Tom Faber meets the beatmaker nurturing an emerging scene and forging an authentic Mozambican sound out of trip-hop, techno and tribal initiation rituals.
Nandele was to be my guide to the alternative music scene in Maputo. Not only is he the city's most in-demand beatmaker, producing experimental hip-hop at a frenetic pace, but he also nurtures the fledgling music community, supporting new artists and venues while making music in dizzying constellations of collaborative projects.
To manage all this you need energy, and Nandele's is boundless. He is 38, skinny and takes long, loping strides as we set off walking. Conversation zig-zags nonstop between musical history and philosophy. We leave the gritty bustle of downtown Maputo for the airy Malhangalene neighbourhood.
The city has a pleasantly shambolic air; market bustle, ferocious sun and dilapidated colonial buildings combining to give a distinctive Afro-Mediterranean feel. Acacia trees line the broad boulevards. In December, summer in Mozambique, the treetops are aflame with orange flowers. Maputo is situated at Africa's southeast corner, cradled by the sea and exaggeratedly lush, with plants pouring from every garden and crack in the pavement. Music is just as ubiquitous. Club tracks from South Africa, Brazil and Angola blast out of shops and car windows, deafeningly loud.
The relaxed atmosphere is disrupted by the near-constant presence of police, who stand on street corners with AK-47s slung over their shoulders. This same weapon adorns the national flag, crossed with a hoe over an open book, a symbol of Mozambique's troubled history: almost 500 years of Portuguese colonial control followed by 16 bitter years of civil war. Even during the 28 years of relative stability that followed a peace agreement in 1992, Mozambique has not managed to shake its edgy reputation and remains one of the least developed countries in the world.
You wouldn't know this from visiting Maputo today. The capital avoided the worst of the country's suffering. Nandele points to landmarks as we pass: the Botanical Gardens, a stark, bone-white cathedral, a stern bronze sculpture of liberator Samora Machel which, in a nod to newly-independent Mozambique's socialist leanings in the 1970s, was built in North Korea.
Slipping through shortcuts and chatting to people on the street, it feels like Nandele knows every inch of the city. As a child he moved around with his father, who was a diplomat and journalist but had earlier been the first black director of Mozambique's national radio. Nandele's dad passed his musical obsessions onto his son from an early age. "On Sunday he'd get the vinyl out and explain: 'This is Fela Kuti, this is Miriam Makeba, this is Toots & The Maytals,'" Nandele recalls. Before long he was getting into grunge and hip-hop, and his dad was stealing his Wu-Tang Clan CDs to play in the car.
We pass Gil Vicente, a historic club with a worn art deco facade, where Nandele got his first break. After trying to rap and learning drums, he organised a karaoke night with a twist: instead of playing pre-recorded backing tracks, he and his band would learn hundreds of songs and invite the public to step onstage and sing their favourites live as guest vocalist. It proved wildly popular.
"I did it for five years until I got tired of it," he tells me. "I'm an artist. I don't want to be remembered as a karaoke guy." We're walking uphill at the hottest part of the day. While the market limps along, most people have stopped to rest. Men sit out on white plastic chairs, playing checkers on homemade boards using red and black bottle caps. A woman waters her garden with a sleeping baby wrapped tight to her back. Another walks down the street with a gas canister balanced on her head. People sprawl out in the shade. One man is sleeping under a car to escape the sun.
"Things here move slow and I don't like it," Nandele says. "My brain is 20 million miles per hour. I'm thinking in each conversation: 'Yo! I could make beats about this.'"
Discovering Ableton allowed him to unleash this creative energy. Soon he was making 15 beats a week. He listened voraciously and took a special shine to trip-hop, an influence which, alongside rock, psychedelia, boom bap and dubstep, can be heard on his debut EP, Argolas Deliciosas.
"The name means 'delicious rings,'" he says. "It's a homage to J Dilla. It's a story about a guy who eats a donut and he's teleported to a planet called Planet Donut. When I told my friends this, they started laughing, saying: 'Nandele are you for real or are you high?' But I feel with my music I can do anything or go anywhere. There's no Mozambican who ever went to the moon or to space. But within music, I'll be the first Mozambican who went to outer space."
"To Planet Donut?" I ask.
"Yes, to Planet Donut," he replies, not blinking. "The planet of beats."
Nandele put together The Mute Band with fellow beatmaker Fu da Siderurgia and quickly built a name for their fierce, psychedelic concerts, winning awards and being invited to play major southern African festivals before they'd even put out a release.
Our first stop is Associação dos Músicos Moçambicanos, a detached yellow house with a large garden. Kneeling on the red sand floor watering plants is the musician May Mbira, a friend of Nandele's with blonde dreads and an earring made from an audio cable. He introduces the space: the stage where Thursday night jam sessions range across genres and styles, the recording studio, the workshop where he teaches visitors to make the mbira, a southern African thumb piano he plays in both traditional and electronic groups, a nod to the genre fluidity of the local scene.
