The Haunted Song
Part I: “Hip Hop Has Arrived!”

How a white guy from Massachusetts got to know some of the best teenage rappers in Mozambique.

Click to read the Editors’ Note.

As we waited, Matola waved a cigarette through the sweaty purple air of his compound.

“In its time, this place was a true carnival. People dancing, moving until dawn! Others came from the city on the train. Drinking wine until they fell asleep in their chairs. Waking up in time to catch the morning train from the border. Can you imagine it?”

I looked around at the open compound. In the center was a raised patch of concrete that had once served as a stage. Around it was a scattering of plastic tables and empty chairs made from welded wire, looking that evening like a crowd shocked into silence. The murals painted on the walls were faded, but still spoke of movement — the green swerve of inebriation, the hang of hips in mid-beat, the melt of tropic midnights long-faded.

Yes, I thought, I can imagine it. Why is that so easy in this place? I tilted my head to look at the glittering of stars through the dark spread of a mango tree.

“I built this place in a different time,” Matola continued, speaking in Mozambique’s common language of Portuguese. “People stayed in one place. Maybe they were thinking the war wasn’t over!”

He laughed quietly at his own joke.

“Now, the whole world wants to escape. The kids go to South Africa instead of studying. They come back either crazy or criminals. And who can blame them? There is nothing for them in this village. They need something, some … I don’t know, some anything.”

At about this time, groups of teenagers started to arrive in twos and threes. They greeted each other with elaborate handshakes and self-invented names: Real Dog Simon, Razz-bone, Master Fox, Hell-Tears, Snack Crazy. The oldest one, a leader who called himself Negroid, walked to the amplifier that Matola had set up for them and spoke through the microphone.

Um, dois, tres, check it out. Yo yo, my niggas!”

The kids cheered and leaned toward the sound. A few of them began to clap in rhythm; others made beat box noises with their mouths. More kids came into the compound from the dusty street beyond. They joined in the clapping and moving. Negroid spoke over the noise.

“In first place, I want to thank my man Matola for letting us use his compound and equipment. Kanimambo!

The kids cheered, and Matola responded with a half-dismissive wave. Negroid turned the amplifier up. His next sentence filled the compound in ragged distortion, spilling over the painted walls into the village.

“Hip hop has arrived!”

The kids went crazy, slapping each other on the shoulders and whistling. Negroid handed the mic to a short kid named Snake who began to freestyle in a mixture of Portuguese and native dialect.

Matola looked across the bar at me and shrugged.

“I’m not a fan of this kind of music,” he said. “But what to do? Each generation has its own style.”

He was thoughtful for a few moments.

“And who knows?” He said. “Maybe this is that anything.”

The whole thing started a few weeks earlier, when I was visited by the Devil. He came in the form of an average-sized teenager wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and a torn visor that hung at an angle over dark brown eyes.

And he had a friend.

“I’m Diabo,” he said, politely extending his hand, “and this is my friend, Master Fox.” I received another soggy handshake.

“What can I do for you?” I asked.

“We’re here to ask a favor,” Diabo said.

The kid who called himself the Devil explained that he and Master Fox were students from the nearby Catholic-run vocational school. In their free time, they were members of a hip hop duo called Testemunhas Reais, the “True Witnesses.” They had just cut their first track, using a friend’s stereo to record their voices over a pre-existing dub. They wanted to record an original song, with beats of their own creation, and were looking for a sponsor.

What did that entail? I asked them.

They explained the various expenses that went into recording a song: Money for transportation to and from the city, where the makeshift recording studios were. The cost of laying down a beat, which varied according to demand — the more complex the rhythm and elaborate the effects, the higher the cost. The price of recording voices over this beat was additional. Finally, there was the expense of copying the completed track onto a half-dozen discs.

As I had done when other villagers asked me for financial help, I explained to them my situation — that I earned a teacher’s salary, and that my money was short. I would be glad to help them in other ways, I said, but I couldn’t be counted on to be a sponsor.

Diabo and Master Fox stood in silence, until Diabo gave a nod to his sidekick. Master Fox pulled a cassette from a plastic bag that also held his pens and notebooks.

“Please listen to our song and let us know what you think. When you want to find us, just go to the market.

“Tell them you are looking for The Devil.”

The tape lay on my bedside table for about a week until I shoved it into my radio one evening before going to bed. I let the song play through, and then listened to it again. I turned off the radio and stared into the muggy darkness.

