Dancing with the Diaspora

Cultural activist and festival director, 36 year old Paulo “Litho” Sithoe is playing a crucial role in the revival of Marrabenta music. During the first years of his studies at the Institute of Arts and Culture, Sithoe was exposed to the world renowned and well-travelled artist
Malangatana Ngwenya (1936-2011).

Ngwenya dedicated much of his artistic career to the development of cultural life in Mozambique and was a lover of Marrabenta music. He defined Marrabenta as a concentration of music dance, art and public life and mentored Sithoe to the level of excellence of this music. Marrabenta could play a significant role in uniting people and promoting Mozambique to the rest of the world.

Sithoe said, “Malangatana started inviting me to see everything he was doing, like building infrastructure and inspiring people to make a global impact.”

South African expertise
In 2001 Sithoe met Rob Allan, aka DJ Bob at a festival in Tofo. Allan was the founder of the legendary 206 live music venue in Orange Grove. He invited Sithoe to work with him on the OppiKoppi festival.

Allan recalls, “This festival really gave Litho (Sithoe) the chance to see what is possible. He met many people and built up reliable contacts in South Africa and started buying gear. Everything from speakers, turntables and tents were moved across the border by
any means possible, often with hilarious results. We were just "winging it" in the early days.”

Sithoe’s production company, Labóratoria de Ideias is now a reputable force in sound, lighting, staging and event production in Mozambique. By owning all their gear, they have the space to innovate and take risks with their festival, sustaining and expanding it. They have also built a permanent recording studio in Maputo.

10 years of Marrabenta festival
In 2008 the Marrabenta festival was launched with a simple heritage celebration. This was the start of a festival that has grown to include extensive touring around the country and the staging of free festivals in rural areas and developing towns. Allan recalls, “There have been years where we have taken the festival up country and inland, setting up a stage in the middle of the bush and playing to a few hundred people. There have been really special shows.”

The festival travels annually to an amphitheatre Ngwenya constructed in his home town Matalana. Sithoe and fellow students had helped complete the construction during Ngwenya’s last years. The amphitheatre is now a permanent venue seating 2000 + people.

A highlight of the annual festival is a 1000 seat Marrabenta train which travels from Maputo to Marracuene, taking the participant “deep into the soul of Mozambique,” as Sithoe describes the experience.

Local businesses have responded very positively to the touring aspects of the Marrabenta festival. In areas such as Marracuene, the facilities for the festival are provided by local business. These facilities remain for a month after the festival for the local community to

Sithoe’s innovative festival direction mixes the different ages and styles of the musicians together, ensuring the Marrabenta music is fresh and alive. Allan says, “The thing with Marrabenta is it is enjoyed by everyone, from kids to grandparents, jazz lovers, hip hop heads and rockers. It is a happy and vibrant music that speaks to the people.”

The king of Marrabenta is living legend, 88 year old Dilon Djindji. His dance moves are wild and energetic. Djindji picked up the nickname ‘Marrabenta’ in the late 40s early 50s when the dance rhythm was gaining popularity in the Maputo province. He was a dancer and always the last to leave the party. The golden age of Marrabenta continued into the late 70s, before it was nearly destroyed by the civil war.

“Marrabenta for us is almost everything,” said singer Stewart Sukuma who became popular after the war. “It is a symbol. It unites people who come to see it and dance. It tells beautiful stories about the daily lives of the people.” The Marrabenta festival has successfully revived this dying form of traditional Mozambican music.

Festival on Costa do Sol beach
The 10th annual Marrabenta festival in 2017 concluded its tour with a three day festival on the Costa do Sol beach of Maputo. This was the first time ever the festival used the public beach, which turned out to be the perfect location for showcasing the best of

With the stage overlooking the impressively clean beaches, newly built fish market and art and craft market, audiences enjoyed the water, sun, seafood, music and other activities like kite surfing, skate boarding and jumping castles along the same precinct.

Sithoe has developed good relationships with the Ministry of Tourism and Culture and the local municipality to further develop the beachfront as a permanent home for the Marrabenta festival.

Sithoe explains: “The vision is to create a live experience of the best of Mozambique, which is beautiful beaches, food and good music.”
The festival included a free day which was sponsored and broadcast live on national television. It attracted 35 000 people and brought the beaches to a standstill. Taxis lined the beautiful new beach roads until 4am. A compilation album presenting the best of these live recordings will be released on the 25th of June, Independence Day, with an allday event in Maputo.

The combination of colourful and vibrant music with the gentle and welcoming beaches of Maputo is fantastic and affordable. Allan said, “South Africans should cross the border more regularly. There is so much to see and hear in Mozambique. The art and music is not hidden in hallowed halls and auditoriums, it is on the street, loud and proud. And the vibe is generally festive and very happy. Bands are always well received in Mozambique. And a lot of Mozambican artists could do really well in South Africa.”

