African Heartbeats
by Eero Koivistoinen

Recording Timbila

Venacio Mbande Ensemble
Venacio Mbande Ensemble                          Joao Carlos Schwalbach©2006

In 2000, we were finally able to make our timbila recordings. The timbila has resonators made of a fruit shell, with a hole drilled in it. The hole is then covered with a membrane, which gives the timbila its buzzing sound and lengthens the sound remarkably.

The first recording was made in the field. We recorded a 28-piece ensemble of the most renowned timbila masters. Earlier that year, a catastrophic flood had swept road connections away and we had had to put off the recording. When traveling to the Zavala region some 300 km north of Maputo, we could still see traces of the floods. We also saw a camp of tents for those who had lost their homes.

There are no phones or electricity where Venancio Mbande lives. Every negotiation had to take place on the spot; the vocalist David Macuacua of the Ghorwane band had helped us with that. We had three motor vehicles heading for our destination. One of them was the recording van with its engineers, a 24-track digital recording system and plenty of microphones. The van had been rented at SABC in South Africa. We also had a generator truck which would provide us with electricity. The nearest place with electricity was the town of Quissico where a generator provided us with uneven flows of current between 6pm and 11pm. We set out early in the morning as traveling in the dark may be dangerous. Just about anything can be found on the roads: cars parked in amazing places, wild animals, even robbers sometimes.

When the orchestra started playing under a big tree, the precision and skill of the players made a strong impression on me. The ensemble was well trained and every player knew exactly what he was doing. Finally I could relax - there was no fear of rain; the wind forced us to make the recording twice, though. The latter session was at dawn. It is quite customary. The people in the countryside live with the sun and get up with it.

The orchestra had 16 timbilas of different sizes and a few rattle players and a group of dancers with symbolic shields and spears. The dancers also sing and recite in chorus. It is not an easy task to record the ever moving performers. The well-known ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey studied and recorded this music in the 1940s and wrote an excellent book called Chopi People, Their Music, Poetry and Instruments. The book has become a rarity and is hard to find today.

On the same journey we also recorded Eduardo Durao's Timbila Ensemble in a movie theatre, the Cine Africa, in Maputo. It took us two evenings and nights. In a couple of songs I and the Finnish keyboard player Seppo Kantonen played together with them. Venancio Mbande represents the pure tradition whereas Eduardo Durao experiments also fusion with jazz musicians.

Collecting Folklore

Tufo Singers
Tufo Singers                                                         Eero Koivistoinen©2006

At 6.30am on 5 October 2006, I am onboard a flight to Nampula in the northern part of the country. The plane is full and there is no room for my saxophone in the cabin. It is a musician's nightmare to let the instrument go with the rest of the cargo; the fragile instrument is vulnerable and sometimes there can be unpleasant surprises. From Nampula we drive to the island of Ilha de Moçambique where there will be a music festival. A few days before the planned date the fate of the festival is at stake. The governor had given orders to stop the arrangements. He had got misinformation on potential problems because of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month. It evidently was a question of a political show of power. The municipal government is in the hands of the opposition party Renamo. Everything is smoothed out when the President of the Republic himself, Mr. Guebuza, interferes in the matter.

During the festival there is a Tufo competition with a dozen groups participating. The participants have come from various parts of the province; there are two groups from Ilha de Moçambique. Tufo is a dance and song tradition in northern Mozambique, southern Tanzania and the Comoro Islands in the Indian Ocean. It is exercised by women only. Each group of about ten women is given six minutes to perform. Each group has its own colorful outfits that they have made with great care. Most women have decorated their faces with masks made of white powder ground from the Mussiro tree, mixed with water. The mask is part of Makua culture; it is also said to have a good effect on the skin. Every group has their own percussion players. The women's singing follows the Islamic convention and their dancing is peaceful and undulating. We record the competition on a video tape and shoot photos. Our work is part of the project we are doing for Eduardo Mondlane University Music Library. We record forms of music and dance culture that may be in danger of disappearing. The advance of modernization is best seen in the capital. Maputo has greatly changed since my first visit in 1998. There are more hotels, restaurants, music clubs and shops to make the city livelier. During my first trip a great number of one-legged people caught my eye. Mozambique still has the world's third largest number of land mines, and often it is someone's fate to step on one.

The Music Library project and the records produced before it have been made possible with the help of the Finnish Embassy in Mozambique and the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. They understand how important it is to comprehend and support local culture. It also strengthens the cultural identity of the people, which is important to the country and its inhabitants who have recovered from a long civil war.

Modernization usually brings more services and gives a better standard of living. But the coin has two sides. Valuable ancient traditions may be regarded as old-fashioned and they are replaced by industrial global mish-mash. It is worthwhile recording traditional culture when it is still going strong. Our project also encourages performing groups to continue their activities. Each group will be given a DVD for promotion.

In the festival of Ilha de Moçambique I also play the saxophone with the legendary Ghorwane band. The band started in 1983 and has released three albums; the latest one called Vana Va Ndota is also available in the US on the Milan Music label. The wind section of the orchestra has two trumpets and my saxophone. Each of the trumpet players is quite a dancer. I myself try to swing around the best I can - I was not taught that in my music school! There is also another important Mozambican band in the festival. The Kapa Dech band plays with great skill.

