Chicaia / Khango


PictureChicaia's Choir A. Mr. Matifalo is to the far right
Happy news: I do indeed have internet here on Likoma via wireless connection.  It is quite slow, however.  Once again, thank you for your patience

MAY 21: I spent the day at the lodge at Nkwichi. I used the day to transfer the video I had taken from my phone and iPad onto the laptop in order to make future DVDs for the choirs to have.  Volunteers spend their days at the lodge (i.e., when they are not out in the villages or farm) from seven until five at the main office.  This way, we are matching the shift of the lodge workers during the day.  My work at the lodge generally will involve this video transfer, as well as language study, music transcription, writing articles and any other preparation necessary for the festival itself. Though the work is very interesting, it does not make for blogging material, so the days I spend at the lodge will often pass without much to write about here despite the idyllic setting.

MAY 22: Now it is time to board the speedboat in order to get to Cobué just before noon. Coming in on the speedboat, I watch the fishermen for the first time, working in their canoes.  These canoes are usually made from mahogany logs.  It must take a very long time to hollow them out.  Interestingly, the fishermen do not sit IN the canoes when working alone; they straddle them, using the hollowed-out space to store all their gear and the fish that are caught.  They cast a net and draw it back slowly, hand over hand.  I can see it takes a great deal of skill, and the lake is calm today.  I can’t imagine when a dreaded mphepo kumwera (the wind from the south of the lake that makes it very rough) comes along.

We land at the beach at Julius’ backpacker lodge and head up the hill to James Bondo’s restaurant.  The restaurant is a nice single room building with a gravel floor and two tables for sitting plus a table with tea, coffee and water on it.  Bibles and schoolbooks are set at various places along the tables.  Do they belong to people who work there?  The boatmen and Joe, who will be accompanying me this time without Lily, tell me to wait here while they get supplies for the journey.  I spend the time watching the tailors across the dirt road.  Tailors here set up shop on the porches of other stores, and they use treadle sewing machines.  This particular store has two tailors and two machines.  Finished pieces hang in a colorful array from clotheslines strung near the porch ceiling.  A woman comes and picks up her order, then places the clothes in the basin on her head along with the large bags of rice she had picked up elsewhere.  She takes the stairs down from the porch and chats with someone she knows, even as she picks up her child who is tired from walking.  The basin never changes position on her head the entire time.

Once all the gear is ready, Joe and I take the short path to Chicaia.  This time we actually set up our camp in the yard of the mfumu’s house.  On this journey we have the foam pads to put under our sleeping bags.  This should make things much easier on our hips and knees.  We have a quick lunch of egg sandwiches on bread rolls and make our way to the church for a 1:30 rehearsal.

Mr. Matifalo, the choirmaster, is already there.  The choir of course will not arrive for another hour, so we have plenty of time to talk.  It turns out that the young Mr. Matifalo has such good English because he grew up in Malawi from a young age and got a degree in Business Administration from a Malawian university.  The first week he returned to Mozambique to live with his extended family, he joined the choir at Chicaia; by the end of the rehearsal, they asked him to be their choirmaster!  He writes his own compositions, something that is quite rare in this region, where most songs are passed down orally from unknown sources.  All the pieces the choir would perform for me today were his originals.  He did not know anything about the choir festival, being new to the region, so I caught him up on the details he would need to know.

When the choir comes, it is clear that this chorus has done some work with dynamics.  In addition to breathing and posture, we do some work on consistent breath support for softer singing.  We have time to learn and run “Chauta” easily, but it is getting dark.  There will not be time for “Mtima wanu.”    

PictureChicaia's Choir C [Khango's choir]
Interestingly, another choir sets up in another part of the churchyard and begins rehearsing even as we are singing.  A member of the choir I am working with goes over and asks them not to do so.  They soon leave.  This all mystifies me until I learn that there are three choirs in this small church: Choirs A and B each cover half the village of Chicaia (north and south), but Choir C is Khango’s [Cobué’s] choir.  The two congregations share the church, which is literally on the border between the two villages. I was working with choir A, but it was Choir C’s normal rehearsal time.  The long and the short of it: this means that we will not have to move over to Cobué after all to work with the Khango choir.

This comes as an immense relief to me.  Cobué reminds me of a Wild West village, with its saloons and many shops and people on the make.  This village of about 3,000 has a bit of a drinking problem, with a good half to three quarters of its inhabitants over the age of about fifteen - shall we say, tipsy - on any given night.  It is also true, though, that Cobué is more economically developed than its neighboring villages.  It has a health clinic, a maternity clinic, primary and secondary schools, and the large Catholic Church complex as well as corn mills.  Cobué is also home to the only immigration office on the lake.  There is a cell-phone tower as well as a lighted beacon for boats. Portuguese is more frequently spoken here than in any other village I have been to thus far, mainly because the road to Metangula and then on to Lichinga originates here.  Also unlike anywhere else so far, there are people who own motorcycles.  Interestingly enough, as with many more cosmopolitan centers (here of course I am speaking very relatively), manners are very different from elsewhere in the region, simply because there are more people with more business and things to do.  Strangers do not always greet you on paths, and a greeting may not be responded to if you offer it – unheard of anywhere else!  Wild West towns have their charms, to be sure, but not as places to stay in a tent overnight.  I am happy we are staying in Chicaia.  Am I becoming a country boy at heart?

MAY 23

The choir from Khango will not be coming in until the afternoon, due to school.  They are scheduled to begin at 1:30, but it will more likely be 3.  Mr. Matifalo however is hoping to stop by the mfumu’s compound at some point to talk to me and ask more questions, so that will give me something to do!  Otherwise, I will be sitting in a chair at the compound until 1.  Sitting gets very old when one has nothing in particular to do.  I spend the morning writing down random memories and observations from my first two weeks in the villages; perhaps I will include some in a future blog post.

