Big Nelo

«I was lucky to have a grandfather who I am really proud of»

\\ Text Maria Cruz
\\ Photography © PMC

Kizomba, rap, rhythm and blues... Angolan singer and songwriter, Big Nelo, or Nelo to his friends, has become a legend in Angola. Born in Namibe, one year on he left for Lubango and later to Luanda, where he grew up. But it was in Germany that he started his career, jumping on the rap bandwagon. He was one of the founders of the group SSP. In 2005 he launched his solo career and, today, he remains one of the promising faces of the Angolan music scene. He is an icon. So they say! He can look back over 25 years of music and many concerts. The album Karga was the turning point in his story, after SSP. From him childhood spent with his grandfather Mendes de Carvalho he has fond memories and some life lessons, in addition to huge gratitude. And, now, here he is in the peace of musicality, talking about himself.


Big Nelo or Emanuel de Carvalho Nguenohame?
It is a mixture of both. My name is Emanuel, but most of the people from my childhood call me Nelo, and fans Big Nelo.

Which do you prefer?
It makes no difference to me. Nelo is the most personal.

You were born in Namibe. Do you remember the time you lived there?
I was born in Namibe, by accident, because my parents were there. At the time, my late father was there and I ended up being there for a year. From there we went to Lubango, and then I ended up growing up here in Luanda. So, I do not remember anything of this time in Namibe.

You are a singer and songwriter. Where did you begin your career?
I started my career in Germany. At the time, it was the time when that fever for American Rap first appeared, and it ended up having a very great influence on me, as it was a more Western music. At the time in which I was in Germany there was the capitalist, socialist side, following the fall of the Berlin Wall. I ended up riding more of a Rap wave; I launched a group, SSP, in Angola. It lasted until 2005. Then I started my solo career.

But it turned out much better on your own. Today, you are an icon of modern national music...
So they say. That’s what happened, modesty aside. I’m almost 100% here. 25 years of success, with its ups and downs, but always present.

You’ve had hits with singers and groups: Warrant B, O2, Mess, Kalibrados, C4 Pedro... you’ve become a legend. «The legend never dies?» ...
At one point my fans gave me a name: Lenda (Legend). I ended up doing a song – A lenda nunca morre (The legend never dies). I always believe that when an artist reaches two decades he ends up revealing other parts, which makes him a little more timeless. The music ends up being heard, but people end up liking you, not only for the music but also as a person. When you’re at this stage, with a career of more than 20 years, people make your career last for many more years, because they like you and not just your music. That’s what’s happening. What makes me a legend is that people, independent of whether they like my music, like Big Nelo.

In 2014 you were given an honorary award by Rádio Nacional Angola (RNA). Do you want to talk to us about it?
It was because of my more than 20-year career. It was the culmination of the story. It was exciting. You see your work being recognised, not because you have been an artist who is behind songs, because it’s no good if you have several awards if people forget about you afterwards. What counts is the fans liking what I do and continuing to follow me. The awards are lovely, rewarding, but I have never seen awards as a goal.

Are there any that have marked you more?
Maybe early on in my career, as SSP, the awards were more captivating. It was that euphoria. After that I began to appreciate other things, not the awards exactly. During my solo career, in Angola, Portugal, Cape Verde, I’ve always seen awards as a reward and not as a goal.

Why are you called «Mister Karga»?
Because in 2009 I released an album called Karga. It is a compilation of some years of my career. I ended up being «Karga», heavyweight in person, and the music stuck forever. I mark an album, as I mark a season. I believe Karga was my greatest success, after SSP. It was the turning point.

«My grandfather was always a father for me. He was one of those people who I always looked to as an idol»

Family plays an important role for you. What was it like living with your grandfather Mendes de Carvalho?
It was always very good. I didn’t grow up with my father; I lost him when I was four. I spent a good part of my childhood and my teenage years with my grandfather. In 1985, he went to the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) as the Angolan ambassador, and I went with him and another of his grandchildren. I stayed there until 1991. My grandfather was always a father for me. He was one of those people who I always looked to as an idol.

