The singer stood in a rubble-strewn courtyard in one of the hard-knock neighborhoods of Luanda, Angola’s capital, antsy as he got the performers in line for their final rehearsal before the big competition.
“United Af-ri-caaaa,” a voice hummed over a loudspeaker before a percussion-heavy beat kicked in. More than a dozen young people facing the singer, Tony do Fumo Jr., swiveled their hips and arms and stomped their feet.
The group of mostly teenagers, led by Mr. do Fumo, was preparing for its inaugural performance at Carnival, a celebration — and contest for prize money — that ushers in the Christian season of Lent. Pacing with the glare of a drill sergeant, he blew a whistle and waved an arm. The dancers froze. Another whistle and gesture, and they were back on beat, Mr. do Fumo bobbing along with them.
The son of an Angolan music legend, Mr. do Fumo grew up under the tutelage of some of the country’s most prominent musicians. He has performed across the world before live crowds and on television. But the pressure for this performance was unlike any he’d ever felt.
Once a cultural highlight that seized the streets of this port city in Africa’s southwest, Carnival in Luanda seems to barely register a blip these days. The swirl of colorful, flowing costumes, semba music and hip-shaking dances that make up the Mardi Gras-like festivities are mostly confined over three days to a quarter-mile waterfront stretch known as Marginal. Many blame the event’s decline on the distraction of life’s daily hardships and a lack of financial investment from a government stretched thin.
Enter Mr. do Fumo, 38, a semba singer who performs with an immersive passion. He is among those trying to help restore Carnival’s glory — and change what it means to participate in it.
Organizers have encouraged Angolans to form groups that not only perform in the event, but also engage in social and cultural activities year-round. That’s what Mr. do Fumo had in mind when, six years back, he started his Carnival group, União Jovens do Prenda, or the United Youth of Prenda, named for his former neighborhood in Luanda. It qualified for the competition — and the prize money awarded to the winners — for the first time this year.
And he was hoping his group would win a much-needed infusion of cash to fund activities like buying wheelchairs, feeding the hungry and providing support to help young people resist gangs.
Mr. do Fumo was born with art in his DNA; while his father sang, his mother danced. But his parents died when he was just 6, and he grew up struggling, in a rough neighborhood with relatives who had few financial resources. He has participated in Carnival since he was 8, and sees his group as a vehicle to help young people overcome difficult conditions, as he did, through culture.
“When God gives you an opportunity to get something, it’s not only for you,” Mr. do Fumo said. “What I get for being an artist, I share with the community. We all eat the same food.”
So there he was, only hours before the group was scheduled to compete on a Sunday afternoon late last month, frantically trying to make sure everything was right. He scurried around the courtyard outside his modest home in Cassequel — a two-room cement block with a corrugated tin roof — with paint flecks on his hands and an intensity on his face. His performers packed the rectangle under a punishing sun, the courtyard’s two papaya trees providing no shady relief.
So much remained unfinished. A cardboard cutout of Africa that was supposed to be painted with each nation’s flag was only half-done. Fabric still needed to be stitched for costumes, and beads needed to be glued on. Posters needed final touches. One teenager ran green and yellow fabric through a sewing machine as he sat beneath a beach umbrella bearing a picture of Angola’s president, João Lourenço.
Mr. do Fumo paced, sipping cola from a plastic bottle, barking commands and complaints.
“There is no money!” he fumed. “There is nothing else I can do!”
The government had allocated 1.3 million kwanzas for the group, but that had not yet been paid. Instead, to pay for the costumes and everything else, Mr. do Fumo had burned through 1.5 million kwanzas (nearly $3,000) of his own money, which he had been saving to buy a car. And that was barely enough.
The top hats that went with the costumes were fashioned from cardboard and covered in cheap fabric. Most of the large posters the performers would carry were hand drawn, rather than professionally printed.
“When it comes to culture, they should do more,” Mr. do Fumo said of the government.
Filipe Zau, Angola’s minister of culture and tourism, conceded that funding was lacking. The challenge, he said, was that Carnival was no longer confined to urban centers, meaning there were more groups for the government to support. He said enticing more private sponsors, planning earlier and attracting foreign visitors were all part of the government’s strategy to raise more revenue to bolster Carnival, which in Angola dates back a century when Angolans spontaneously took to the streets to celebrate — and to mock their Portuguese colonizers.
“It’s politically important, it’s culturally important, it’s socially important,” Mr. Zau said.
In an ideal world, a vibrant Carnival would help uplift struggling neighborhoods like Cassequel. Gutters and streams around the community of tightly packed bungalows are filled with trash and mucky water, and a stench to go with it. Along the craggy dirt roads, women set up wooden stands to sell fruits and vegetables. Alcohol is often the main free time activity for many young people.
Mr. do Fumo had no time to think about what might be in the future. Showtime was approaching. With the flair of a coach before the big game, he delivered some final instructions to the younger performers.
Focus on the competition, not hanging out with friends. Drink water so you don’t faint. Keep your emotions in check. Breathe.
“We are going to Marginal to bring the big prize to our community,” he roared, and the dozens of young people around him let out a big cheer before boarding the buses for the main Carnival venue.
Somehow, when the moment came to perform before the judges on the street with the temporary bleachers, all of the scattered pieces in the courtyard seemed to click. Two performers led the charge, wheeling a painted banner bearing the name Jovens do Prenda set against a desert scape. The dancers sashayed right behind. Mr. do Fumo, in all white with a colorful top hat, bounced up and down amid the rows of dancers.
When it was all done, they laughed and joked and returned to the courtyard at night, where the young performers huddled around Mr. do Fumo.
“They really surprised me,” he said, pointing out that there was not a single professional dancer among the group. “The good thing was to see the commitment from my people and see them all together, united.”
A few days later, the results were in: Jovens do Prenda placed 14th, out of 15 groups in its category. There would be no prize money this year.
But Mr. do Fumo was already moving on.
Shortly before Carnival, one of the group’s dancers had told him her house was in dire condition. After Carnival, it collapsed, Mr. do Fumo said. So he has started raising money to buy materials to build her a new house.
“Let’s go now, let’s work,” he said.
Gilberto Neto contributed reporting from Luanda.