The Haunted Song
Part III: The Struggle Continues

A ghost, a stereo, and how the young hip hop community of Moamba, Mozambique, fell apart.

Previously, in Part I: How the author, a white guy from Massachusetts working for the Peace Corps, got to know some of the best teenage rappers in Mozambique.

In Part II: How a young loner began learning English through Eminem and found a new home for rap in Moamba.

See the editor’s note for a reminder about the dotted and dashed underlines.

Near the post office there was a shop that sold apples, which were something of a luxury in Moamba. They had to be imported from the highlands of South Africa’s Western Cape, where the climate was just cool enough to produce small, sweet varieties — Braeburns, Fujis, Top Reds. Their cost, and the competition they faced from decidedly tastier local fruits, kept apples on the fringe of the rural market.

Once every couple weeks or so, I would walk down to Thembe’s store and choose the best apple from the dozen or so that he kept in stock. He stored them on the bottom shelf of his refrigerated closet, and they came out cool and red and earthy. I would pay my nine contos and find a bench in the old public gardens. I ate meditatively, stepping outside the village swelter to remember a childhood spent in New England.

I was doing this when Diabo sat down next to me on the bench one evening. I explained my love of apples, how every autumn my family would go apple-picking at a nearby orchard.

“Wait a minute,” Diabo said. “I don’t know if I am understanding. You paid someone to harvest their fruit?”

I thought about this.

“Yeah, I guess it was kind of stupid,” I said.

We talked for a while about the differences between farms in America and Mozambique.

“Lots of Americans have never even seen a farm,” I explained. “They don’t really know where their food comes from.”

“This is happening here also,” Diabo said. “There are people in the city who think that tomatoes grow underground!”

We laughed about this. Diabo talked about when he was younger and his father used to take him to the family machaamba.

“As soon as I could walk — no, even before then — my father would make a naneka and carry me on his back, like a woman. Our plot was far, maybe four kilometers away. He would sing as he walked.

“When we got to the machaamba he would give me something to play with, an onion or a small potato. I would pass whole days like that, watching my father work, using as a toy something that was made to be eaten.

“It was because of my father that I chose this name, Diabo. Sometimes, when I was sitting there, I used to scream without reason. Not cry, but scream. Maybe it was the heat, or maybe I wanted someone to pay attention to me.

“‘It’s the Devil!’ my father would say. He would hold me and speak like they speak in that church — ‘Leave, Devil, leave the body of my son!’ To him it was something funny; he never went to church. He was making fun of those people.”

Diabo anticipated my next question.

“He went to South Africa, maybe 13 years ago. At first, he used to send money and visit us in December, but then … nada.

“My sister still goes to the machaamba. When I am not studying, I help her. But this year has been dry. Almost nothing is growing.”

One evening I arrived at Matola’s compound to find Negroid, Fox, Váldemar, and a few others huddled outside the gate, whispering conspiratorially in dialect.

“There is a problem,” Negroid told me. “There will be no more music at Matola’s.”

“What’s the trouble?” I asked. “Matola is a good man. I’m sure we can work something out.”

“No,” Váldemar assured me, “this is not with us. It’s not even with Matola. It is a thing of the spirits.”

Taking turns, they told me the story of the widow and her sound system.

Seven years ago, Matola was looking to replace his old, cranky cassette player with a set of amplified speakers and a stereo that played CDs. He got word of a neighbor of his — a widow whose husband had died after a sudden onset of cerebral malaria. Among other things, the widow’s husband had left behind a stereo.

Her husband had loved that radio like a friend. He had passed entire evenings listening to news on the BBC’s Portuguese language service. On the weekends, he never missed the sharp, rusty pangs of the old marrabenta masters and the half-anarchic rhythms of thembile bands broadcast by Rádio Moçambique; perhaps they brought him back to another time, helped him forget the things that he had seen as a government soldier during the civil war.

After his passing, the man’s widow didn’t have much use for the stereo; listening to it only reminded her of her husband. With the loss of his small government pension she was in need of a little extra money to supplement the income she earned selling charcoal in the market.

Matola went to see the widow. She named a price that, in Matola’s opinion, was a little high. He didn’t have a lot of money, but he wasn’t about to bargain with a woman wrapped in the black cloth of grieving; besides, he knew that buying the stereo would be a service to his neighbor. He agreed to the price and a friend helped him carry the stereo to his bar.

