Watsamba M’Diou at HIFA

Music | By Marcia Nonkululeko Tladi, Writer | 06 April 2013

René Desalmand, Matchume Zango, Rolando Lamussene, Alex Pedro and Djibra Mussa are Watsamba M’Diou, a Mozambican-Swiss band who describes their music as African-Crossover. I caught up with the band after their electrifying performance at the HIFA Global Stage in April this year. If the concert is anything to go by, this all-embracing band is destined for great things and in a time when the world is hungry for something alternative, with René on sax, Matchume and Rolando on percussion, Alex on bass, Djibra on drums and some otherworldly chanting these guys are relevant and have just the right mix of ingredients that makes a band successful.

Where are you from originally?
René: I was born and raised in Switzerland.
Matchume: I'm from Maputo in Mozambique but I’m originally from Inhambane.

What are your musical backgrounds?
René: I started with classical music when I was 9 mainly playing the clarinet. Later, I went to rock and then jazz music. I studied jazz saxophone before dropping out after two years. I started to develop electronic music and made lots of samples, beats and lyrics. One of my projects was Lump200. I took up the saxophone again several years ago playing a lot with a poet, for more than ten years.

Other than saxophone, there is another instrument you play that makes a rattling sound. What is it called?
René: It’s called a waldteufel.

Is it a Swiss instrument?
René: No, it’s German.
Matchume: I used to work with different styles of music - traditional, electronic music, contemporary and minimalist. I also used to work with several groups doing contemporary and traditional dance.

When did your music/dance career begin?
Matchume: It’s difficult to say because I started dancing when I was 4 with my family. I grew with the culture. My neighbors practiced a lot of music. I danced and then I started to play [an instrument]. After that I had to choose what I wanted to do and settled on Marimbas called Timbila from my hometown of Inhambane.

Is it specifically from Inhambane?
Matchume: Yes. It’s played by the Chopi people of Inhambane

‘Watsamba M’Diou’, that’s Chopi too right?
Matchume: Yes. It means ‘Good Food’.
Alex: I am from Maputo and I come from many bands to arrive here.

Name a few.
Alex: Gil Out and Timbila Muzimba.

How long have you been playing for?
Alex: About 10 years.
Rolando: I can say that I have been playing since birth. I was born into a Timbila family - my grandfather, my uncles. I learnt from them. I turned professional in Novj Reich, a little group in the neighbourhood in 1997. After that I went to the National School of Dance then I came to join the National Song and Dance Company of Mozambique. From there I played with various groups in the United States, Europe and Mozambique; Beat Bag Bohemia, Mama Tanga in the United States, Nyachange in Mozambique. So many groups, I cannot name all of them. I learnt to play Mbira with some American friend in New York City. With Mbira I didn’t learn I just played; it’s percussion. I play several other instruments but I’m not a good player because I specialize on Timbila percussions and now I can say
Mbira [too]; I’m becoming a Zimbabwean.

So the American friend is from Zimbabwe?
Rolando: No, she’s American. I was teaching her Timbila and she was teaching me Mbira.

How did you all meet?
Matchume: René and Rolando met first and then brought the project to Maputo. I was then invited to join the project where I brought my energy and we made a creation in Maputo. Later we had another bass player and a drummer for some concerts we had in Maputo. We met again last year in Germany and started recording. This year we got a chance to make history in Africa performing at HIFA. We invited other musicians that I played with on other projects in Mozambique - Djibra and Alex who played a different style of music before. René then came from Berlin to Maputo to work on the HIFA show and we have been together ever since.

You all have different musical backgrounds. Why did you decide to fuse your music?
Is there a bigger dream of merging more than just music, say cultures or anything of that nature?
René: For me the main purpose of Art is combination. When I’m in Europe I do the same there as well. I pick things from here and things from there that people say do not fit and I try to work with them. In fact it was a dream of mine to come to Southern Africa to work with percussionists because I felt that I wanted to re-find the saxophone after taking a break from it. We had to try it out to see what we could do.
Rolando: The world has become one place now. Everything is merging. So if I go to Germany and I can understand his language and culture, same goes for China. I don’t want to only play in Mozambique when I can also play rhythm from Germany, in Harare etc. My dream is to one day play Chinese rhythm. I think it’s cool like that because if you know that you are Zimbabwean and you play Mbira, one day you may be bored by yourself and think why can’t I go to Alex to learn bass or why can’t I mix my Mbira with saxophone which makes me happy.