By 11, Mr. Matifalo has not arrived at the compound.  Joe comes back from collecting socioeconomic data and asks if I would like to walk into Cobué with him to run some errands.  Since Mr. Matifalo and I were supposed to meet at 9, I agree.  We walked to the Primary School to make sure that students were planning to come to the Farm Day at the Manda Wilderness Agricultural Project.  They are, in fact.  On the way to the school, whom should we meet but Mr. Matifalo! He asks us to stop by his house later so that we can speak.  Joe and I go the farmers market to buy oranges (which really should be called “greens” here) then we go to Mr. Matifalo’s family’s house.

We have a wide and far-ranging talk.  He has a lot of goals that come from his time in Malawi, where he heard many advanced choral ensembles in this tradition.  He wants his women to learn to develop their head voice (!); he wants an even wider dynamic range; he wants improved tone from his basses.  I give him ideas for each, and I encourage him to think long-term.  He is in many senses a pioneer with these ideas here, and such things will not be accomplished overnight by any means.  I tell him that if he has any way to bring recordings of the groups he admires to play for his group in demonstration, this will help them understand what it is that he is asking for.  I know that people who have cell phones here often do file-sharing of mp3s.  Though he does not own a phone, maybe someone in the choir who does can help him with this.

He also wants to learn the keyboard so that the church does not always have to pay someone to come and play each week.  There is someone from whom he can take lessons, so I encourage him to learn one song at a time, and to “enlist the choir’s help” as he tries to learn.  Perhaps phrasing it “I am trying to learn keyboard so that we can save money and time.  I can only learn one piece at a time.  Which one do you think I should start with?” This will help the choir to be more patient during the transition and perhaps make them more willing to give up temporarily some of their favorite dances and songs.

Upon our arrival, he had told us “You are guests in my home.”  This means that we will be staying for lunch.  At 12:15 we enter their front room for the meal.  As in other homes, the main room is furnished very simply, which gives a quiet, Shaker-like elegance to the setting.  There is an Anglican liturgical calendar on the wall, and a working clock with a loud tick.  “5:40,” it says.  Here there is no table. We eat in the more traditional manner at a floor mat, with two short stools, one on each long end of the mat, for us to sit.  As usual, Mr. Matifalo and his family wait outside.  We have a delicious meal of nsima, chambo (a large fish of the lake, served whole), and sauce made from tomato.  By now I have learned the technique of picking up some of the loaf of nsima, rolling it into a ball with my fingers and using this to dip into the sauce.  I am not hungry enough for an entire chambo, but I know that this meal probably cost the family a great deal, since they are not fishermen.  The tomato sauce is delicious and appears to have been made from one tomato.  I have a feeling someone ran out to buy this food while we were visiting.  When we finish, we come back into the yard.  We cut up our two oranges to share with Mr. Matifalo, his wife and their toddler girl.  After thanks for their generosity, we take our leave and make our way back to the Chicaia church, this time to work with Khango’s choir.

Khango’s choir arrived around 3.  We did not have much time, but we worked on breathing, posture and a bit of movement.  One of their young basses appears to be developmentally challenged.   It is clear that he enjoys singing, and the choir has worked out a uniquely African way to help him in the choir.  Each time he begins to meander off pitch, one of the men next to him hits him in the arm.  At that point, he simply stops singing until he finds his way again, then he rejoins the group’s singing until the next time someone hits him.  Hitting is not necessarily a disrespectful action here; indeed, it is often simply another means of communication among equals.  As far as I could observe, he is treated exactly the same way in the ensemble as is every other singer.  My heart aches a bit knowing that his presence will likely affect their standing at the festival even as they have found the true spirit of community music-making at the very core of what they are doing.  The choirmaster did not feel a need to meet after rehearsal, so I had no opportunity to speak with him and learn more about this or any other matter.  They did seem grateful for what they had learned from our hour together, though.

One of the Manda Wilderness volunteers was returning from a job interview in France, so the speedboat that was bringing him back from Likoma came to pick us up in Chicaia at “Peg’s Beach.”  Peg Cumberland is a doctor from England who has lived and worked in this region for a decade, hiking from village to village with a backpack of medical supplies, treating those who need assistance.  “Dokotala Peg” is highly respected by all in the region.  I wish I could meet her, but she is in Malawi at the moment.  The speedboat comes, and we all get in and head to the immigration officer’s home in Cobué since it is too late for him to be in the office.  Once he has stamped the passport, we all head back to Nkwichi.  The lake is beautiful under all circumstances, but tonight is a full moon and the lake is calm.  Taking a boat here always seems to make me happy, no matter the weather; but this ride is particularly nice.

Our volunteer’s homecoming was augmented by the fact that it was his girlfriend’s birthday, and staff had planned a surprise combined birthday/homecoming party for them.  They set up an area of the beach with decorations, music, dinner and presents.  It was all wonderful, and we had a great time. I have to say, after all I have seen and done in the last twelve days, it felt very strange to be there with all the food and drink available so freely.  I found myself sometimes apart, gazing north at the lakeshore and thinking of all I had met and the things we had done. There was chambo for dinner, bigger than those we had had for lunch; but as odd as it sounds, after having it at the Matifalo’s, where lunch had been such a special occasion purchased at great cost and prepared with such care for us, it just didn’t feel right to have it tonight again when it came so easily with so little thought as to what was before us and what it took to get it there.  I passed the dish along without taking any.  I know I will get over this feeling eventually.  I wish I wouldn’t.


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    A choral conductor walking cheerfully over the world...


    May 2013