Mozambique faces the music

It was oddly fitting and postmodern that Maputo’s Fifth International Music Festival kicked off at the city’s most egregious example of colonial delirium—the Salão Nobre at the Town House, an elegant, neo-classical pastiche built in fake granite in 1947.

Forty years ago listening to an aria from Turandot in the gold-and-white hall under an opulent crystal chandelier meant a melancholic nod to the colonial metropolis. Today the tenor is followed by a lively local jazz group that gets people clapping and ululating.

The festival, says Mozambican painter and cultural icon Malangatana, “is an asset to Mozambique’s cultural symbiosis”.

From April 18 to 29 Maputo hosted opera singing, a baroque orchestra, a choir, acoustic jazz, new flamenco and outreach workshops with local singers. Eclecticism is the festival’s sign and one of its goals is to build a space and an audience for classical music.

It draws inspiration from liberation hero Samora Machel. He wanted Mozambicans to excel in all the arts and sent them abroad on art scholarships. In 1980, five years after independence, Machel sponsored a massive national festival with music from all provinces.

“I see this festival as the continuation of Samora’s legacy,” says festival organizer Moira Forjaz, who worked in the 1980 event and now lives in Lisbon. “I owe who I am today to Samora, he encouraged me to take up photography and his vision and love for culture inspire me up to this day.”

The featured choir Majescoral is Mozambique’s oldest and a legacy from Machel’s art-building policy. This year the choir worked with maestro Peter Mark and singers from the Virginia Opera in the United States. Its concert featured songs in isiZulu and Shangaan alongside Wagner, Verdi and a spirited rendition of Carmen’s Habanera.

“The exchange with foreign maestros is very useful,” says choir singer Naldo Ngoka.

Malangatana, a booming baritone, flew from Portugal where he is finishing a mural to sing with Majescoral.

Some wonder whether there is room for classical music in Maputo. Forjaz notes that every year the festival attracts a bigger crowd.

“Music has no boundaries,” says jazz musician Moreira Chonguiça, who lives in Cape Town. “This festival educates jazz audiences about classical music and vice versa.”

Jazz music was played at the Centro Franco Mocambicano, while classical music took over the Teatro Avenida. Maputo will be forever grateful that the festival renovated the Avenida’s grubby toilets, stage and dressing rooms. The Norwegian embassy donated a concert piano.

On Saturday, music spilled on to the street in the Baixa (old town) for a jam session with Moreira Chonguiça and a European jazz quartet.

Now in its fifth edition, the festival, run on enthusiasm, embassy support and a tight budget, needs to go one step further and become technically professional by ensuring quality sound and lighting; non-elitist, by providing translation into Portuguese; and more inclusive, by extending its outreach beyond cidade de cimento, the concrete city.

The star performance was the explosive, black, New Flamenco singer Concha Buika. Born in Palma de Mallorca to parents from Equatorial Guinea, Buika (35) has hit Spain and Latin America like a tropical storm.

Her latest CD, Niña de Fuego, nominated for the Latin Grammy 2008, delivers flamenco, Mexican and Spanish coplas spiced with jazz, soul and Latin rhythms via cult producer Javier Limon.

With a rasping voice and a livewire, erotic stage persona, she sings barefoot, sipping Cuban rum, about passion, sex, bisexual love, emotional treason and nervous breakdowns like a Pedro Almodovar movie script. Her delivery goes from languid to broken to furious: Lola Flores meets Betty Carter meets Tina Turner meets Amy Winehouse in a soulful performance.

Two brilliant Cuban musicians accompanied her: Fernando Favier in cajon (box drum), who played for eight years with flamenco star Joaquin Cortes, and Ivan Melon Lewis, the pianist of Almodovar’s muse Victoria Abril.

In a nod to an African muse, Buika dedicated her show to Miriam Makeba. At the end, she sang a capella in Bubi, her parents’ African language. How fitting for a festival that straddles genres to bring an untraditional singer who defies categories.

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