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Under The Tree

by Paula Akugizibwe / Images by Evan Abrahamse / 18.07.2012

You would need industrial strength ear plugs, and possibly a lobotomy, to escape the musical energy of Maputo. From the ubiquitous auto(party)mobiles to the live music shows scattered around the city almost every evening; or even, when all else fails on a mid-month Monday night, the street vendor around the corner strumming a midnight serenade on his guitar. Music is always in the air.

Sunday is Nucleo de Arte’s night. Nucleo refers both to a 91-year old collective of Mozambican artists, and an open-access studio space where local painters and sculptors come to produce, display and sell their work. The studio is attached to Café Camissa, a resto-bar that dishes up the most delicious, value-for-money meals in town. A peaceful haven for creative types during the week, it transforms into a pulsating club scene come the weekly Sunday night gig.

We arrive nearly an hour after Leman Pinto and his band were slated to begin playing. The stage is set up and silent, the bar buzzing. An easy-going crowd mills around under the trees; chatting, drinking, eating freshly grilled meat from an open-air stand. We’re in the deep of winter. “It’s going to get very cold!” A friend warned us a few weeks ago, rubbing his arms and shivering theatrically. One light sweater later, and we’re geared for the worst.

The show shows no sign of kicking off, so we wander from the semi-outdoors concert area into the art studio, where a group of men chats animatedly in one corner. I ask if they are some of the resident artists.

Under The Tree - Kass Kass

“Nao nao, somos músicos…” One of them, decked out in striking leather pants, introduces the group one by one: Valy, keyboard player; Jorge, drummer; Che, singer. “I am Leman Pinto,” he concludes on a climax of charisma. “We are playing tonight.”

Oh, it’s the band! Well. They seem as cheerfully relaxed as the crowd waiting for them outside. Maputo’s attitude towards time reminds me of that wonderful philosophy of understated defiance that Mombasa locals serve to high-strung tourists from the city: “But if you’re in a hurry my friend, you should have come yesterday.”

“How long have you played together?” I inquire. They look at each other and laugh, one of those if-only-you-knew laughs steeped in memories and conspiracies. They’ve collaborated as musicians for about sixteen years now, Leman tells me. During this time he also did stints in South Africa and the US. I ask him what he has found to be unique about Maputo’s arts scene.

“Here, we are more mixed.” He speaks of the discomfort of “finding nothing familiar to my spirit” in the US, of being “the only black man in a discotheque” in South Africa. “I went home with my white friend once,” he recalls, “and he tells me I must wait outside while he ties up the dog, because it’s racist! Why is his dog racist?” The band has clearly heard this story before – they break into hand-slapping laughter before he’s finished speaking, and despite myself I find myself joining in. The dog ate my homework AND my rainbow nation! Those greedy canines…

Under The Tree - Fans

But I digress. Performance time arrives. We move back outside where the crowd has gathered around the small stage, and it begins: keyboard, drummer, bass, brass, and Leman switching between trumpet, singing and percussion. Energetic rhythms and skilful harmonies instantly charge up the scene, and before the first song is through Tina Cossa, Café Camissa owner, has spun the small space between the crowd and the band into a dancefloor.

The energy intensifies steadily, the band mixing up a dynamic jazz cocktail that draws on numerous influences ranging from marrabenta to blues-infused guitar riffs to mbaqanga. Leman takes a break every few songs to call up a guest singer: first Che, and then Paulo, who performs a cover of ‘Jerusalem’ by Cote D’Ivoirean reggae superstar Alpha Blondy. It’s a call for peace and religious unity: “From the bible to the Quúran, revelation in Jerusalem… Christians, Jews and Muslims living together and praying amen…”

Under The Tree - Artur and crew

Later I chat with Artur, a member of the audience, about the irony of a song entitled “Jerusalem” calling for peace and unity – given Israel’s historical persecution of Palestinians, and now its rounding-up of African immigrants in detention facilities that will have harsher conditions than most Israeli prisons. “Israel is segregation,” Artur says. “It’s very ugly to see. The international press doesn’t like to talk about it, and we as Africans, if we talk back, it’s a fight.” The ugliness of segregation, he adds, is not confined to Israel, but reproduced in varying degrees all over the world. “The word ‘foreigner’ shouldn’t exist. We need to ask ourselves: who divided us? Why?”

Under The Tree - Paulo

Paulo echoes this sentiment when we speak. “I am Buddhist,” he says, “because my father was Chinese, but I love all religions. We all come from the same place – Christian, Muslim, we are doing the same thing in different ways. Why the problems?” Paulo is an electronics guru at Xerox who plays with a band in his spare time, performing at weddings and parties. Their repertoire spans several genres: “I like reggae and marrabenta, Celestino likes romantic and blues, Mamudo likes latino and passada… any music is good,” he shrugs, “as long as it’s played well, even if it’s the guy who likes too much Johnny Clegg.”

Under The Tree - Taiga

This let’s-get-together philosophy, which is so universally hyper-stated yet perpetually under-acted, seems to have rooted itself firmly here. “Nucleo de Arte is important for solidarity,” remarks Bento Mulungu, one the resident painters. Fellow painter Taiga Matimele lists renowned Mozambican artists who passed through Nucleo at some point in their lives: “Malangatana, Victor Sousa, Roberto Chichorro… I am just a continuador”. The Portuguese word continuador, used in this context, has no English equivalent – translating literally into “continuer”. People who keep a movement alive.

Under The Tree - Bento

At the back of the room, KassKass stands next to his textured painting of people gathered beneath a tree. “Trees are love,” he says. “I did this painting after I heard about the United States of Africa.”

The United States of Africa? Images of gangsta-glam-Gaddafi flash through my head, but find no footing in this down-to-earth space.
“The United States of Africa must meet under a tree,” KassKass continues.
“Not in a building?”
He smiles. There is a formidable gentleness to his spirit. “No, not in a building. It’s better that we meet under the tree. Under the tree, everyone can come. We are free.”

Under The Tree - Under The Tree

*Paula Akugizibwe is a music-possessed, writing-obsessed pan-African nomad. Read more of her stuff at www.shuwaly.com

**All images © Evan Abrahamse.

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