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.
In Part IV: How hip hop found another unlikely new home and earned two young rappers enough money to record their first song.
I woke at 5 a.m. with the radio on. It was winter, cold enough to see my breath in the air. The chill seeped up through the concrete floor and through the esteira — the reed mat where I lay with my bones feeling reorganized. I had a bed, but there were nights when I preferred to sleep on the esteira. I had bought it from an old-timer who sewed it with bells attached to the loom, as if its construction were a musical composition — each placed reed sounding out a note that was bound together with other notes, so that the mat became a kind of captured song.
After washing I had a quick breakfast of bread and tea and walked outside. The schoolyard was mostly quiet. The teacher’s houses were dark, the boarding students enjoying their last hour of sleep. The only one out was Vitor, who was standing on his verandah, shirtless, splashing his face with cold water from the wash basin.
“You’ve forgotten you aren’t in Kirov anymore,” I teased. Vitor had been sent to study in the Soviet Union during the days of socialism. “For you, this weather is too warm.”
Vitor laughed in a way that made me think he had been in the market all night, drinking.
“For you Yankees it is never warm enough! Soon you will be controlling the temperature like an oven — on and off, on and off!”
His laughter followed me through the schoolyard and out the gate.
In the village dawn there were signs of activity everywhere. Animals were sensing the morning: cats slinking home, goats finding their feet, roosters barking hoarsely to one another. The people, too — mostly women and young girls on their way to the well or the machaamba. At the edge of the village the healer’s drums were working frantic rhythms, as if the illness or bad spirit wanted only sunlight to warm it into a ragged permanence.
I met Diabo and Master Fox outside the train station. They were wearing worn winter coats with the hoods up. We exchanged the cursory greetings in the cold, taking our hands out of our pockets just long enough to connect palms.
We walked toward the platform. Half-defined figures wrapped in faded kapulanas lay banked against the wall of the station’s open corridor. Asleep, or fighting sleep, these were people from the outlaying provinces who had been waiting all night for the train. They were on their way to the city to visit a sick relative or sell their harvest of tomato, cabbage, and piri-piri.
The train arrived a half hour late. A rush of people appeared out of nowhere, crowding the doorways and passing tightly-wrapped bundles through the open windows. We pushed our way through the shouting market-women and found a place to sit near the back of the car. The seats were not much more than hard wooden benches, worn smooth by years of tired bodies.
The train dragged itself through a landscape marked primarily by the past: abandoned colonial posts sunk deep in wild grass, crumbling brick factories, the burnt-out wreckage of boxcars from trains hijacked during the civil war. Whenever the train stopped, it was assailed by children selling anything they could get their hands on — vegetables, hard candy, boiled cassava, small bags of stale corn chips, bottles of river-water. They had been waiting hours for the train, sent by their parents to earn a few extra coins for the family. Many of them would return empty-handed.
Inside, the car was crowded and cold, smelling of sour wine, kerosene, and old rice sacks. Morning air swept in through the glassless windows. Sleeping bulks of people shifted into one another as the train leaned precariously into the curves. A year earlier a passenger train had derailed in these empty fields, scattering bodies and goods into the predawn. One hundred and ninety-six people died.
As we traveled, Diabo and Master Fox unfolded the pieces of paper where they had written the lyrics of their latest song. They moved their lips silently over the words, keeping time with the rhythm of the train, marking beats against the back of the seat in front of them. They consorted over certain phrases, crossed words out and searched for new rhymes. Other passengers gazed at them briefly before slipping back into sleep.
It was still early when we arrived in Maputo. We headed north from the Praça dos Trabalhadores, where hopeful day laborers sat in the angular shadows of the worker’s monument waiting for chance construction jobs. The streets were quiet, save for the passing of an occasional chapa or soft talk from open cafés. We crossed avenues whose fatigued surfaces paid ironic tribute to their namesakes: Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-tung, Lenin, Marx, Mugabe and Nyerere. Finally we came to a corrugated gate halfway up a small side street upon which the words EDSON MAURO ESTUDIOS were painted in uneven block letters.
We banged on the gate three or four times before a short man in baggy clothes appeared. He opened the door a few inches and held it there.
“Edson?” Master Fox asked after a long beat of silence.
“Eh, Edson’s not here yet,” the man said.
“Is he going to arrive soon? We have an appointment.”
“Eh,” the man said, making no movement to enter the gate. “Where you guys from again?”
“We’re Testemunhas Reais,” Master Fox said. “From Moamba.”
“Mmm.” The gatekeeper cast a suspicious, dilated eye in my direction. “I didn’t know there were mulungos living out there in the bush,” he said.
“This is our …” Diabo hesitated. “Our producer.”
The man’s face brightened. He flung the door open.
“Epah, sorry brada! I didn’t know!” We exchanged complicated handshakes as we walked into the compound. “A guy can never have too much caution, see what I’m saying?”