Matola’s music attracted customers at a time when it was hard to find an outdoor bar in Moamba with a decent sound system. With the extra money, he paid an engineering teacher from the vocational school to hook the stereo up to an amplifier he had bought from a Pakistani in Maputo. With the purchase of a second-hand microphone his compound became the prime spot for the village’s weddings and baptism parties.

Time passed. Matola’s customers came and went. As the post-war economy boomed, bars in the train station and the Hotel Moamba installed their own stereos. Matola’s compound became less of a draw. Customers still came by, but not as they had before. Most nights the stereo stayed behind the bar — issuing soft warnings, broadcast from the village radio station, about cholera prevention and the dangers of uncontrolled brush fires.

Then the local youth appeared, hungry to make music. Matola felt useful again. He smoked his Stuyvesants, told stories, and watched the kids search for that anything.

And so it went, until the radio spoke.

It had started about two weeks earlier. At first, the problems seemed normal: Static, white noise, the stereo shutting itself off for no apparent reason. Matola called his friend from the vocational school, who puttered around with the wiring but could find nothing overtly amiss. Still, he was not surprised — the near-constant wear of heat and dust tended to wreak havoc on any village appliance. Matola unplugged the stereo and gave it a rest for awhile.

That was when things got strange. The radio began to turn itself on and off at night. The dials spun on their own. Matola heard a voice coming out of the speakers — the voice of the dead owner, demanding that Matola return the stereo to his wife.

Matola didn’t know what to make of it. He discussed the matter with his sister, who lived near Swaziland and was knowledgeable about these things. She was adamant: The stereo had to be returned, as quickly as possible.

“Look at the weakness in your body,” she told him. “You can not afford to play with these things.”

And so Matola called his friend again, and they carried the stereo back to the widow, who asked no questions and offered no recompense. Matola’s compound returned to silence.

“So that’s the end of the story?” I asked.

Negroid nodded.

“What about the amplifier? We should still be able to …”

Váldemar cut me off.

“It’s a little complicated,” he said. “Matola says that the spirit, well …”

He trailed off. Negroid finished his sentence.

“The spirit didn’t like our music, see? Those nights, the spirit was telling Matola that he preferred old music. Traditional music. That’s why he wanted to go back to his wife. “

I was going to laugh, until I saw by the look on everyone’s face that, in some part of them, they believed it too.

So we had lost the most readily available outlet for our music. In the coming weeks, we tried to substitute Matola’s compound with other venues. We got permission from the local Secretary of Youth to use a room in the village’s community center, only to find it blocky and cobwebbed; a single sung note stayed in the air for eternity. We propositioned other bar-owners for the use of their stereos, insisting that it would be good for business. They declined, distrustful of the new music and the clientele that it would attract.

I suggested bringing hip hop to the streets, performing outside at the market; we could use drums and other traditional instruments as accompaniment. This suggestion earned me sour looks from the young MCs. They wanted “hard” beats, not “bush” beats — and besides, public performances would require the permission of various secretaries, chefes do bairro, and market committees, all of which would take time.

We drifted. There were disagreements about what to do. The loose affiliation of village hip hoppers, always tenuous, lost its center of gravity; kids split off and formed their own, constantly changing clans. Groups argued with each other about who was best, even though almost no one was making music.

When someone did make music, it was cause for jealousy rather than joy. One afternoon, Diabo approached me, dour and defeated. NSP, a group of kids from the high school, had pooled their money and cut a track in the city. He had heard it broadcast over the village radio.

Was it good? I asked.

He spoke as if swallowing salt. “It was good,” he said. “For them.”

In the absence of our freestyling sessions, I spent Friday evenings sitting on my verandah in the schoolyard, thinking about how a dead man with a taste for traditional music had brought village hip hop to a halt.

It wasn’t the first time I had heard such stories. Long acquainted with violence, disease, and premature death, the Mozambican landscape was crowded with spirits of every kind. These spirits expressed themselves through unexpected behavior of animals or the weather, or were channeled by the most powerful curandeiros. Taking custody of inanimate objects was one of their favorite ways to right historical wrongs.

During the civil war, soldiers on both sides had raided the train on its way into Moamba, or pillaged stores and homesteads, making off with cattle, sacks of corn-flour, furniture — whatever they could carry. Later, they were often tormented by voices emanating from these objects, reprimanding them for the crimes they had committed and demanding to be returned to their proper owners. Western anthropologists saw it as a way to re-forge links in a community that had been torn apart by war. Everyone I knew saw it as the natural way of things.

