Their guitars are carved from tree branches, the strings fashioned from bicycle brake cables. Their microphone used to be a hair dryer — its diaphragm is crafted from a computer chip. Their sound travels through small stereos, powered by a 12-volt car battery.
They are the John Issa Band and have made music for more than a decade but have never heard themselves play. Until last year.
The band was recorded for the first time in a studio set up in a 4×4 and powered by the sun. So were 24 other artists in northern Mozambique.
Wired for Sound is a mobile musical machine — the brainchild of Freshlyground members Simon Attwell and Julio Sigauque, and SAFM radio producer Kim Winter. It is supported by the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa, a human rights and democracy institution.
Wired for Sound’s pilot project resulted in a 17-track album, a framework to support community radio and many lessons for the people involved.
There was always more to Freshly-ground than the Waka Waka song. They have long wanted to become involved in an upliftment project but a packed schedule prevented this from happening.
It was only when lead singer Zolani Mahola took maternity leave that Attwell and Sigauque were able to dedicate time to an initiative they thought would leave a legacy.
“The concept was for a smaller group of Freshlyground members to work with musicians in a meaningful way, not just in and out,” Attwell told the Mail & Guardian.
Wired for Sound sought out community stations and partnered with them to promote local talent. The stations provided guidance to the talent in an area for the trio to record. In return, they received interviews to air, hosted a discussion with Attwell and Sigauque and would benefit from funds generated by the album, which would be used to improve their facilities.
Among the people whose songs were captured was a schoolteacher, Catandica, who would prefer to spend his earnings on instruments than on household goods. And two young girls in Pemba felt so strongly about domestic violence that they wrote a searching song about it.
Genres ranged from traditional sounds to hip-hop and recordings were done everywhere, including in a mango grove and an abandoned 1970s cinema. The album includes collaborations with Mahola and blues guitarist Albert Frost.
But the story does not have a happy ending — yet. Only 70 or so copies of the CD have been sold. Worse, Wired for Sound has learnt that creating albums is not a reliable source of funding for the under-resourced stations, many of which only have a microphone and a desk. What the stations need most is a better source of energy because a lot of their equipment is destroyed in power surges. After seeing that, Wired for Sound’s next trip, scheduled for February 2015 in Malawi, will include additional funding to equip the stations with solar-powered gear.
And the music from northern Mozambique won’t fade away. Attwell believes some of the artists they worked with have the potential to go on to bigger things.
“The John Issa Band in particular have unbelievable ingenuity and are incredibly talented musicians. I think their music could go far,” he said.
They have already gone as far as Denmark, where they were part of a cultural exchange, and showcased their handmade guitars and hair-dryer microphone.
And now they know what they sound like.
Wired for Sound’s Mozambique album can be bought from iTunes.