National treasure: Musicians and performers played a tribute at the Marrabenta Festival to celebrate musician Dilon Djindji, 88, who sang two songs. Picture: SUPPLIED
National treasure: Musicians and performers played a tribute at the Marrabenta Festival to celebrate musician Dilon Djindji, 88, who sang two songs. Picture: SUPPLIED

On Heroes Day in Mozambique there are two festivals in Marracuene, Maputo province. One is the annual Gwaza Muthini, an event commemorating the heroism of people who died in the 1895 battle of Marracuene.

The remains of the Portuguese and Mozambican soldiers from the battle are buried under the dusty festival grounds. Two lines of trees, well over 30m tall nowadays, were planted in remembrance of the chiefs who died in the war. They host great flocks of cranes and herons.

Although originally observed by the Portuguese people, Heroes Day was retained by the Mozambican government after independence in 1975.

The annual celebration hosts a wide selection of ngoma (dance) and isicathamiya (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, 15km north of Maputo, takes its name, from "the buttocks of a woman", which the nearby hills resemble. The town lies on the banks of the Komati River, which runs into the sea at the attractive Macanete beach, a popular tourist destination in colonial times.

By late afternoon the Gwaza Muthini Festival ends and the annual Marrabenta Festival starts. The Marrabenta Festival always starts at the Maputo train station. Regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful stations, the precinct houses an extensive rail museum and the Kulungwana Art Gallery.

The train between Maputo and Marracuene is reserved on the evening of the festival. It stops nine times over the short distance, picking up about 1,000 young people along the way.

Marrabenta, a popular style of Mozambican dance music combining traditional Mozambican dance rhythms with Portuguese folk music, is part of Mozambique’s school curriculum. Children learn it in the last year of kindergarten.

In 2018, 30 musicians and performers performed at the festival in a tribute to musician Dilon Djindji, 88. At 9pm on the day of the festival, the "jovial character" as he is known, made his way on stage to perform two songs alongside singer Stewart Sukuma.

By midnight the streets of Marracuene were lined with people and traders selling various street foods and cold beverages.

The closing performance featured Mario Ntimane. He sent the 7,000 crowd wild as he held his guitar in one hand and used the rest of his elastic limbs to dance the "funky chicken". Toddlers jived on the shoulders of their fathers and grandmothers balanced on walking sticks while their bodies shook to the music.

Festival director Paulo "Litho" Sithoe has worked closely with Djindji since founding the Marrabenta Festival 11 years ago, building up an archive of interviews and recordings.

Sithoe says the need to celebrate this living legend of Mozambican marrabenta music is made more poignant by the recent passing of South African jazz musician Hugh Masekela.

The composition Stimela, which tells of migrant mine workers travelling to SA by train, is very relevant to Mozambicans.

"We all have a member of the family from the mines," Sithoe 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.

Mpfumo was known as the Elvis Presley of Marrabenta and is credited with expanding the style with modern influences from Johannesburg.

Renowned musicologist Hugh Tracey’s documentation of the widespread skills and diversity of Southern Africa included recordings of the dance competitions on the mine camps.

The late Tananas bass player Gito Baloi said that the soulful sounds of Marrabenta had an indelible impact in the formation of South African music. "Marabi music came from marrabenta," he said.

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 SA 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 journalist of his age who is still living in Maputo. Fonseca also recorded the late Alberto Mula who influenced marrabenta by combining it with traditional sangoma drums.

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

In 2001 at the age of 74, Djindji went international with the album Dilon. Djindji has had a movie, Marrabentando, and book made about his life.

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 in dance is now an iconic representation of Mozambique’s national musical symbol, marrabenta.

• Douglas’s accommodation in Mozambique was sponsored by Fatima’s Backpackers.