I understood what the old man in the radio was trying to accomplish, and he wasn’t alone. The living, too, were looking for ways to fend off the invasion of this “foreign” music that for them was simply the latest harbinger of cultural annihilation. Along with the failed attempt to censor Gpro Fam’s music, there had been other challenges to hip hop’s emergence. One member of parliament had called for a law limiting public airspace to the playing of “genuine” African music. Most record producers still refused to consider rap a legitimate commercial endeavor. Established practitioners of passada and afro-pop, feeling threatened, openly questioned hip hop’s place in Mozambican society.

I thought about what Váldemar had said to me when he had first approached me, notebook in hand — about words he could choose to use, or not use. I thought also about hauntings, about voices.

What it came down to, I thought, was a struggle for identity in a changing world. The forces that drove the emergence of hip hop were strong — they took advantage of uncertainty, of promise, of images of wealth and empowerment projected from a world that had everything. Backed by the lure of development, they carried with them a self-confidence that bordered on inevitability.

The spirits of tradition, however, had the advantage of incumbency. They had been born in this place and lived here forever. For centuries they had provided answers to the problems of drought, disease, death, foreign occupation, and war. They had given birth to a rhythm that had grown to adolescence in a strange land and returned, swaggering, to the home of its ancestors. But these old spirits had never left, and they weren’t about to surrender their authority to this prodigal son without a fight.

Nowhere was the growing strength of hip hop more evident than in Maputo, where the rap scene was steadily expanding. New artists like Denny OG, Simba, Flash, and Aranhaceus were experimenting with ways to combine coherent social criticism and engaging rhythms in a resource-poor environment. They were succeeding to various degrees, though none had topped the immediacy and popular appeal of Gpro Fam’s “Pais de Marrabenta.”

At the same time, established artists like MC Roger, Mister Arsen, and 360° were playing to the market while struggling to maintain their image as patriarchs of Mozambican hip hop. They ushered in the birth of commercial rap with flashy videos and cell-phone endorsements. Their music was fun, over-produced, and lyrically vacuous (“I love it when you braid your hair like that/I love it when you look at me like that/I go crazy when you dance like that.”). Their posturing and pretension was at turns annoying, discouraging, and possessive of an endearing naïveté that made it impossible to hate completely.

In Maputo, the mold for the early evolution of Mozambican hip hop was set: A thriving, if still unformed, underground community competing and intersecting with an affected commercial clique that, given the crushing poverty, could hardly be blamed for selling out. In time politicians, activists, development organizations, and corporations would realize that they, too, could profit from hip hop’s growing popularity.

In Moamba, however, the lapse continued. I no longer saw Diabo or Master Fox around the village. There were rumors that Negroid had left for the city.

The weather got colder.

One night, in the market, I met Váldemar’s mother. She invited me into her stall and offered me a glass of cathembe, a sweet mixture of red wine and Coke.

As we drank, the conversation turned naturally to her son. He was in trouble: With his constant absences and combative attitude, he was once again on the verge of failure. The only class he was doing well in was mine. If he didn’t pass the semester, he wouldn’t be allowed to return to school.

“I don’t know what to do with him,” his mother lamented. “His older brothers, they have made something out of themselves. One of them is even in the University! But Váldemar? I don’t know. He seems always to be angry.

“The other night he came home late — one o’clock, two maybe. He was drunk. He stank of tontonto. He woke me up with his noise. I told him that he wasn’t worth it, and he began to abuse me with that tongue of his.

“Can you imagine this? A son, abusing his mother? I never heard of this. He called me all kinds of things: pathetic, a puta. He said there was nothing here for him, that he couldn’t wait to be anywhere else, away from his mother and away from this village.”

We drank from our cups in silence.

“I try to speak to him, but he gives me such resistance; he blames me for his not having a father. I ask him to show me what he writes in those notebooks of his. He’s always writing, writing songs and who knows what else. I try to show interest, mas nada.

“I know that he is intelligent. It’s just that he’s bored. There’s nothing for him here.

“But what to do? This is poverty. This is life. A luta continua.”

Coming next month in Part IV: Hip hop finds an unlikely new home.

Article © 2008 by Dennis Wilson