Marrabenta: The symbol of Mozambique

Marrabenta is the national musical symbol of the South of Mozambique. It was born post WW2 in a time of shared expression and urbanization, however with the civil war of the late 70s and other more recent problems such as “the price of commodities,” Marrabenta was nearly destroyed.
In 2008 the revival of this infectious musical style began with the founding of the Marrabenta festival. Marrabenta festival director 38 year old, Paulo David “Litho” Sithoe describes marrabenta as a “renewable energy,” and positions it on a level between traditional music at the bottom and classical music at the top. “Whereas the other two levels need support to flourish, marrabenta is sustainable, like cultural tourism itself. Marrabenta is like a compass. We can use it when the direction is not clear,” he explained.
He has marketed Marrabenta as a living, malleable and an all inclusive style central to Mozambican identity and calls it “Marrabenta+”. Sithoe received his marrabenta mentorship from world renowned and leading African contemporary artist Malangatana Ngwenya (1936 – 2011) whom he met during his first years of study at the Institute of Arts and Culture in Mozambique.
Malangatana was an admirer of the power of marrabenta music to unite people, develop cultural life in Mozambique and promote Mozambique to the rest of the world. “Malangatana said marrabenta was more than music but a concentration of music, dance, art and public life,” recalled Litho. Malangatana used international reputation to build infrastructure and inspire people use the power of culture for human development and global impact,”

Marrabenta is a “renewable energy.” It is sustainable, like cultural tourism itself.

In 2000, on conclusion of his art degree, Sithoe began working as a sound engineer on Mozambique’s vibrant music scene where he met Rob Allan, aka DJ Bob at live performance of 340ML in Tofo. DJ Bob was the founder of the legendary 206 live music venue in Orange Grove and invited Sithoe to work with him on OppiKoppi and other South African events and festivals.
DJ Bob recalled, “This festival really gave Litho 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 founded the festival company, Labóratorio de Ideias (ideas laboratory), built up a warehouse of lighting, staging and event production gear and a permanent recording studio in Maputo, which became the foundation for the innovation and risk of his festival success. The inaugural Marrabenta Festival was held in 2008 at the 2000 seater amphitheatre Malangatana constructed in his home town of Matalana.
From the outset it was different from every other artistic cultural festival in the country. Marrabenta festival dared to bring the Mozambican family and the people of the world together by adding free concerts to the ticketed. From rural areas in the middle of the bush playing to a few hundred people all the way to a 35 000 strong festival on Costa do Sol beach broadcast live on local TV, the festival has sought to reach as many people as possible.
It has been staged in Chibuto and Chokwe (the labour capital before independence) in Gaza Province, in Inhambane province, in the fourth biggest city of Beira, in Boane and Xinavane (where the sugar cane comes from) and in many towns in the district of Maputo.
Sithoe explained that when traders have come in from miles away with cooler boxes on their heads, it means the word has got out and there will be a big event. He said, “The festival exists as a celebration. It is like a carnival or fiesta.”

The festival includes three unique events taking place in different locations all over the country. The central event of the Marrabenta Festival is the annual Heroes Day celebration in Marracuene. Heroes Day commemorates the 2nd of February 1895 and the famous battle of Gwaza Muthini during the Portuguese conquest of the Gaza Empire.
The remains of the Mozambican heroes who fell in the battle are buried under the dusty grounds that make up the festival centre. Two lines of trees, well over 30 meters tall today, accommodating flocks of cranes and herons, were planted in remembrance of the chiefs who died in that war.
During the day Gwaza Muthini is commemorated with traditional ngoma (dance) and isicathamiya (vocal) performers of the Shangaan people, as well as the dance of the traditional male elders from Swaziland whose ancestors fought in Gwaza Muthini. Marracuene takes its name, from "the buttocks of a woman", which the nearby hills resemble. The town situated 35km up the east coast of Maputo on the banks of the Komati River, is a historic centre for Marrabenta.
Marrabenta comes from the Portuguese word "rebentar," meaning "to break." The music was said to break the emotional barriers within the audience. This 50s music genre has been adapted to the pop genre of the younger generation in a style they call “Pandza,” taken from the Shangaan word meaning “break.” In the sweat of the night the driving sound of Marrabenta takes over in a community affair. All the dusty streets leading to the festival ground are lined with the informal traders. And when the show starts, audiences feel the music and dance. Toddlers jive on the shoulders of their parents, the young kids move enthusiastically at the front of stage and the elders sway rhythmically on their walking sticks.
The Marracuene festival includes an annual free “Marrabenta train,” bringing festino’s in from Maputo and surrounds and offering them an experience “deep in the soul of Mozambique,” as Sithoe describes, adding, “everyone in Mozambique has a family member who went to the mines.”
Tananas bass player, Mozambican Gito Baloi said it was the movement of Mozambican migrant mine workers to South Africa with their marrabenta music that founded the marabi music of Johannesburg. Guitarist Fany Mpfumo arrived in Johannesburg in 1946 and recorded with Spokes Mashiyane and Miriam Makeba and founded the Dark City Sisters.
“King of Marrabenta”, 91 year old Dilon Djindji travelled to the mines in 1954. He has since been recognised with a biography, a role in the scripted film Marabentando (2006), the 2018 lifetime award and a 90 years tribute album.
Djindji began playing guitar at the age of 12 transposing traditional songs onto the instrument and performed in the clubs and associations in Mofololo and Marracuene in 1938 at the age of 17.
The 2019 lifetime achievement was awarded to 90 year old journalist António Fonseca. He came to Maputo from Portugal in the 60s and went against the colonial current of the urban elite by offering Mozambican musicians the opportunity to record their songs and playlist them on Radio Mozambique. He recorded 20+ Marrabenta groups, ranging from Orquestra Djambu’s early works to Djindji compositions and recordings of the late Alberto Mula, who influenced marrabenta by combining it with sangoma drums.
Orquestra Djambu is sometimes credited with originating the Marrabenta sound. Their founding member 99 year old Moisés Ribeiro da Conceição presented the award to Fonseca. He was accompanied by grandson Simba, who collaborated with DJ Kenzhero on the Jozambique collaboration.
The Marrabenta festival has become a platform for happy and vibrant rhythms, the colourful and versatile characters and the positive social messaging in among new references and reinvention. Inventive musical collaborations across multiple styles both honour the senior professionals, like Xidiminguana, Mario Ntimane or Pedro Chiao (bandleader of Os Galtones).

Struan Douglas

Struan Douglas is a freelance writer and author based in South Africa.