Kalaf Epalanga, the poet and vocalist of the Portuguese-Angolan music group Buraka Som Sistema, shares the secrets of the Baixa neighborhood. As told to Anja Mutić.
Lisbon's downtown district of Baixa, where I live, was constructed after the 1755 earthquake that nearly flattened the city. When the area was rebuilt, it was given a clean, geometric layout—considered one of Europe’s earliest examples of urban planning—and most of its buildings were built in a new “Pombaline” style marked by arched doorways, tall windows, and shallow balconies. Many of these buildings are still standing today, making the neighborhood feel elegant and grand.
I moved to Portugal from my birthplace, Angola, back in 1995 and settled here in 1998, the year of the Lisbon Expo and perhaps the most optimistic time in Lisbon’s recent history. I was 20 and pursuing my dream of becoming a poet and musician, and I wanted to be close to the jazz scene and the electronic music movement that was blooming in the city at the time. I wanted to wander the same haunts where the Orpheu generation of writers, including the poet Fernando Pessoa, spent their days in the early 20th century. Thanks to this illustrious literary past, the squares and the cafés of Baixa were like living museums to me. They were places where I could sit with my notebook and craft poems about the city’s past, present, and future.
Baixa feels like a village where everyone knows each other. In my early days in Lisbon, I’d often stroll from Rua Augusta to Rua da Atalaia to meet my friends, and we’d eat our way through plate after plate of prawn rissoles at Matilde, our go-to spot for simple and cheap Portuguese fare, while my friends discussed the SL Benfica football team’s latest woes or the infinite possibilities of European Union grants. That was the old, romantic Baixa that opened its arms to me.
The recent tourism boom has brought a different dynamic to the neighborhood. And the economic crisis also added new kinds of businesses, as locals were forced to come up with new ways to make a living. Thanks to the inspiring creativity of Lisboetas, the area is booming with business, and chef-centric restaurants such as Topo have popped up all over. As much as I like its literary past, I love that this new life of Baixa and its village feel have blended so beautifully.