Force of Latin Africa

Words of caution about Choppa: keep your distance when talking to him, lest you get knocked. The musician, singer, composer, choreographer talks with his hands, or his arms to be more precise. Ask him about his musical influences, he sings all the songs. Instruments he plays? He mimics them.

Enquire into his personal life, he waxes melancholy about the song Tira Tira that makes him break down in tears, on stage, whenever he sings it.

Why, Choppa, why? “Because when I made a decision to emigrate to South Africa, my parents could not understand I was doing it for music. I left a job as an electrician, actually I’m a qualified electrician … so there was a feeling that I was ignoring the concerns of my parents, throwing myself into harsh uncertainties, whereas I was raised on the ingisa abakulu loko babulabula (Shangaan for listen to the elders when they talk) mantra.”

But in the end, he says: “I have listened to them. The song is an emotional expression of my experiences, insights, of truths like listening to elders. So it’s a reflection on my journey, it reminds me that I am one of a few who managed to escape poverty in Mozambique. I survived it and when I sing this song I think about all the downtrodden, but it inspires me …”

Choppa was born Roberto Muluana in Maputo, Mozambique, in the early Seventies. His mother sang and his father played the trumpet. He grew up listening to marrabenta — a style of music that has influenced such latter-day jazz heroes as Jimmy Dludlu. He first came to South Africa in 1991 and returned in 1994. In 1998 he started living in South Africa “forever”.

He got his first break as a dancer with artists such as Ishmael, Junior and Reason, who later went on to be founder members of successful kwaito outfits Skeem, Boom Shaka and Trybe respectively.

Choppa’s music is an infectious fusion of streetwise grooves such as house, jungle and hip-hop with modern African stylings such as kwasa-kwasa, Afro-Latino and kwaito, coupled with deep African vocals, raps and chants in many languages, including Shangaan, Zulu, Portuguese, English, Tswana, Swahili, Macua and Nyanja. “It’s an African pot of ideas that makes my music,” he says.

His most popular Afro-Latino song to date is Magarida from his earlier album. The single sold more than 25 000 copies and has been popular with people as far away as Seychelles and Mauritius.

But, says Choppa, “a forca da minha musica esta na actuhchu no palco [the force of my music is on the stage performance]”. With his new album Omunye Nomunye, meaning “Each and everyone”, he has opted for a smaller record label than his previous release, issued by CCP Records. This time he worked with African Cream because “it allows me more involvement in other projects, unlike bigger labels”.

He’s currently appearing in shebeens around Soweto “doing more cultural shows with the dancing group Amatsheketshe”. He is working closely with two “great dancers from Dobsonville, Soweto — Theodorah and Mme”.

Having taught dancing in Yeoville for a considerable time, Choppa was recently in Cape Town doing free Aids awareness shows on the Cape Flats and contributing to a Human Rights Commission-sponsored music compilation called Rights Africa.

So what does Choppa sing about? “Mostly love, because of Portuguese and Brazilian influences. But my songs are mostly happy songs. I draw from my experiences of, for example, war, poverty, loss of hope, faith, xenophobia. I sing about exploring the human in all of us. We are only gonna make it better if we don’t destroy our world, our nature, our children. I sing about loss of compassion. I sing about …” he goes on and on.

What kind of a pop star are you, I ask? “I don’t want to be labelled into a corner. I want to stay hybrid. I am a mixture of many songs.”

And what has music done for him? Is he rich? “No, no … but I have invested my resources in performances, live shows. I believe these will pay huge dividends. And I don’t wanna measure my success through flashy cars and stuff,” he says.

The funky musician has done many collaborations with various artists. But he has deep respect for Joe Nina, with whom he has been known to compete for an audience swayed largely by kwaito. “I can’t wait for a chance to do something with him,” he enthuses.

Choppa, the artist who gave us timbira (marimbas) and the talking drums on stage, has performed as far afield as London, the Netherlands and the Seychelles, and has delighted almost the whole of Africa.

Omunye Nomunye is already a hit with the masses, especially the kwasa-kwasa inspired Dombolo. The album is co-produced by Mojalefa Thebe and Andre Abrahamse. “And this album is such a crossover that people cannot imagine it’s the same guy who did Magarida.”

Choppa is blessed, he says, to have been exposed to the old-school sounds of Babsy Mlangeni, Steve Kekana and the Soul Brothers.

He sings, he dances, he composes, raps, chants, goes to the gym, runs, lifts weights, travels … I have to stop him here.

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