In Part II: How a young loner began learning English through Eminem and found a new home for rap in Moamba.
In Part III: A ghost, a stereo, and how Moamba’s young hip hop community fell apart.
When I first mentioned the Ka-Pileka, the reactions were comically uniform. Whoever I was talking to would smile and nod dismissively. One by one, they would say the same thing, as if it were a line that everyone had rehearsed for just such an occasion:
“The Ka-Pileka? That place is not for us.”
The conversation would then turn back to more immediate questions, such as who had more money, Eminem or Dre.
I didn’t blame my friends for thinking that the Ka-Pileka was an unlikely place to revitalize our Friday night sessions. Even I had rarely set foot inside it. Having come to identify more with Moamba than with whatever was beyond Moamba, I too had internalized the notion that there was something about it that was fundamentally unapproachable.
The Ka-Pileka was an air-conditioned bar and restaurant with a menu offering dishes otherwise unheard-of in Moamba: Fried calamari, grilled shrimp, cheese omelets. The bar was stocked with American whisky, French wine, and a fully-functioning cappuccino machine. The waiter, an old man in a clean tuxedo, served French fries with ketchup and Coke with ice.
In the back, the dining room opened up to a courtyard shaded by a sloping overhang and surrounded by unnaturally vivid plants; beyond the verandah lay something so incongruous in the heat-heavy village as to be cruel: A swimming pool.
The whole of it stood at the edge of the dirty bus depot, wrapped in its own coolness, looking relaxed and suspicious at the same time.
Like a cat feigning sleep.
The owner and namesake of the compound, Dona Pileka, was a Mozambican of mixed ancestry. Born to a Portuguese father and an African mother, she had grown up in Moamba neither rich nor poor; her main source of income came from a plot of land outside the village where she grew vegetables and raised chickens.
After the civil war, a white man of dubious origin named Celeiro arrived in the village as part of an international de-mining team. The two came into contact, and they fell in love. Celeiro decided to stay in Mozambique, starting up his own construction company and opening a café in Maputo. Officially, he built the Ka-Pileka to attract hungry travelers along the newly-built Maputo-South Africa corridor; in practice, it became little more than an oasis for his wife and children — a place to throw occasional wedding parties and invite friends from the city. The prohibitive costs (a bottle of soda cost nearly three times the normal price) and Dona Pileka’s legendary disdain for the villagers meant that on most nights the Ka-Pileka remained empty.
On rare and unannounced evenings, however, the Ka-Pileka transformed itself into a discotheque, complete with mirror balls and strobe lighting. A DJ was summoned. Minor government officials and their mistresses arrived in state-owned Land Rovers and the dance floor filled with city-dwellers in Brazilian dresses. Moambans willing to pay a wicked price for a small glass of beer entered with trepidation and took seats in the corner. The next day, they would laugh with incredulity and tell exaggerated stories about what they had seen through all the light and leaning.
It was on one such evening when I stepped into the manufactured coolness of the Ka-Pileka, bearded and half-drunk, and came up with my crazy idea.
One day, I thought, we could be telling stories about ourselves.
“Neste mundo, não há nada de borla,” she was saying. “Nothing is free in this world. If you want something, you have to work for it. These people from Moamba, they want everything for free. It’s a mentality of dependence, you see? Thinking that some person is going to appear and hand you everything you want.”
My companions shifted uncomfortably in their seats. They had accompanied me out of some hazy feeling of obligation, after everyone else had dismissed the idea as laughable. Now, 10 minutes into the lecture, they were shooting sideways glances at me.
See? They were thinking. We told you this would happen.
The sermon continued for another five minutes. I was about to apologize for wasting Dona Pileka’s time when she got to the point:
“That’s why I think this is a great idea. Put on a show for the kids around here. Give them something to do. Charge a little entrance fee so they have a reason to earn money. As long as they buy a few drinks to make it worth my while, you can keep the ticket money. Does that sound fair?”
Diabo managed to speak through his disbelief.