Do you remember your childhood with him?
I remember almost everything. He was a person with many principles, strict, he did not drink; he did not smoke. I always received this education at home, that person was always the foundation of the family, a kind of ‘Soba’ (head of the tribe). He was intelligent, he was a person anyone could talk to, wise and gave a lot of advice. I learned a lot from him. Even when I was no longer living with him, in the last days of his life, whenever I had time, I would spend time with him, to talk about ideas, family, politics ...he was a library personified.

«‘Dignity is priceless’ is one of those things that is part of my day-to-day»

Was there something about him that marked you most?
What most marked me, and it has ended up one of the cornerstones to my life, was, at the time, something had happened, and he called me and said: «my grandson, life takes many turns, but there is one thing you have to keep in mind: dignity is priceless.» This part of «dignity is priceless » is one of those things that is part of my day-to-day.

Does it make you remember him?
Yes. Problems pass, but the dignity and character remain. This is priceless. There is also another thing I learned from him, two or three years before he died. He always said: «people do many things while they are alive, but only in death are they recognised, so, always think about leaving your legacy». These words often make me think about what it is I want to leave my children, my grandchildren. I was lucky to have a grandfather who I am really proud of.

And what’s Big Nelo like as a father, friend, companion...?
I try to be as attentive a father as possible. Sometimes my life doesn’t allow me to give the 100% I would like to give, but whenever I can, I give all the love and affection to my children and wife. I have a girl and three boys; I try to set them an example. The children of today are not like those of our time, when there was no Internet, etc., and this now helps being in more constant communication with them. Of course, our life is so exposed, which ultimately makes me make this family side stronger. Otherwise it would be complicated.

«My compositions have 80% of Nelo and 20% of other people»

Big Nelo and his poetry...
Yes. My way of writing has several facets. I have an autobiographical side, which turns out to be a little bit more than my essence of rap. And in terms of style it ends up being a bit self-centred. Then there’s my side that speaks of my experiences, or the experiences of other people, stories that I’ve heard. I have my religious side, which speaks of God. My compositions have 80% of Nelo and 20% of other people.

How does Big Nelo still manage to attract crowds to his concerts?
Perhaps for the musicality and for the example that I ended up making. I think people look at me as an artist who has never, throughout his career, been involved in problems. I am fortunate to be able to sing to young people, adults, children ... I am one of the few artists of my generation who can sing from the ghetto to the deepest feelings.

Has anything ridiculous ever happened at your concerts?
Everything and anything. The first impression that the artist has before a fan is that he is going to make that person remains his fan. A concert is being with people who like you. I’ve already been jumped on, had my hap ripped off, has my top ripped...he laughs.

«Angola is going through a good musical moment»

Do you feel that Angolan music, and yours in particular, is now consumed throughout the diaspora?
I think that Angolan music has ended up being a reality more present in Angola. Before it was 80% foreign music and 20% Angolan being played on the radio in Angola and this is no longer the case. Angola has evolved considerably. Before we went to Cape Verde or Portugal and would sing to the Angolan community and today this is no longer the case; we sing in concerts where the audience is 80% Portuguese and the rest are Angolans. Angola is going through a good moment.

Music is part of Angola, of its identity. What is your view of music, in your country and the world?
In the performing arts in Angola there is still much lacking. There aren’t enough concert venues. When we go to certain countries, such as Portugal, which is about 14 times smaller, they have more concert venues than Angola. I think Angola still has a way to go. It should evolve in this sense. In the world everything involves investment. If you want to make it in bigger markets, such as the US, for example, investment is huge, everything is more expensive. Talent alone isn’t enough.

You are about to celebrate your birthday. There is some mystery surrounding your age...
It’s on November 26. That’s a secret. I never say my age, so people speculate. It is best to keep it under wraps (he laughs).

So you’re not going to tell us?
The point is that at some point the wrong date appeared on Wikipedia about my age and this led to controversy because they said that I was older than Paulo Flores. So, I’ve always kept people in the dark. Ok fine, I’m somewhere in the 40-44 phase...(he laughs).