We all agreed for the sake of agreeing. The gatekeeper closed the door behind us. The four of us stood for a moment in the center of a small, cracked driveway that led up to a garage-looking structure. The gatekeeper sat against the wall and motioned for us to do the same.
“Edson should be here soon,” he said. He put his head in his arms and fell asleep.
Half an hour passed. We started to get hungry, so we pooled our change and sent Diabo out to find food. He returned with a greasy bag full of bread rolls and hunks of fried Nyemba beans.
About 15 minutes later, another group of kids arrived. Their clothes marked them as sophisticatedly urban and undeniably hip hop: Spotless, straight-brimmed Yankees caps worn at an angle, plaid boxers under baggy pants, untied black market Nikes. Cleary, they were not from the mato, where a moody wind blessed everything with a fine coat of dust and clothes had to be guarded relentlessly against rat gnaw.
They looked at us. We looked at them. No one spoke.
Another 10 minutes passed and one more client appeared. He carried a trumpet case and was dressed in sunglasses and a black leather jacket. After being escorted in by the gatekeeper he put his case down and began to pace back and forth across the driveway.
Finally, Edson Mauro arrived. He was in his late 20s and frankly dressed, with well-pressed jeans, a button-down shirt and square-toed shoes. He greeted us all without offering an explanation for his tardiness and unlocked the door to his studio. He ushered us in and shut the door behind us.
The interior of the studio was cramped and underlit. Little had been done to disguise its previous life as a single-car garage. Cheap plastic chairs sat atop a tattered carpet. The walls were bare except for a poster of Biggie Smalls bearing the epitaph “R.I.P. 1972-1997.” A few hanging kapulanas divided the waiting room from the studio proper, which in itself consisted of a jury-rigged table, a recycled computer, and a recording booth made of plywood, packing foam, and a cardboard door with a tiny plastic-coated window. Everything about it felt submarine and illicit.
Edson flipped a switch, turning on the computer along with a small fan that blew stale air at the hard drive. He called our attention to a green light bulb that he turned on and off.
“When this light is on, there is silence in the studio,” he said with weighty seriousness. We nodded our heads in unison.
Edson fiddled with a few more switches and did a quick check of a microphone that hung from the ceiling of the recording booth. When everything was ready, he called the man in the black leather jacket.
Diabo spoke up. “Mano, we’ve been waiting here since dawn,” he said.
“This won’t take long,” Edson replied.
Meanwhile, Leather Jacket was removing his trumpet from its case with ceremonial slowness. He held it up to the dim light and inspected it at every angle, rubbing it here and there with a handkerchief. He removed the mouthpiece from a second handkerchief and twisted it onto the instrument.
“I’m going to show you what happens when jazz and hip hop meet,” he said to us. The man stepped into the booth and shut the door behind him. Through the external speaker we could hear him empty stale spit from his valves. Edson made a few final adjustments and turned on the green light.
“Whenever you’re ready,” he called to Leather Jacket.
“I said, you can start when you’re ready.”
Edson cursed under his breath and opened the door to the recording booth.
“I said when you are ready, my man, then play that thing!”
“Oh, cool,” Leather Jacket said, shutting the door behind him. In the process he bumped the microphone and then took another five minutes to readjust it.
Finally he put his lips to the mouthpiece and blew.
Flat notes and breathy broken wails filled the studio in a dissonant jag. Edson winced. Master Fox and Diabo put their hands to their ears.
After a minute of this, Leather Jacket stuck his head out the door.
“Yeah, this is what I’m talking about,” he said. “Now loop that merda, and I’m gonna play something else over it.” He disappeared back into the booth.
“You don’t have to open the door, I can hear you through the microphone.”
Leather Jacket opened the door.
“What was that you said?” he asked.
“Alright,” he said, “what kind of sound do you want?”
“Something aggressive, but not gangsta,” Diabo said.
Edson tilted his head to one side as if listening to a barely audible thread of music. He punched a few commands into his keyboard.
“Rhythm?” He asked.
“Like this —” Diabo rapped his knuckles against the surface of the table.
With his mouse, Edson began to place beats at intervals along a line that ran across the monitor. Each beat appeared as a blue spike along the sequence.
Edson adjusted the beats until they were in synch with Diabo’s tapping.
“Now,” he said, “high or low?”
Diabo and Master Fox were lost.
“Well,” Diabo said, “It’s just that — this is our first time, see?”
Edson was impatient. “What is your song about?” he asked.
Diabo struggled to summarize the message.
“Africa … changes … hip hop … the continent. Changes.”
“I think we’ll go low,” Edson said, using his mouse to pull down one of a dozen equalizer bars that had appeared on his monitor. The blue spikes turned into valleys; the beats dropped about three octaves.
Diabo looked unhappy.