“We would like to express our gratitude to the senhora,” he said, slipping into the formal grammar of deference. “You are doing a wonderful thing for us and for the youth of this community. We will not disappoint you.”
Fox shook his head in agreement.
“Well, that’s it then,” Dona Pileka said. “Come back to me once you’ve organized everything. I’ll give you the number of my DJ and you can coordinate with him.”
On our way out the door, Dona Pileka pulled me aside.
“I want you to be here controlling things when the kids have their little show,” she said. “People from this village tend to behave like monkeys. I don’t want my establishment full of monkeys.”
More difficult than the planning, the logistics, and the scheduling was getting people to believe that Dona Pileka had agreed to host a hip hop show in her holy establishment. Eventually, we stopped trying to convince everyone and focused our efforts on the preparation.
“People will believe us when they see us working,” Diabo assured me. “Then they will come to us.”
He was right. The day after Diabo and Fox posted flyers for the event on the doors of the Hotel Moamba they were approached by representatives from a half-dozen groups, asking for permission to be put in the lineup. Diabo and Fox measured each request with seriousness, insisting that any group without a prepared beat and a well-rehearsed act would be turned down; in reality, they accepted everybody, including a couple students from the vocational school who wanted to play acoustic rock and a group that specialized in “social theater.” Quickly, the idea of a strictly hip hop event morphed into something bigger.
“A what?” I asked.
“You know, a featuring. Like Testemunhas Reais featuring My Man Dennis.”
“Ah.” I said. They wanted me to rap. I explained that I had a hard enough time speaking Portuguese, much less rapping in it.
They had foreseen this.
“We want you to rap in English,” Diabo said.
“Well … what are we going to rap about?”
“Our mothers,” Diabo replied.
So over the next couple weeks the three of us got together in Fox’s yard to rehearse our new song. We tried to stay inconspicuous, but it was impossible. Passers-by stopped to marvel at two local students and a white guy sitting around in a hot, dusty lot, rapping about their respective moms.
As the date of the show grew closer, problems emerged. Some groups were complaining that Fox and Diabo had too much control over the logistics; they threatened to pull out of the show unless allotted more time. Diabo assured me that it was just posturing.
“It’s only jealousy,” he said. “They are complaining now, but they’ll show up.”
I saw his point, but there was something deeper going on, something unspoken and uncomfortable. It was the notion that Dona Pileka had agreed to the show not because of Diabo and Fox’s entrepreneurship and persistence, but because of who they were associated with — namely, a white man. In people’s minds, the decision had been racially motivated, and Diabo and Fox were simply taking advantage of an unfair situation.
The fact that money was to be made complicated all of this. Some of the groups were insisting that the proceeds from the tickets should be divided evenly among all the participants. With some groups numbering four or five members, that meant each person would walk away with just enough money to buy, say, a soda. It also meant that Diabo and Fox would have to give up on their idea of raising enough money to record a song.
After giving it some thought, Diabo and Fox came up with a solution: they would have a contest. Each group would present one or two songs. The top three groups would be awarded a prize: Not cash, but their choice of drinks from Ka-Pileka’s menu, paid for with proceeds from the ticket sales. Diabo, Dona Pileka, and I would serve as judges; the Testemunhas Reais would not be eligible for participation.
The more I thought about the proposal, the more it seemed to make sense. Fox and Diabo would quell some of the jealousy by eliminating themselves from the competition and using some of the earnings to reward the best performers. By buying drinks, they would ensure that Dona Pileka made money, and would be more likely to recognize the value of a second show. I knew that the race issue would not disappear, but I hoped that my role in judging and rewarding other acts would at least dispel the notion that only the Testemunhas were benefiting from my whiteness.
It was decided. We hung a few more posters around the village and worked out the last details with Dona Pileka. Diabo and Fox did their best to ease tensions and encourage people to participate.
But really, when the day of the show rolled around, we had no idea if anyone besides ourselves would show up.
For a long moment, no one spoke. The restaurant was empty except for myself, Diabo, Fox, Dona Pileka and the old barman. In the distance, we could hear the Saturday clamor of the market.
