Dancing to the Beat of History with Marrabenta in Mozambique

This post was first published on Afribuku [es], a blog on contemporary African culture

It is often said that Mozambicans start the year a marrabentar.” That's because every year, early February, the most representative festival of the country, the Festival of the Marrabenta, takes place. Wherever you go, you hear “teka, teka!”,  the expression used while dancing to marrabenta, which has a contagious rhythm that makes it difficult not to get carried away

But in Mozambique, talking about marrabenta music is also serious, because in every hypnotic beat, the country's colonial history and identity resonates.

The Festival of Marrabenta Music

This time, from 1 to 3 February, 2013, the famous Congolese composer and singer Sam Mangwana and other Mozambicans musicians Dilon Djindji, Radio Marrabenta, Xidimingwana, Orquesta Djambo o Cheny Wa Gune, performed at the 6th edition of this festival held in the city of Maputo and in the towns of Marracuene and Matalene.

As every year, a train with live music departed from Maputo and took musicians and audiences to the village of Marracuene for free. An hour and a half trip into the “Train of marrabenta,  people also joined the Gwaza Muthini celebration which coincides with the event.

Marrabenta Train. Photo by Litho Paulo David Sithoe on Facebook

Marrabenta Train. Photo by Litho Paulo David Sithoe on Facebook

Music of Resistance 

The Gwaza Muthini ceremony commemorates the famous battle of Marracuene which took place on February 2, 1895. In this battle, the warriors of the Gaza Empire, under the command of Ngumgunhane, resisted the Portuguese colonial army.

The men of Ngumgunhane lost the battle and this was the beginning of the end of the Empire of Gaza. In the past, a hippopotamus was hunted and its meat was distributed among the population to commemorate the event. Today, hippopotamus meat has been replaced by goat meat which is often enjoyed with a local moonshine called “canhu” – consumed while dancing to the sound of the marrabenta.

The history and evolution of the marrabenta was not smooth. It emerged in the south of Mozambique at the end of the 1930s, but it wasn't until the 1960s that it became more popular. Multiracial and multicultural policies within the Portuguese colonies in Africa, facilitated its expansion in Mozambique and in its metropolis. The arrival of the first gramophones from South Africa and the emergence of local music broadcasts also contributed to its diffusion.

El legendario Dilon Djindji durante su actuación en el Festival de la Marrabenta. Foto afribuku.

The legendary Dilon Djindji during his performance at the I Festival of the Marrabenta. Photo Sandra Quiroz | afribuku.

Music of Struggle

The Portuguese regime in Mozambique demanded that they sing and dance only Portuguese music during most of the colonial period. To defend their cultural identity, various organisations were born, such as the African Association (AA) and the associative Center of Blacks from the Province of Mozambique (CANPM), which ended up playing a fundamental role in the promotion of Mozambican culture. In this way, marrabenta became a music of struggle whose themes are inspired by the experiences of everyday life, love, social criticism and important events that took place in Mozambique.

Marrabenta en la Asociación Africana (AA). Foto del archivo personal de Elarne y Fredo Cariano.

Marrabenta at the African African Association (AA). Photo from Elarne and Fredo Cariano personal archive.

Evolution of Marrabenta 

This rhythm was first played with homemade four-string guitars made from empty cans and pieces of wood. The mixture of the magikay and zukuta rhythms from the South of the country and the assimilation of western rhythms such as the American and South African black music coming to the former Lourenço Marques (today Maputo), enriched this new genre. It had no name until 1930 but finally adopted the name of the marrabenta.

Some authors claim that the term is derived from the Portuguese verb “rebentar” which means break, in this case “break the strings” by the force when they played the guitar; other authors argue that it comes from the idea of “dance until you break” because of the energy required when it is danced, as considered the Mozambican marrabenta musician Dilon Djindji. But for a large majority the marrabenta represents the cultural expression of a people who in the words of the ethnomusicologist Luka Mucavel “it is a product of society, experiences and coexistence between various Mozambicans ethnic groups with influence from outside”.

Sam Mangwana from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, (formerly Zaire, when he was born) came to the festival for the first time this year.

Marrabenta's Festival, 2013. Poster shared on afribuku.

Marrabenta's Festival, 2013. Poster shared on afribuku.

His father was Zimbabwean and his mother was Angolan, and he grew up listening to Cuban, French, Spanish, Italian and American music. He is considered one of the main singers and promoters of the Congolese rumba and his artistic production is based on sounds from Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde and Congo. During the 1980s and 90s, Sam popularized the marrabenta themes, “Vamos para o campo (Marracuene)”, “Tio António” or “Moçambique Oyé” which are now considered classics.

It's been five years since the first edition of the Festival of the Marrabenta, thanks to the initiative of Litho Sithoe. And five years later, the festival continues through the determination and perseverance of its organizer. On February 3 the festival ended with a concert at the Cultural Center of the town of Matalane. This day is celebrated the “Day of the Mozambicans Heroes”, a national holiday that commemorates the lives of the fallen soldiers who fought bravely for the country's independence in 1975. The finishing touch to end a weekend breathing, living and feeling the marrabenta.

No one can predict the future of the marrabenta nor can they decipher how the style will evolve in modern times, if it will take paths towards more commercial sound. But what is clear is that in this 6th edition, entertainment was guaranteed.


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