“Let’s add some extras now,” Edson said.
Before anyone could protest, Edson was punching keys and dragging files from one box to another, dropping drum riffs and synthesized clapping sounds, placing stray notes and moving them from one place to another, stopping occasionally to ask for our opinions, which he then proceeded to ignore.
“What do you think about this?” He asked as he laid a Middle-Eastern aria over an already overcongested sample.
“It’s nice,” Diabo said, “but it doesn’t really fit what our song is about.”
“I hear you,” Edson said, “and I have an idea.”
He sped up the chant until it sounded like Mickey Mouse after smoking a hookah full of weed. He looped it and dragged it into the space reserved for the chorus. By this point, the screen was full of so many spikes and valleys it was impossible to tell where one sound began and another ended.
Diabo and Fox tried in vain to bring the song back to their original vision. Master Fox suggested that a third string of hi-hat counter-beats was really not necessary. Edson made a few concessions, but in the end he made it clear that he was the master of his studio; he knew what kind of sound we were looking for, even if we did not.
When he was done, Edson told the three of us to enter the recording booth.
“It’s a little small,” Diabo pointed out. “Maybe we should do it one by one?”
Edson disagreed. “It’s better if you do it all in the same take,” he assured us. “It’s a quality thing.”
In no mood to protest, we squeezed into the booth. Master Fox elbowed Diabo in the chest; I hit my head on the overhead mic. When we were all inside, Edson shut the door. For awhile we just stood there, listening to each other breathe. I thought about making a joke involving a phone booth, but remembered there were no phone booths in Mozambique.
“Alright,” Edson said, “it’s time to rap.”
The green light came on. The microphone began to hiss. Edson cued the background music.
“Whenever you’re ready,” he said.
Five takes and 45 minutes later, we had our song.
On the train back to Moamba, we were quiet. Part of it was exhaustion; it had been a long day, and the rocking of the train was a kind of hypnosis. But it also felt like shock. We were still trying to understand what had happened, how we had surrendered so much to a stranger with a microphone and a glorified garage.
We drifted between contemplation and sleep. The sun was stuck in a long, sub-Saharan sink that seemed to last forever. Across the fields, stretched shadows of mango and cashew trees were set off by a deep umber spill.
Somewhere between one village and another, the train stalled. Passengers shifted in their seats and issued quiet, half-felt complaints to one another.
Diabo took out the unmarked CD and turned it in his hands. He removed it from its case and put it in my Discman, which he had been carrying in the pocket of his coat. His listened to it once, with a clinician’s interest, like a wine taster attempting to distinguish the smoky from the earthy. He played it again. After the fourth listen, he sighed and shrugged off the headphones.
“I don’t know,” he said to Master Fox. “It’s different, is all.”
Fox merely shook his head.
At this point, a teenager from the other seat leaned over and started to make conversation. His only interest was in the Discman; he had seen one in stores and on music videos, he said, but he had never listened to one.
“This is your way of asking if you can try it out?” Diabo asked.
The kid cracked a smile.
“Yeah,” he said. “Just one song. I’ll be careful.”
Diabo considered it.
“One song is all we have,” he said, handing over the Discman.
The kid put the headphones on and Diabo showed him where the play button was. Tinny beats mingled with the whine of the train.
“This music is too much!” the kid shouted, not realizing that the entire car could hear him. He bopped his head back and forth and slapped his hand against the seat. Dozing passengers woke and sat up to see what was going on. Something that would have been an everyday annoyance in the first world — an obnoxious kid listening to headphones on public transportation — became an event of intense interest in Mozambique. Heads turned. Other teenagers approached.
The kid sang the chorus off-key.
“’Tou a gramar, meningue,” he shouted, which meant, more or less, that he was digging the music. “What group is this?”
Diabo and Master Fox were taken aback.
“It’s us,” they said in unison.
An almost audible look came over their faces.
It’s us, I could hear them thinking. We are the ones making the music.
In that moment, they forgot everything that had happened in the studio. They loosened up and settled into an unaffected coolness.
They were, after all, MCs.
Another kid tapped Diabo on the shoulder. He smelled of the machaamba, of freshly dug onions.
“Can I listen next?” he asked.
Diabo pretended to think about it for a moment.
“Sure,” he said. “But only once. There’s a line forming.”
I looked behind me and laughed. He wasn’t kidding.
As the kids took turns listening to the song, my thoughts turned back to the questions, the setbacks, the hauntings, the hunger. Suddenly, what seemed inevitable was not the triumph of those things but the realization of that moment on the stalled train, with the sun going down and the fields darkening, and the world beyond the fields — lamp-lit, soft, and vaulted. From our windows, a single act of expression wove itself into the evening, like the sewn notes of the esteira.
Suddenly, there was one more song in the universe.
Coming next month in Part VI: A year and a half later.