The island of Ilha de Moçambique, the first capital of the country, is an idyllic place. It played an important role in the history of the country up to the sixteenth century when the Portuguese laid the foundations of the state of Mozambique. Old buildings have partly deteriorated but restoration is luckily on its way. The most important source of livelihood is fishing. Colorful nets hang along the long bridge that connects the island with the mainland.

Nampula and Lichinga

Maestro Uarila
Maestro Uarila                                                      Eero Koivistoinen©2006

We leave the idyllic island behind and arrive in Nampula, the third largest city in the country. There we meet a locally famous lute player, Mr. Uarila. He is wearing a traditional feather head-dress when we record his playing. The performance of the maestro Uarila has some nuances of the early forms of blues. His home is in Bairro, outside the city, where houses are built of handmade red bricks. We also record a feather-decorated group performing initiation dances. The men have rattles attached to their ankles and their music is a mixture of the flute and recital, which makes it a very interesting combination.

After a couple of days we take an early flight for Lichinga, the capital of the Niassa region. Niassa, with the country's largest national park, Reserva Niassa, is the most untouched part of Mozambique. Wild animals can be found there in abundance. It is about the size of Denmark. The reserve has a great number of elephants who are a nuisance to the local farmers, eating the harvest and stamping the fields. The national park represents the still wild part of Africa, but on this journey we have no time for that. The governor of Niassa helps us to find traditional musicians for our recording. Traditional music and dancing are still exercised in the outskirts of the city.

Lichinga turns out to be rather a small town where you can go on foot everywhere. Acacias are in blossom and they color the landscape blue. Lichinga is in the mountains, quite high above the sea level. The air is chilly and nights can be cold; the local inhabitants are wearing blouses or woolen sweaters with woolen caps. In the children's playground a skeleton of an old Dakota airplane looks absurd. It is a relic of the revolution, and in its way it symbolizes the colonial times.

Outside Lichinga
Outside Lichinga                                                  Eero Koivistoinen©2006

The lady in charge of local cultural affairs has found us a car with a driver who takes us to shoot dance and vocal groups outside the town. The Niassa region is among the poorest in Mozambique and you can see it when moving around in the town. The first group we record consists of dancing women who sing as if yodeling. Another group is a family who had escaped South Africa before World War I, first to Tanzania and then to Lichinga. We are told the history of the whole family. The third group dances intensively. The women also sing. They are accompanied by two vigorous drummers, who first tune their instruments by heating the membranes above a fire. These recordings make a good show for other inhabitants and they are an enthusiastic audience. To finish the evening we play a few numbers with the hotel band and the hotel manager takes us to a local disco. The music there is similar to the disco music in other parts of the world. The next day we have a flight of five hours before we are back in Maputo. We have a busy week ahead of us when we are editing the material in DVD format.

I give a lecture on the development of Finnish jazz music in the department of higher music education recently begun at Mondlane University. When I use the term "classical music" one of the students asks if I mean classical European music. I have to admit that we Europeans often refer to European music only when using the term. Yet there is classical music in Africa, India, Indonesia, etc., that dates back from older times than music in Europe. My answer is approved by the nodding of heads.

Maputo has traditions in the field of jazz. The city used to be a lively port of exportation and jazz music was played there ages ago. The civil war almost killed all musical life, which is now thriving. In Maputo there are some music clubs and restaurants where you can hear jazz music. I myself have performed in such clubs as Africa Bar and Gil Vicente. There is a very special jazz club at the old railway station. It is an architectural marvel. When once playing there I was surprised by a train stopping right by the band stand! The working situation for musicians is inadequate, and many set out for Cape Town, South Africa, either to study or in the hope of a better life.

After a busy week of editing we go to have lunch in a restaurant at the fishing market. It is one of my favorites in Maputo. You can choose and buy what you want to eat - the restaurant then prepares the meal. Oysters in Mozambique are small but delicious. The country is famous for its various crabs and crayfish. I think they are better here than anywhere else. Straight from the delicacies of sea food we head for the airport of Maputo.

Soon I am sitting at the airport in Johannesburg, trying to kill time. Cafés and shops close early on Sunday evenings. Fortunately, only one more hour to wait, then again ten hours' flight to Amsterdam, and then a connecting flight to Helsinki. I am back at home around four in the afternoon and feel stupefied. The African mood usually lingers on; my Nordic surroundings seem somehow different until I get used to the undeniable arrival of the dark season. My next trip to the African continent will be in January 2007. Then I will be an exchange teacher for a month in the University of Ghana. A new adventure is awaiting me… I recall an African saying: Western people have watches but we have the time.

Once in Paris I got engaged in a conversation with a charming Algerian born lady who worked in computing business. She remarked how well old traditions go together with the possibilities offered by modern information technology. Issues could be separated by thousands of years, but they still worked brilliantly together. In my own work, especially as a composer, I have noticed how certain African influences have started slowly entering my musical language. When new ideas have become merged in the musical expression as a natural part of it, you have left plain copying behind.

At the moment I am working with a new project where the themes come from ancient Scandinavian melodies arranged for a big band. Some of the Icelandic melodies date back a thousand years. In a rhythmical sense, I have fused some African elements in the music; the Nordic tradition is not necessarily at its strongest in the world of rhythms. I see interesting fresh possibilities here. Old ethnic music cultures may give a spur to jazz music, which sometimes gets stuck with set styles. They can give us a profound understanding of different cultures and techniques, not just some characteristics glued one on top of another in order to reach the fashionable trendiness of world jazz.

Eero Koivistoinen©2006

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