Finally Dona Pileka lit a cigarette, took a pull on it, and spoke in an outrush of smoke.
“Welcome to the world of business,” she said, pointing her chin at the pile of money that was stacked on the table in front of us.
Diabo and Fox nodded their heads. They were looking at more money than they had earned in their lifetimes. Even after paying for drinks, it was more than half of what they needed to record a song.
I was happy about the money, of course, but it went beyond that. The show, which had lasted an hour longer than anyone had expected, had surpassed my expectations about what the village youth were capable of. The groups had put aside their differences and shown up. The performances had been entertaining and well-rehearsed; many groups had choreographed dances to go along with their rapping, fusing traditional movements with post-modern street poetry. The songs were serious, funny, and socially conscious — kids rapped about corruption, about poverty, about being sick of sickness.
Even the non-hip hop acts did not disappoint. The acoustic rock duo, appearing in torn jeans and button-studded jackets, was loudly applauded for its grungy ballad, “Eu Quero ir a Lua”; the audience was equally impressed by the short theater performance, which, through dance, told the story of a girl who discovers that her boyfriend is cheating on her. The boyfriend apologizes and begs her to come back. The girl refuses, turns away, and smiles.
Act after act, Moamba’s younger generation made visible a creative energy that had been largely obscured beneath a veil of dust and paucity. Those who had come to watch — there were many — cheered and danced and whistled, and the performers fed off of their elation.
In the end, the top prize went to Negroid, for his song entitled “50 Village” — a reference to Moamba’s location about 50 kilometers southeast of Maputo. In the song, Negroid assumed the role of historian and prophet, chronicling in smooth verse the struggles, disunity, and eventual success of the village hip hoppers.
“I wanted the song to be a call to attention,” he said at the end of his performance. “A reminder that fighting isn’t worth it, that music is about collaboration. We live in the mato, but we can make music too.”
Thereafter Moamba had its own moniker, shared as a kind of secret by the village’s young musicians.
Over the next few months, there were three more shows at the Ka-Pileka. None of them had the newness and vibrancy of that first show, but there was always something about them that surprised me.
The shows produced lateral benefits as well. More and more young men and women were drawn to hip hop as a form of self-expression. Dona Pileka’s relationship with the village improved. Inspired by Diabo and Fox’s earnings, other students were planning activities that would turn a profit.
One evening as we were cleaning up after a show, Diabo was approached by Celeiro, who had been impressed by the way Diabo had organized the show and handled the money. Celeiro asked Diabo what he did for a living. Diabo explained that he was about to graduate from the vocational school with a proficiency in electronics.
“How would you like to work for me?” Celeiro asked.
“I said, how would you like to work for me? I have a construction company. You can work on weekends and after school; when you graduate, you can work full time.”
“Yes, senhor. When do you think I could start?”
“Tomorrow,” Celeiro said.
In a village where most people were unemployed, this was huge. Almost no one of Diabo’s age had a job. Those who did work either sold vegetables at the market or performed short-term, illegal work in South Africa. Suddenly, a kid known to his friends as The Devil had a legitimate job that would allow him to live at home and contribute to his family.
We were out the door and halfway to the market before it sank in.
“I have a job,” he said. “I’m going to work. I’m going to have a salary.” He jumped up on a crumbling bench and did a short victory dance.
“It’s great,” I said, laughing. “Just don’t forget your hip hop roots when you’re all rich and famous.”
A few weeks later, Diabo’s mother prepared a small dinner to celebrate her son’s new job. After the meal we sat around the table, sweaty and happy, our stomachs full of mboa and crushed mafura mixed with sugar and lemon.
“You know,” Diabo said, “there’s only one thing left to do.”
I had been wondering when he would bring it up.
“You guys probably have enough money to record a song,” I said. “That’s great. When do you think you’ll do it?”
Diabo and Fox looked at each other.
“Well, we were talking, and thinking that, you know …”
“Let me guess,” I said. “You want it to be a featuring.”
They smiled. Diabo’s mother offered me a third helping of food.
Coming next month in Part V: Into the recording studio.