A pop band that uses music to spread a message promoting clean water, decent sanitation and Aids-awareness must be filed under the heading “worthy but dull”, right? Not so in the case of Massukos, the exuberantly catchy force for good and uplifting musical torch bearer for one of the poorest parts of Africa. Situated in the north of the country, Niassa is Mozambique's most sparsely populated province, with a population of about one million spread over an area roughly the size of England. For many years, it has also been the poorest, ravaged by civil war, Aids and water sanitation problems.
Enter one Feliciano dos Santos, a journalist working for Radio Mozambique in the early ‘90s, reporting on the country's attempts to get back on its feet as peace took tentative hold in the region. Feliciano: "We were producing programmes that talked about social problems, water sanitation, that kind of thing. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to get more involved in what we were reporting about."
In dos Santos’s world - where he has spent most of his life dealing with the physical constraints caused by a childhood bout of polio - practicalities are addressed head on, so involvement led to the founding of the Estamos NGO in 1996, where he set about introducing an integrated water supply and improved sanitation, as well as home-based care for people with HIV.
“I’d say about 80% of my time is spent on Estamos projects. As director of Estamos I’m busy working in the office most of the time, planning and running projects. Then we go out and use music at the time we want to spread the message. The rest of the band members also work for Estamos or on other social programmes."
The medium for the message is a sunny, effervescent guitar-based music, a kind of soulful, socially-conscious equivalent of Zimabwe's Bhundu Boys, augmented by keyboards and with a dance-friendly rhythm based on the traditional music of the Niassa area. "When the civil war finished [in 1992], we wondered how we could celebrate people's feeling of relief at surviving, and their return from Malawi and Tanzania where they had been refugees. So, we decided we needed to record our culture, to get our traditional sound back, putting it with electronic instruments to give it the power to get our message across.”
Massukos was formed in 1994, and after becoming popular in Niassa, they recorded their first album, Kuimba kwa Massuko in Maputo in 2002. “That was because there were no decent studios in Niassa," explains dos Santos. "And despite travelling 2,000 kilometres to record the album, we didn't realise our music would be so popular, we were not even fully professional. But the album spread all over Mozambique - it just took off like crazy, and now we’re one of the best-selling bands in the country."
In 2004, British musician Dean Brodrick’s band Empty Boat toured Africa as part of Poo Productions, a London-based media company dedicated to promoting clean water in Africa. Feliciano: “The Empty Boat project came to Niassa, and we worked really well together. Dean suggested that we record an album in the UK, with him as co-producer. There is good recording quality in some studios in Maputo,” explains dos Santos, “but in London we found acoustics to fit the more universal sound that we were looking for.” Anybody who witnessed the breezy performance by Massukos at this year’s mud-caked WOMAD festival at Charlton Park will find the resultant album, the aptly-titled Bubbling, to be a satisfyingly upbeat reflection of the band’s appealing live sound, with added funky brass interjections by Brodrick’s jazz musician friends Harry Beckett and Steve Buckley.
I wonder how Massukos reconcile their resolutely cheery approach with the serious subject matter of the songs. "Sometimes a message is too shocking for people to take in at first,” he replies. “We are talking about serious social themes, but we invite people to dance first, we try to win people over to the music, then they'll get the message later. Plus, there are more than twenty languages in Mozambique, so we have to communicate first through the music!"
And with something over 80,000 copies of Bubbling already sold in their native country, Massukos are clearly communicating very successfully, inevitably attracting the interest of politicians and other public figures (such as Gordon Brown and Sir Bob Geldof) who are keen to be seen showing an interest in Africans’ welfare. Feliciano remains admirably diplomatic about such image-enhancing meetings. “The people we meet are generally open and willing to hear the issues we have, and what we do about them. But I can’t do anything else but just tell them the way things are and what we are doing about it - it's up to them to decide what they do next.” Welcome to the new, pragmatic face of African activism...with guitars.
This feature first appeared in fRoots magazine.