As we keep walking, the sun vanishes and a warm rain begins to fall. We pass colourful printed dresses hanging from the branches of a tree, swaying in the wind as if worn by ghosts. Down a cement slope is a small building housing Kongoloti Records, one of the country's only independent labels for alternative music.
Nandele argues that the musicians of Maputo need to take their art more seriously to help build a healthy musical ecosystem. The reason artists don't devote their lives to music is that they can't make money from it. "Mainstream artists are mostly independent, they record and finance their own projects, print CDs in South Africa and sell them themselves," explains Nandele. "There was no infrastructure—until this guy."
"This guy" is Milton Gulli, a Mozambican-Portuguese musician, producer, programmer and owner of Kongoloti Records, who sits chain smoking next to the recording studio. After growing up in Lisbon, Gulli moved to Mozambique in 2011. "I saw a lot of musical talent here that didn't have a platform or a means to produce," he tells me. He encouraged them to build social media presences, make music videos and take professional photos. Kongoloti broke out with a politically charged album from Azagaia, today one of the country's biggest rappers, who toured with Nandele as DJ and hype man.
Kongoloti is the slickest operation in town, with releases ranging from Nandele's electronica to reggae, soul and hip-hop. Yet many of the label's most successful artists leave to go independent. Gulli thinks this is because they're not seeing a financial return from music sales. This problem is not unique to Mozambique, though it's certainly a struggle to establish the backbone of a music industry at a time when the economics of music globally are changing so rapidly. As a result, Kongoloti are trying to diversify their revenue streams, opening the recording studio and taking over the southern African bookings of artists from Lisbon's Príncipe label, though those DJs are as yet relatively unknown in the region.
Many alternative artists I met were frustrated by the lack of musical infrastructure in Mozambique. Tégui, an R&B singer who has released a debut album, told me: "I feel like I'm in a cage. I came this far, so what now? The environment I'm in doesn't allow me to develop as an artist."
The people in charge of national media have little interest in music outside the commercial mainstream. Nandele recalls sending one of his music videos to a national TV station who responded that the CD was defective because there was no singing on it. "No," says Nandele, laughing, "it's just an instrumental."
Yet there is promise, with initiatives springing up across the city in recent years. 16Neto is a venue that encourages young artists to develop their talents. Fundação Fernando Leite Couto, where Gulli is curator, hosts hip-hop and alternative concerts. New bar Ficka has a weekly club night trying to establish a network of female DJs in the city.
Across Maputo's lively circuit of bars, clubs and street parties, which sprawl across entire weekends, there is a lot of African music being played—afrohouse, zouk, kizomba—but little of it is Mozambican. Gulli, a regular DJ, tells me: "You don't have that music you can call 'the new Mozambican sound.'"
Why not? Artists from Nigeria and Ghana are blowing up internationally with afrobeats. South Africa continues to be a dance music innovator. Angola, with a troubled history bearing many similarities to Mozambique, is a musical powerhouse with far-reaching influences. What's different here?
The lack of music infrastructure is only part of the story. In order to have national music, you need to have a nation that can make sense of itself. Like many African countries, the borders of modern Mozambique are incoherent, drawn according to colonial interests, cutting through communities and collecting people from different ethnic, linguistic and tribal groups under an imaginary banner. The capital city is problematically located in the far south of the country, closer to South Africa than to much of the land it governs. While some neighbouring governments have been able to write a new script that promoted a sense of shared national identity, in Mozambique that has been hard. Journalist William Finnegan, who reported from the country during the civil war, wrote: "The colonial regime had violently discouraged all forms of national consciousness, and millions of isolated peasants still had to be convinced they belonged to something called Mozambique."
From various parts of Maputo's music scene I heard a desire to forge a new local sound outside of the pop mainstream. But without communal feeling, how can communal music emerge?
The Portuguese colony in Mozambique collapsed in 1975, but its aftershocks are apparent everywhere. The country's official language is Portuguese and popular culture in Maputo seems drawn chaotically from Brazil, Angola, Cape Verde and Portugal, countries separated by thousands of miles and united only by their former colonial ties.
Nandele points out another result of this: "If you have a big project in a country like ours, it always has to have a white man involved." Across Africa, there is a trend in white promoters, bookers and label managers promoting (and in many cases monetising) the work of black African artists. While Nandele argues not every instance of this is inherently problematic, it becomes troubling when music is not promoted any other way. "For me it's weird and complicated," he says. "We're not empowering our industry. We're empowering a foreign industry instead."
He mentions an archive of Mozambican music held by the state which could be a goldmine for samples, but is almost impossible to access. A white foreigner could probably get in, Nandele speculates. "Aphex Twin could probably get in. And he might make some crazy shit." He laughs. "But it wouldn't be very Mozambican."
