Festival reawakens the rhythm of Mozambique’s marrabenta
Paulo ‘Litho’ Sithoe dedicates his life to development of cultural life in Mozambique and loves marrabenta music, writes Struan Douglas
Cultural activist and festival director Paulo "Litho" Sithoe, 36, 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 in Mozambique, Sithoe was exposed to world-renowned artist Malangatana Ngwenya, who died in 2011.
Ngwenya had 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 a level of excellence.
He believed marrabenta could play a role in uniting people and promoting Mozambique to the rest of the world.
"Malangatana started inviting me to see everything he was doing — such as building
infrastructure and inspiring people to make a global impact," Sithoe says.
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, Johannesburg. He invited Sithoe to work with him on the Oppikoppi festival.
"This festival really gave Litho the chance to see what is possible. He met many people and built up reliable contacts in SA 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," Allan says.
Sithoe’s production company, Labóratorio 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.
In 2008 the Marrabenta Festival was launched with a simple heritage celebration. It was the start of an annual event that has grown to include extensive touring across the country and staging free festivals in rural areas and small towns.
"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
of Matalana. It is now a permanent venue seating more than 2,000 people.
A highlight of the festival is the 1,000-seater Marrabenta Train, which travels from Maputo to Marracuene, taking participants "deep into the soul of Mozambique", as Sithoe describes the experience.
Sithoe’s innovative festival direction mixes the different ages and styles of the musicians, ensuring the marrabenta music is fresh and alive.
"The thing with marrabenta is that 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," says Allan.
The king of marrabenta is living legend 89-year-old Dilon Djindji. His dance moves are wild and energetic. Djindji picked up the nickname "marrabenta" in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the dance rhythm was gaining popularity in Maputo province.
The golden age of marrabenta continued into the late 1970s, before it was nearly destroyed by the civil war.
"Marrabenta for us is almost everything," says singer Stewart Sukuma, who became popular after the war.
"Marrabenta 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 music.
The 10th annual Marrabenta Festival in 2017 concluded its tour with a three-day event on the Costa do Sol beach of Maputo. It turned out to be the perfect location for showcasing the best of Mozambique.
With the stage overlooking the impressively clean beach, newly built fish market and art and craft market, audiences enjoyed the water, sun, seafood, music and other activities such as kite surfing, skate boarding and jumping castles.
Sithoe is urging the Ministry of Tourism and Culture and
the municipality to develop
the Maputo beachfront as a permanent home for the Marrabenta Festival.
"The vision is to create a live experience of the best of Mozambique, which is beautiful beaches, food and good music," Sithoe says.
The festival included a free entry day, which was sponsored and broadcast live on national television and attracted 35,000 people. A compilation album presenting the best of these live recordings will be released on June 25, Independence Day.
Allan says South Africans should cross the border more regularly as there is 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," he says.
"Bands are always well received in Mozambique. And a lot of Mozambican artists could do really well in SA."
• Douglas’s trip to Maputo was made possible by accommodation sponsorship from Fatima’s Backpackers