“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”
The words of Miles Davis ring as true on the streets of New York as they do in Maputo, Mozambique. And one thing both places have in common is a love of jazz.
But the music coming out of the southeast African nation is far removed from the jazz Davis and his peers brewed in the melting pot of the Big Apple. The key to this distinctive new sub-genre? An ancient rural instrument, finding a new lease of life.
A magical instrument
In “the land of good people,” Zavala, southeast Mozambique, a set of rich woody notes has chimed down through generations. They’ve soundtracked weddings and funerals, scored wars and became a dissenting voice through colonial years.
Responsible for all this noise is the timbila, an instrument unique to this part of rural Africa. Made with wood from the mwenje tree – found only in this region – the instrument resembles a xylophone with resonators made from gourds attached beneath each key. Sealed tight with beeswax, the wood is then tempered with oil, giving the instrument its distinctive rich sound.
“It’s the most magical instrument,” says Professor Orlando, one of Mozambique’s first jazz saxophonists. “When you play, [it] can take the sound for three, four kilometers.”
Today its role in ceremonies and ancestral conflict is evoked with an ensemble of timbila performers, known as a “Chopi orchestra”, providing the music for dancers acting as traditional warriors.
“The sound, it makes you feel better,” says musician Abel Joyo. “It’s spiritual. When you play it you feel good, spiritual and positive about the future.”
The jazz family’s latest addition
A preserve of country life, the timbila is now finding its way into the capital Maputo and causing quite a stir among the jazz community, who have adopted it as one of their own.
The timbila is sounding a patriotic note on the African jazz scene, suggests local musician Moreira Chonguica, and is helping define Mozambican jazz with its unique, timbila-fueled sound.
“Many people wouldn’t think that Mozambique has a jazz scene,” says Chonguica, “but [it’s] very strong.”
“We are a country with over twenty ethnic groups, nearly 2,000 kilometers of coast,” he explains. “We have a lot of influences in Mozambique, different dialects – so all that all, put in a nice pot, makes a nice fusion of jazz.”
Jazz was first introduced to Mozambique in the 1980s through South African radio stations and local photojournalist Ricardo Rangel. He couldn’t play an instrument but became a walking encyclopedia on jazz, helping to promote the genre and influence the likes of Professor Orlando – an artist referred to as “a Mozambican hero” by the likes of Chonguica.
The Professor’s disciples know it’s their job to spread the world and bolster the burgeoning Mozambican jazz scene and sound.
“It cannot be one,” says an impassioned Chonguica, “we have to be 500. We are producing instrumentalists. Now we have to move and produce a structure that sustains that in order to become an industry. Once we become an industry we will have that distinctive sound. [People will] say wow – that’s Mozambican jazz.”