Mozambique has witnessed more than its fair share of suffering in the quarter century since it won independence from Portugal. A truly crippling civil war, pitting the FRELIMO government against the RENAMO rebels, who were backed by the apartheid South African regime, resulted in the death of a million people, out of a population of 15 million. Although the civil war ended in 1994, Mozambique is still one of the poorest countries in the world, 70% of its population living below the poverty line. In February 2000, the country was hit with floods of Biblical proportions, leaving 700 dead, a half-million homeless, and 70% of all crops destroyed.
Mabulu’s Karimbo was produced in the difficult aftermath of the floods, and work on it was hindered by continuing heavy rains, power cuts, and the musicians’ problems in reaching the studio. It represents a real triumph, the first album to be recorded in Mozambique (other Mozambican musicians have been recorded abroad), in the country’s first private recording studio, founded by German Roland Hohberg in 1998.
Formed in 1999, Mabulu is a collaboration between the older generation of Mozambican musicians, practitioners of the marrabenta genre, and the younger generation of rappers. With the aid of the Swiss NGO Helvetas, Mabulu has toured rural areas around the capital Maputo, mixing entertainment with civic education about problems like AIDS, child prostitution, and drugs.
Marrabenta was invented in urban Mozambique during the colonial period, as musicians tried to adapt foreign musical instruments to their own conditions and materials. Would-be guitarists who couldn’t afford the real thing would make imitations out of oil tins, wood and fishing wire. Rebentar means “to break” in Portuguese, and marrabenta refers to the fact that musicians played their “guitars” with such gusto that they frequently broke the strings. During the liberation struggle, the Portuguese considered marrabenta to be a dangerous revolutionary vehicle, and they frequently shut down marrabenta halls. Marrabenta made a comeback in the country in the post-independence period, but the younger urban generation has since developed its own, indigenous form of Western-influenced oppositional music: rap.
The collaborations on Karimbo work surprisingly well. Instrumentation is sparse but effective, supplied by bass, drums and guitar, played marrabenta style. The young guitarist Zoco is particularly effective, offering up repetitious but infectious riffs that are sugary and quicksilver. The formula for most numbers is for one of the veteran marrabenta vocalists (Antonio Marcos or Lisbao Matavel) to sing, and for the vocals to be punctuated by a rap from Chiquito or a ragga rap from Mr. Arssen. Beats are mostly uptempo, lively, and upbeat. Fortunately the formula of singing punctuated by rap is not followed slavishly throughout. Two numbers that deviate from the formula are among the standouts. On “Shitaratwini”, 20-year-old female vocalist Chonyl, who sings on the chorus on other numbers, steps up to the mike as lead vocalist. Chonyl’s vocal is sweet like honey, and the fluid guitar playing provides the perfect backing. “N’dambi” was composed as a lament for the 2000 floods, and features vocals from drummer Jorgito and smooth sax playing from an unidentified instrumentalist.
Karimbo is an energetic introduction both to Mozambique’s urban marrabenta styles and to its emerging hip-hop scene. It is inspirational as well, given the conditions out of which it was created. Its honeyed, upbeat sensibilities testify to Mabulu’s abilities to reflect upon, intervene in, and ultimately transcend the harsh problems that continue to beset Mozambique.