Words by Maneo Mohale
Images by Neo Baepi
Upon first impression, Maputo resembled a city stranded in time.
It was if all the clocks stopped somewhere in the latter half of the 1970s, after Mozambique’s costly struggle for independence. Ozymandian statues of Samora Machel towered over traffic circles, stood at the entrance of lush public parks and overlooked the edifices of faded and sun-baked buildings.
Even the cars seemed snapshot from the seventies. While en route to pick up our press passes at the Centre Culturel Franco Mozambicain, this story’s photographer Neo Baepi, and I stood on the centre’s bright green steps, watching the cars buzz, hum and turn impossible corners into Avenida Samora Machel.
The next day, we headed over to Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (UEM), the site of this year’s Azgo Festival. In the daylight, UEM mirrored the suspended 70s timelessness we’d seen of the rest of Maputo. But upon sunset, once the festival really began to gain momentum, every corner of UEM’s campus came alive – crackling with a kind of humid magic.
If Maputo seemed to be stranded in time, Azgo Festival by contrast pulsed and flowed with it. Sound from Gil Vicente and Fany Mpfumo, Azgo’s two festival stages, saturated the open air, while people of all ages danced and moved on the dry grass.
One of the first acts that drew an intergenerational crowd was Ghorwane, with their uniquely infectious take on marrabenta – a localised form of dance music (developed in Maputo in the late 1930s) fusing Portuguese folk music with ancestral Mozambican rhythms. Ghorwane celebrated their 40th year at Azgo with a joyful and festive warmth that audiences seemed familiar with, singing along to popular favourites.
Ghorwane at the Gil Vicente Stage
Soon after, SA/Mozambique/Zimbabwe Afro-pop crew Freshlyground picked up on Ghorwane’s infectious energy over at the Fany Mpfumo Stage, greeting fans with their trademark multi-lingual charm.
The performance soon took a tensely political turn when lead vocalist Zolani Mahola interrupted the performance to call out a misogynistic heckler. “I can’t just let that slide. There’s so much violence against women and girls, especially in my own country right now, and its unacceptable. What makes you think you can scream: ‘Take off your panties!’ to me, and that would be okay? Stop that.”
Freshlyground at the Fany Mpfumo Stage
The incident brought to mind how pervasive cultural norms where women are heckled are, even across borders. That being said, more connects South Africa and Mozambique than shared political histories and their present spectral manifestations. Performers like Ntate Ray Phiri reminded us of this. At Azgo, the Stimela founder fulfilled his promise to spark “a clever and more pan-African conversation” through music during his electrifying and energetic performance on the Gil Vicente Stage.
Supported by his extensive and versatile band, Phiri drew on the traditional percussive rhythms of Maputo marrabenta, fusing and slipping them into interpretations of Stimela classics like ‘Zwakala’ and ‘Where Did We Go Wrong’.
Another standout performance that dissolved borders between nations, histories and sounds came from Brazilian songwriter and guitarist Maria Gadú. Filling up the space with the robust and syrupy huskiness of her jazz-inflected voice, Maria bridged Brazil and Mozambique with a seamless performance that was easily my favourite of the night.
As the night wore on, Azgo proved that its lineup not only reached and cut across borders and generations but also across genres. Bands such as Ras Haitrm & Word Sound Power developed and deepened the festival’s Pan-Afrikan themes with their bold and militant Mozambican take on reggae and ska, while Lay Lizzy E Os Primos impressed hip-hop heads with ultra-modern, finger-on-the-pulse trap beats and vernacular rhymes.
Lay Lizzy E Os Primos at the Fany Mpfumo Stage
Azgo closed off the line-up looking into the future, with a group of genre-defiant artists that slip and slide between styles, while playfully incorporating electronic modes of musicality into their vastly different sounds.
Otherworldly Ghanaian vocalist, Jojo Abot hypnotized audiences with her dark and witchy rhythms, followed by local heavyweights Batuk who lifted the mood with their fizzy blend of techno, kuduro and afro-soul. Electronic-soul songbird Nonku Phiri finished off the festival at close to 5 in the morning, delicately approaching her station only to enchant us all with her flawlessly magnetic vocals and darkly experimental beats.
As a festival that places joy and community at its centre, Azgo is a meaningful beacon of light that can only positively influence the future of festivals on the continent. By reaching across borders, genre, generations and time, Azgo shows us what’s possible when we let the artists speak, and give them the space and support to showcase their complex connections to culture, history and the future.
Nonku Phiri at the Gil Vicente Stage