Your sound blends elements of Mozambican, Swiss, even Caribbean and funk music. How did you know that fusing the different styles of music would work?
René: Everything went very quickly because I could only stay in Maputo for two weeks. The first day we met and decided to do work. We just jammed without actually knowing if it could work. I did not know the guys. I knew Rolando a little bit. I knew that he was a good musician and I could tell very quickly that Matchume was a good musician as well. We went through with it and took a chance. We didn’t know.

How widely have you performed in terms of countries you’ve traveled to?
René: This band is quite new actually. We manage to have one show a year. The first shot we came together, created the music then we had one small show and a bit of studio work in Berlin last year. This year it’s Maputo, Harare, Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Have you performed a lot in Mozambique then?
Rolando: The first time we had two performances, and then another recently and now we are here.

Are you finding your audiences receive you the same wherever you perform?
René: It’s very individual. We have played in Maputo three times. First, was a community concert for people who could not afford the club. We played in the neighborhood where we rehearsed. People danced, kids danced, mothers and sisters and everyone danced. The second gig was quite cold. People did not dance. They sat in a room; it was an air-conditioned room so it was more like a concert. The third show, I felt that I could really go far with them. We could really play deep stuff and people would continue dancing. If you look at today’s show, people were sitting down watching until you invited us to dance and only then did everyone rush down from the stands. It was as if you had to give us permission. Don’t you think sometimes, especially in cozy spaces, that the audience feels they need exactly that license?
Rolando: Yes. Sometimes when people see a musician on stage, if they don’t have permission they feel that okay, maybe we should just sit and watch but if the musician invites the audience, here you get to see whether they like the music or not. Like at HIFA you could see that, oh! People are enjoying it!

Any plans for the band to collaborate with other artists?
René: I’m open to a lot of it but I feel that I’m okay with these five people. Matchume recorded some music with a Congolese guitar player - Max. I even translated some of his stuff into the music. It would be nice maybe for the next tour. I’m hoping to but it’s always a question of taking more time and needing more money as well.
Alex: Always. That is why I am here - to grow in my profession. The music is my work. That is why I live. But I am happy with the group. I have never been this happy, especially today.
Alex: We need more.
Rolando: Everyday. If from here I meet someone and we say okay, let’s have another collaboration, I’ll be ready to go there because always when you meet new people, you meet new rhythms, new dances. We never say it’s over, I’m done here, It’s enough here. No.

It’s interesting how you have such varied opinions and yet work so well together. Does that come easy?
Alex: No, it’s not easy because these are five minds that we need to unite into one.

What does it take?
René: We’ve been in the business playing music for a long time and every week you’re in a new situation. Maybe you have to cooperate with someone new and in the process you’re developing yourself in different contexts. It takes energy but it gives a lot of energy back.

Okay, 5-in-1. What did you think of your HIFA performance, of HIFA? How do you like Zimbabwe? Are you coming back?
Rolando: People of Zimbabwe are great people. I love them. I think they love me. It’s my first time to HIFA and I enjoyed it. On first performance here was intimidating because this is a big festival full of music superstars but after that I went to see a few people perform and I told myself to be original and do what o know best. That is why for me today’s concert was different from yesterdays’. All of us today were open but yesterday we were nervous. For me it’s a great festival. I would love to come back every year.
Alex: I am grateful to be in Zimbabwe. It’s my first time in Harare. I love it. It’s so quiet. About the performance, I loved it. Yesterday like Rolando said, we were nervous. It was so difficult to understand what was happening around. Today we were so free, so open. I enjoyed the concert. I enjoyed the people who came to see us. I enjoyed everything. Tomorrow we’re leaving but we’re leaving with good spirits about Zimbabwe and I hope to
come back to HIFA next year.
René: If I may borrow the words of an artist I heard yesterday. “It’s a great place of music!”