There have been genres of music distinct to Mozambique in the past. Marrabenta, a style mixing local rhythms with the lyrics and melodies of Portuguese folk music, and its tougher, ragga-infused descendant, pandza. But you don't hear these sounds in Maputo's coolest clubs. When I ask why, musicians point to a lack of national pride. "There's this notion that outside is always better," says Filippa Mondlane, DJ and owner of Ficka bar. "If you're white or Portuguese, you know better. Because back then it wasn't OK to be Mozambican. It wasn't OK to be a curly-haired African. There is this shame, engraved in our spines since colonial times."
For Nandele, creating a new electronic sound which is distinctively Mozambican is a priority. But this isn't a straightforward project. His 2019 debut album, Likumbi, comes closest to achieving this. He explains the concept stems from a single question: "When was the first time I really felt fear?"
"I realised it was when my dad told me I was going to do my initiations, likumbi." Many boys from Nandele's tribal group, the Makonde, undergo a ritual to mark the transition from boy to man. At 12 years old, he was terrified at the prospect. "I was like: Fuck, I'm an African, yes. The stereotype of being African is to grow up in the bush. But I was born in Maputo. I've been to the village but never the bush. I'm more familiar with the mall. I'm a globalised African, how the fuck am I gonna survive this shit?"
Entering the bush with a group of other initiates and some older guides, he performed a series of trials as his father had done, including hunting rabbits and birds with a spear and grabbing larger animals, such as a fox and a lion (which Nandele suspects was sedated). "It made me Makonde, man," he reflects. "The tribe was just an idea to me before that."
This fear became the inspiration for the album, which is a slick blend of paranoid beat tracks drawing the lines between techno and trip-hop. Yet he didn't want to explicitly make the record sound like traditional Makonde music. "It's more a deconstruction of that," he says. "I have a lot of respect for my culture and you can fuck that up. I didn't want to play it to my mom and for her to say: 'You fucked that up. It's a disgrace what you're doing to our culture.' I wanted to take the elements and transform them into the music I grew up with." So he took the cadence of Makonde rhythms and transposed them to unexpected instruments. He made them fresh.
"If you write 'Makonde' on Google," he says, "the first thing you're gonna find is either wooden statues or people with tattoos on their faces. But the Makonde people make electronic music as well. I'm one of them. I wanted to put my people on the map in a different way."
Nandele is also part of several groups including Muave, a live audiovisual show founded with Chris Born and João Roxo. I saw the group performing at Ficka for the first MPT Underground, a series of events dedicated to spotlighting alternative electronic music. Supporting was Mapiko Mweya, a duo who played an engaging set of deep house accompanied by the snap of a live drummer playing conga and djembe.
Nandele describes Muave as a "never-ending psychological thriller." Conceptually based around sorcery and witchcraft, their show ranged from clanking trip-hop to downtempo bass and techno. At its best it sounded like Equiknoxx by way of Boards Of Canada. The venue was only half-full but Nandele's irrepressible energy behind his machines got the reluctant crowd moving. He bounced over his gear in a striped t-shirt with an unlit cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Beneath the table he had taken off his shoes because of the heat, revealing blue socks with orange toes. At one point, when he let the beat drop with a wall-rattling throb after a long breakdown, he screamed and launched himself into the air.
The next morning I visit Nandele at home. The curtains were drawn, as if this might fend off the midday heat. His eight-year-old son is watching Shaun The Sheep on TV, and talks to me in a mixture of English and Portuguese which I understand primarily due to the density of references to Pokémon, Zelda and Dragon Ball Z.
Nandele emerges sleepily and we go to a room at the back of the house furnished with nothing but a bare bed, where he can jam and smoke weed undisturbed. He lives with his sister, two young cousins, one of which he puts through school, and his son on odd weekends. Beyond family responsibilities, he shoulders the weight of Maputo's alternative music scene. Nearly every electronic and hip-hop artist I spoke to felt personally supported by Nandele. Why has he taken on this mission?
"My country needs me," he says. "I don't want to be the only one making new music here. I want people to push it further. I'm not scared of someone doing beats with pads better than me. No, I love it! I want a million of those people." He lights a cigarette. "I put my life on the line for my work. Not making money is risky for me because I have a child to support, but I'm fighting every day for this thing here, and it's going to happen."
Everyone in Mozambique has reasons to be concerned about the future. For the past few years insurgents have been operating with increasing frequency in the country's northern regions. There are serious doubts surrounding the fairness of public elections and the democratic system. A major corruption scandal implicating two presidents has meant that foreign investment is being rapidly withdrawn from the Mozambican economy.
Nandele's mother calls him. She left Maputo because of how agitated it had become. She returned to Pemba in the far northern region of Cabo Delgado, where Nandele's family are from. After they finish talking, Nandele tells me they were discussing plans for Christmas. "In Pemba she's happier," he says. "She gets the quiet and can go to the beach when she wants. But I can't go back and see her because I'm saving money this year. I've been saving three years and finally bought some land here in Maputo." He stubs out his cigarette and looks at me. "And now I want to stay here and build my house."
The feature is supported by the British Council as part of their arts programming across sub-Saharan Africa.