Heroes Day
Heroes Day brings together two festivals in the township of Marracuene. During the day the festival grounds host the annual Gaza Muthini, an event remembering the heroism of those who died in the battle of Marracuene in 1895. The remains of the Portuguese and
Mozambican soldiers from the battle are buried under the dusty grounds. Two lines of trees, well over 30 meters tall today were planted in remembrance of the chiefs who died in that war. Fittingly they accommodate great flocks of cranes and herons. Although originally observed by the Portuguese people, Heroes Day was taken over by the Mozambican after independence in 1975. The annual celebration hosts a wide selection of ngoma, (dance) and isichatamiya (vocal) performances. The link between the Shangaan and Zulu people is evident, with the difference being the Shangaan adding a touch of Calypso to their dance.

Marracuene, fifteen kilometres north of Maputo, takes its name, from “the buttocks of a woman,” which the nearby hills resemble. The town lies on the impressive Komati River which runs out into the sea at the attractive Macanete beach, a popular tourist destination
during colonial times. By late afternoon the Gaza Muthini festival transforms into the annual Marrabenta festival. The Marrabenta festival always starts at the Maputo train station. Regarded as one of most beautiful stations in the world, the precinct houses an extensive rail museum, Kulungwana art gallery and permanent exhibition of other beautiful international train stations. The station is crowned by a huge bronze dome, which has a story of its own, rumoured to have been designed by Paul Eiffel in 1910.

The train between Maputo and Marracuene is reserved on the evening of the festival. It stops nine times over the short distance, picking up one thousand youngsters along the way. Marrabenta is part of Mozambique’s school curriculum. Children learn it in the last
year of kindergarten. 30 musicians and performers played tribute to the compositions and career of Djindji. And at 9PM, the “jovial character” as he is known, Djindji, made his way on stage to perform two songs, alongside well-known singer, Stewart Sukuma. By midnight the streets of Marracuene were lined with people and traders exchanging various street-foods and cold beverages. The closing performance on the night featured Mario Ntimane. He sent the 7000 crowd wild, with guitar in one hand, and elastic limbs, dancing the “funky chicken.” Toddlers sat on the shoulders of their fathers, giving the thumbs up and grandmothers jived to the music balancing on walking sticks.

Festival director Litho Sithoe has worked closely with Djindje since founding the marrabenta festival 11 years ago, building up an archive of interviews and recordings. He explained the need to celebrate this living legend of Mozambican marrabenta music was made more poignant by the recent passing of Hugh Masekela. The composition ‘Stimela,’ which tells of migrant mine-workers travelling to South Africa on the trains, is very relevant to Mozambicans. “We all have a member of the family from the mines,” said

Djindji himself worked on the gold mines in Johannesburg from 1950 to 1954. The mines were a melting pot of various Southern African cultures. This cross-pollination of musical styles gave rise to the cultural vibrancy of places such as Sophiatown. Renowned musicologist Hugh Tracey’s documentation of the widespread skills and diversity of Southern African included recordings of the dance competitions on the mine-camps.

According to Tanana’s bass player Gito Baloi, the soulful sounds of Marrabenta, had an indelible impact in the formation of South African music. In his words: “marabi music came from marrabenta.”

Fany Mpfumo was Mozambique’s most famous guitarist. He came to Johannesburg in 1946 as a migrant miner. He recorded with Spokes Mashiyane and Miriam Makeba, and his delicate guitar work was not matched in South Africa at that time. He was a founding member of the seminal Zulu jive vocal group Dark City Sisters and brought them on tour to Lourenco Marques in 1973 when he returned home. His hit song “King of Marracuene,” challenged Djindji, with the lyrics, “He can’t beat me!”

Mpfumo was known as the Elvis Presley of Marrabenta and is credited with expanding the style with modern influences from Johannesburg. After building his first guitar from a tin can, at the age of 12, Djindji began to transpose traditional songs. In 1938, at the age of 17, he performed in clubs and associations in Mofololo and Marracuene. In 1947 he trained as a priest on Mariana Island (now Josina Machel Island), off the coast of Inhambane. According to Djindji, the term marrabenta comes from the Portuguese word ‘rebentar’
meaning ‘to break’. “The music could break the emotional barrier with the audience,” he said.

His approach to marrabenta is to “bring people together.” The lyrics of his songs talk of love, humanity and society. In the 60s he formed the band, "Star of Marracuene,” and released his hit song “Marracuene.” These and some of his other 50 compositions were recorded by Antonio Fonseca, a white journalist, of his age, still living in Maputo. Fonseca also recorded the late Alberto Mula who influenced marrabenta by combining it with the traditional sangoma drums.

“Marrabenta music has an open history and it is versatile and colourful. The style includes words, music, people and dance,” explained Sithoe.

In 2001 at the age of 74, Djindji went international with the album “Dillon.” Djindji has had a movie, “Marrabentando” and book about his life. Together with the live video of the festival, a studio album of Djindji’s compositions played by a diversity of marrabenta musicians is being prepared for release on Independence Day. It is aimed at extending his music to a new generation of listeners.

His inexhaustible energy and great agility for dance is now an iconic representation of Mozambique’s national musical symbol, Marrabenta.

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© 2018 African music, writing, philosophy and multi-media creations Struan Douglas
With special thanks to Fatima Backpackers for accomodation in Maputo and Tofo