My tenuous grasp on Portuguese combined with the slangy, rapid-fire lyrics left me understanding only half the song. It was enough, though, to know what I hadn’t heard: No calls to violence, no vacuous eulogies to money or fame. It was an appeal to aspiring rappers to sing about what mattered: Poverty and AIDS, the corruption of local administrators and police. The chorus was a question and a supplication:

Who is it that feels it

Who is it that holds it

Who is it that has it:

The courage.

In its tone and tenor the song reflected what was happening in the greater Mozambican hip hop scene. In Mozambique, rap was coming of age in a generation of tremendous energy and demand. The artists behind the music had grown up in the midst of a 16-year civil war that had claimed the lives of nearly a million Mozambicans and destroyed the stability of day-to-day life. This war took place against the backdrop of a single-party socialist state whose slogans about scientific revolution were painted on walls and buildings across the country.

In the town of Moamba, it had been a time of privation and violence. The village was periodically sacked by rebel soldiers who killed at random, burned down stores, and took what little food the village possessed. Throughout it all the villagers did what they could to live the shadow of a steady life, harvesting fields and protecting their families amidst a near-constant lack of electricity and basic commodities.

In 1990, the government quietly gave up on socialism as an official state ideology, and two years later the war exhausted itself. During the next decade, history moved quickly in Mozambique. A lasting peace coupled with the government’s willingness to accommodate the demands of the World Bank and its surrounding galaxy of development organizations made Mozambique the darling of the donor community. Aid poured in, and industries were privatized. The rapid upturn in economic growth ushered in a period of heightened optimism, mobility, corruption, and iniquity.

By the time I arrived in Moamba with the Peace Corps in December 2002, the socialist slogans had faded into sun-bleached souvenirs or been painted over by new watchwords exalting the struggle against HIV. Old bullet holes in the lobby of the Hotel Moamba bled little else but beer fumes and cigarette smoke. Like the sub-Saharan heat that pulsed off the corrugated rooftops, a kind of restless energy burned through the poverty and dust. From the city, newspapers and word of mouth carried stories of conspiracy and wild wealth, murder and fashion; they collided with rural tales of healers, war criminals, and wayward priests. Some nights the market was full of the fused throb of music from competing stalls, the smells of grilled chicken and xima, the huff of sex and alcohol. Other nights the whole village seemed deserted and dormant, felled by sickness and languor.

All over, people seemed to be testing the consequences of living for the moment in a country that suddenly had a future. Things were moving, dying, giving in or rising above.

In a world that had gone from beat-up cassettes to mp3s in a matter of months, hip hop was poised to take account of it all.

In the dry, hot months of late 2003, a new collection of 13 songs was working its way through the pirate merchants and street hawkers of Maputo, Mozambique’s capital city. In the city’s half-dozen music stores, a few officially licensed copies of the album could be bought for 300,000 Meticais, or about 15 US dollars. The cover displayed the two remaining members of a group called Gpro Fam, self-styled MCs known as Duas Caras and Cem Paus (pronounced “seng powsh”); they stood back-to-back with arms crossed, gazing dispassionately into the camera. A fake tattoo on Cem Paus’s left shoulder read “Hip-Hop Moçambicano”; it was an unambiguous introduction to the country’s first rap album.

For Gpro Fam, the road from conception to completion had not been an easy one. The group had formed in 2000 as a loose affiliation of artists whose self-proclaimed mission was to “combat the apathy of the hip hop scene in Maputo.” To counter the notion that the only rap worth listening to came from America, Gpro Fam had started out by performing in small venues and discotheques around the city. Their lyrics were funny, angry, and local, performed in a tripping progression of Portuguese, dialect, and English-based vernacular.

There had been other, better-known artists performing hip hop at the time, such as MC Roger and Mr. Arsen, but their music was often overly commercialized and contrived. At the turn of the century, the moment had passed to artists who were less interested in artifice than in essence, in fostering a community of rappers who dwelt comfortably in the sub-solo: the underground. Most of them were students with very modest resources who scribbled lyrics in the backs of school notebooks and cut beats on a friend’s outdated computer.

Over time, outside commitments, competing visions and the lack of financial payoff had taken its toll on Gpro Fam. The group began to perform less and less regularly, and the members began to drift off in search of their own projects. Duas Caras and Cem Paus had been left to wonder if their mission was attainable.

Instead of giving up, the aspiring rappers had decided invest everything they had into cutting an album. Their aim was not to create something safe and marketable but to produce “rap without compromise.” Until then, no one in Mozambique had released an album consisting exclusively of hip hop music. Insisting that hip hop wasn’t profitable, local producers had demanded that rap tracks be included almost as an afterthought on albums consisting mainly of more popular dance music such as passada and marrabenta.

