/ 16 November 2001

At the heart of marrabenta

The goats eat while they are leashed, so you have to keep the grass growing around the goat. These were some of the most relevant words I heard in Maputo — told by Rufus, the keyboard player of popular music group Kapa Dech. And if you see the big cars, big houses and big bellies in that country, you realise those goats are eating rather well.

“They are taking everything that it is possible to take. Corruption is the biggest problem,” says Rufus.

As we sit chatting in their rehearsal room I catch sight of the Carlos Cardoso poster that hangs behind the drum kit. “Is this why this journalist was assassinated?” I ask Rufus.

“He wanted the best for Mozambique. If you criticise someone they will shut your mouth with a bullet. And there were many who died before him, like him, they just never got the same exposure.”

It’s a dangerous game in Maputo — freedom of expression is not guaranteed, which leaves cultural expression balancing rather precariously. As Hotencia Langa (head of the association of musicians and previous cultural prisoner) put it: “The musicians are the ones with the product, the power.”

Without getting political, this is the stance the music industry is wanting to take — it is time for change — a slow and subtle change — a renaissance period that grows from within, bringing hope, economy and individuality back to Mozambican music.

“There is a new generation. Musicians are getting together, Kapa Dech are travelling, Maria Matola won a gold medal. Now that activities other than war are becoming important, role models are developing. Everything is happening,” said Mozambican-born kwaito artist Choppa — from the passionate community gigs out in the poor and dusty suburbs, to the tiny, continually full rehearsal room at the back of the Association of Musicians. There are the regular hip-jiving passada bands at the Mini Golf nightclub and the fresh breed of marrabenta musicians playing Jimmy Dludlu covers at Africa Café.

And among all this activity there is a new outfit, Mabulu, with a new international sound on their album Soul Marrabenta (Lusafrica records). Theirs is a style that integrates the old and the new: the great heroes of marrabenta music Lisboa Matavel (who recently left the band due to contract wrangles) and Antonio Marces with the conscious and clever hip-hop of Chiquito. It is a style that is straddling two important audiences. Two world tours, 5 500 albums sold, a nomination for the recent Kora All Africa Music Awards and another for the upcoming BBC awards, has created awareness of the band outside of Mozambique. Within the country they’re reaching out to the commmunity, using the marrabenta to entertain and the hip-hop to educate, create awareness and initiative.

And it’s working. On a sunny summer day in the suburbs of Maputo, young kids surround an outdoor stage, jiving relentlessly alongside the childish disbalance of the old people who dance with them. The repetitive rhythms of the marrabenta music provide a splendid and authentic platform for the people to dance to. A rapper uses his lyrics to spread a powerful message of anti-prostitution through education.

So, some things are indeed happening in Maputo, but it is far from everything. There’s only one major record label doing mindlessly cheap recordings and settling dubiously close to the piracy wrangles, there’s only one major venue in Maputo doing regular gigs and add to that the fact that the musicians are all poor.

Such is the nature of a developing industry, no one expects it to be easy.

But, there’s a new musical commitment climbing out of the musical void. The musicians are taking responsibility to educate, bring forgotten generations together and just play music. It was not ironic to see Ray Phiri performing in Maputo while I was there, to see his grinding Stimela grooves bring such admiration from the young musicians on stage with him, to see his slick and spontaneous dance moves bring adoration from the audiences.

The Afro-pop music of the 1980s was critical in South Africa as performers like Phiri realised the power of music was with the people and the initiative was with the musicians. They know the importance of reclaiming their musical history and the importance of establishing a unique musical identity. Here lies the base — now we await the explosion.

Mabulu will be performing at the Jazzathon in Cape Town from January 3 to 6 2002. Book at


The Polano hotel is offering a very affordable weekend special for all South African visitors. Contact them on Tel: (09258) 1 491001/7

Information on forthcoming Mozambican events, cultural travels and attractions are available at www.afribeat.com.