside that window?
I almost want to say: I don’t know! This cover was made by Moufouli Bello, a Beninese visual artist. For me it was very important to have a visual artist from Benin to do the cover. She works a lot with blues, I love blue and the combination of blue and red was amazing. She came up with the idea, we talked about it and it’s almost as if we understood each other, because Língua Livre explores language and its different layers; the difference between “língua” and “linguagem” as in tongue and language, this collection of elements that we use to communicate that are not necessarily a language; the idea of welcoming voices that are not necessarily from this dimension, but that come from ancestral communication, like a grandma or great grandma trying to get in contact, guardian of secrets, knowledge, treasures and all that — those things sometimes we receive but we don’t really know where they come from. I think that the character on the cover incarnates the mystery of those voices.
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