Not surprisingly, the two MCs came up against resistance. After being turned away by all the major producers, Duas Caras and Cem Paus decided to take matters into their own hands. Using their own money along with loans from friends, they self-financed the production of 13 tracks. Still unable to find anyone in Maputo willing to reproduce the disc at a feasible cost, they took their songs to South Africa, where at last they found an outfit that recognized the value of their project and agreed to market the album. With help from their friend and manager Joel Prista, Gpro Fam gained permission to distribute the disc within Mozambique. After three years of effort, the album went on sale in November of 2003. It was entitled “Um Passo Em Frente” — roughly, “One Step Forward.”

Through bootleggers and black-market burners, the songs circulated outward — from streetside bars and neighborhood discos to villages outside the capital. A few tracks gained instant popularity, such as “Kanimambo Pela Força,” a funny and inappropriate song about Gpro Fam’s female admirers in which Duas Caras confesses, among other things, to having “the legs of an ostrich.” Because of this, he hasn’t seen his girlfriend naked for two years. “If you wanna make love to me,” she tells him, “turn off the light.” Other, more serious songs dealt with the verve and frustration of life on the streets of Maputo or the difficulties that students faced in overcrowded, undersupplied schools.

The most popular song was the controversial “O Pais de Marrabenta,” which was nothing less than an angry inventory of the corruption and fraud that had plagued Mozambique since the end of the civil war. Instead of “ten years of peace,” Cem Paus raps, Mozambique had lived through

Ten years of an incapable government,

Ten years of “we’ll do more” —

But false promises don’t fill stomachs.

As the song continues, his indignation deepens:

The poor stay poor,

And the rest? Xiça!


Is the word most shared amongst us.

We’ve protested so much

We’ve almost lost our voice.

But they hadn’t lost their voice. With courageous specificity, the lyrics rage against a laundry list of crimes committed by those in power: The murdering of journalists, the disappearance of public funds, the unaccountable enrichment of party hacks and drug dealers at the expense of the impoverished majority.

Mozambicans had never heard such plain-spoken, audacious criticism of the government. In spite of an independent press and relatively transparent elections, the country continued to live under a de facto one party system where open criticism of Frelimo, the ruling party, often lead to blacklisting, the loss of a job, or worse. In this respect the government was taking its cue from its colonial predecessors, who had responded to dissent by imprisonment and disappearance. “O Pais de Marrabenta” was arguably the first popular song in Mozambican pre- or post-colonial history to unabashedly criticize the existing order of things.

The government responded by trying to censor the song. The director of Radio Moçambique, the government-run broadcasting corporation, banned the song from the airwaves. There was little he could do, however, to control the anarchic freedom of Mozambique’s informal economy. The song had already been passed from hand to hand, from the underground to the general public. It had defied suppression and set a standard — like it or not, it declared, hip hop was a force to be reckoned with.

I found Diabo and Master Fox in a dusty yard at the far side of the village, rewiring an old transistor radio that Padre Adolfo had given them. It was a homework assignment for their electrician class, they told me.

“It’s also free labor for the church,” Diabo added with a smile. “They break it, we fix it.”

Diabo gave me a brief tour of his family’s compound, proudly pointing out the contributions he had made: The wiring, the reed fence, the system for harvesting rain-water that he had rigged on the roof. He introduced me to his sisters, his dog, and his mother (“Eu sou mai de Diabo,” she said with an unembarrassed smile: “I am the Devil’s mother”). After the formalities, he offered me a chair and a plate of boiled cassava. We made simple conversation about the weather before getting down to business.

“As I said before, I can’t give you the money that you need,” I told them. “What I can do is work together with you. We can organize some shows, maybe, and figure out a way to make money off of them. Or we can arrange some other kind of income-generating project.”

Without realizing it, I slipped into the lexicon of development — words that I had picked up from weeks of Peace Corps training and exposure to non-governmental organizations.

“That way, we will be building something stronger, something … sustainable. We will use local resources to help the community.”

Diabo and Master Fox were staring into their hands.

“This can be done,” I said. “We will find a way.”

Struggling to connect, I blurted out an oft-cited slogan of the old socialist regime.

A luta continua,” I said. The struggle continues.

Diabo and Fox laughed. It wasn’t the reaction I expected, but it was something. A few minutes later, we were sharing ideas and discussing possibilities.

I didn’t know it then, but somewhere among all that borrowed language was the truth of how strange and difficult our struggle would be.

Coming next month in Part II: Learning English through Eminem lyrics.

Article © 2008 by Dennis Wilson