A country undergoing a change
Lara Allen reports on how three exciting new releases demonstrate the resilience of the music of Mozambique
Songlines Magazine, Spring / Summer 2001
A rare feast of Mozambican music is on offer with the recent release of three albums: the lyrical, bitter-sweet Yellela by Eyuphuro; Karimbo, debut album by marrabenta-meets-hip-hop group Mabulu (and a Songlines Top of the World' choice in Issue 8); and the forthcoming Rough Guide to Marrabenta Mozambique.
However, energetic marrabenta - a style intended to express happiness - belies the reality of its making. The post-war Mozambican music scene is full of human stories - poignant tales of resilience in the struggle to make music against the odds.
The revival of Eyuphuro after a 10-year break, for instance, is largely due to the energy and commitment of lead singer Zena Bacar. A number of difficulties, including the death of Bacar's only son, resulted in the group's dissolution shortly after their highly acclaimed international release Mama Mosambiki (Real World) in 1989.
Together with songwriter Issufo Manuel, Bacar assembled some previous group members and added new talent to produce a searing, gently-upbeat celebration of life. With its fusion of local rhythms with touches of South African-style afro-jazz fusion and Congolese soukous, Eyuphuro emits the sound of international sophistication without losing their Mozambican character.
Another force behind the Eyuphuro's come-back is Roland Hohberg, who in 1998 started the first (and only) private recording studio in Mozambique. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in his native East Germany he travelled to Mozambique with video equipment and a small PA system to start a new life.
"It was a fascinating time when the war ended in 1992. l could deeply identify with this country, with its problems and its beauty." Three years later he fell in love and married. "Then the importance of Mozambique in my life changed - to a kind of destination."
Hohberg has certainly made a difference. His studio and live music promotions company have created opportunities for Mozambican artists.
Hohberg has certainly made a difference. His studio and live music promotions company have created opportunities for Mozambican artists. Outside his projects working conditions are dire: live acts are at the mercy of promoters who frequently don't pay, and if Mozambicans provide a curtain raiser for, say, a Congolese group their fees are often one percent of the international artists'.
The situation for recording artists is not much better. Local labels are in the habit of not paying royalties: Mozambican artists are persuaded to sell their rights for a flat-fee of $200-$500. Furthermore, the general profile of local music is fairly low.
One of Hohberg's front-line projects, Mabulu, actively works against these trends. With financial support from Helvetas they give free concerts in areas inhabited by people who can't afford tickets, such as flood victims. "Being this close to our audiences is very inspiring," Hohberg asserts.
Fulfilling a dual role, Mabulu address such issues as AIDS and drugs. They also present a strong message about the need for intergenerational tolerance. Mabulu means 'looking for dialogue', and the group consists of musicians of different ages with different experiences and values. The oldest member, Lisboa Matavel, made his name as a marrabenta star in the 1960s, and one of the youngest, Chiquito, is a present-day hip-hop idol in Maputo.
The merger of styles has been well received by audiences, both in Mozambique and during their European tour. Mabulu's album Karimbo was recorded during last year's floods -not easy with perpetual power cuts and a destroyed studio roof.
Deeply affected by the disaster, the group added a special track in solidarity with the thousands who lost so much. Mabulu's connection with floods seems to be continuing. At the time of our interview they were recording their second album, it was raining heavily and the power cuts were starting...