MAPUTO, Mozambique — Ululations are not the usual response that Mary Elisabeth Williams gets after singing "Habanera" from Bizet's opera "Carmen."
But when the soprano from the Virginia Opera sang at the fifth International Music Festival here, the crowd erupted with ululations, the traditional African cheer.
From April 18 to 29, the music festival in Maputo hosted opera singers, a baroque orchestra, a choir, acoustic jazz, new flamenco and outreach workshops with local singers.
Wagner and Telemann in Africa? Is there an audience for classical music — besides expatriates and elites — in one of the world’s poorest countries?
Samora Machel — the leader of Mozambique's revolution against Portuguese colonial rule and the nation's first president from independence in 1975 until his death in a mysterious airplane crash in 1986 — believed so.
The revolution needs art, all art matters, and Mozambicans can excel in all arts, Machel said. He promoted African culture and founded the national dance and song company and film and photography schools. Hundreds of Mozambicans studied abroad with art scholarships.
Among them was a bunch of young people sent to study music in Europe — Machel's intention was for them to become the country's national orchestra. But although that was not achieved, the students became teachers and performed in quartets and other groups. Once Mozambique's civil war ripped the country apart in the early 1980s, the plans for an orchestra fell through.
“Samora’s love and vision for culture inspire me to this day,” said festival founder Moira Forjaz, a Zimbabwe-born photographer who moved in newly independent Mozambique and worked on one of Machel’s pet projects, the first national music festival in 1980.
She sees a direct link between the International Music Festival and Machel’s cultural vision. For an earlier festival, Forjaz tracked down some of the Mozambican musicians who had remained in Europe and brought them to play in Maputo.
Ciro Jorge Pereira, a violin professor at the National Music School, turned each concert into an assignment for his 22 students; they researched the compositions and interviewed the performers in order to get the most out of the performances. “There are few opportunities for them to hear classical musicians,” he remarked.
His suggestion for next year’s festival is to stage a short concert at a large public high school, another at a community center in a slum, and to offer some free tickets for students.
Mozambique is planning to broaden the country's audience for classical music. Starting next year the school curriculum will feature music. The program was approved 10 years ago but it took time to train enough teachers. Forjaz plans for the festival to reach out to schools next year.
Meanwhile, the festival, a bare-bones affair that relies on commitments and corporate funding, is becoming more professional. The Norwegian embassy donated a concert piano. The festival now has a press officer and the performances experience fewer glitches.
“Every year the audience grows by one-third,” estimated Manuela Sueiro, owner of the Teatro Avenida, where most of the classical concerts are held and which got a needed sprucing up from the festival.
The jazz and new flamenco shows attract a younger, hipper crowd. This year a full house at the Avenida was electrified by the explosive Concha Buika, whose Cuban and Latin inspired Flamenco singing has made her a sensation in Spain and is now making her a star across Africa. Buika's parents are from Equatorial Guinea and she was born and raised in Palma de Mallorca, the capital city of the Spanish island of Mallorca. Buika's album, "Nina de Fuego" was a nominee for the Latin Grammy in 2008. Her concert in Mozambique was her first trip to Africa.
“Good music knows no boundaries,” said Mozambican jazz saxophonist Moreira Chonguiça.
Church choirs are another potential fan base. Mozambique’s oldest choir, Majescoral — itself a legacy of Machel — performed with the Virginia Opera maestro Peter Mark, tenor Dan Snyder and soprano Williams.
“People think that classical music is stuffy and unapproachable, and our job is to make it accessible; we are all expressing emotions with music,” said Williams, clearly enjoying her first trip to Africa.
One of Mozambique's cultural icons, the painter Malangatana, flew from Portugal, where he is painting a mural. A multi-talented artist, Malangatana sang with Majescoral and hosted a day of music at his Matalane art center in the middle of the savannah, 30 miles from Maputo.
“This festival is part of our cultural fusion,” he said.
In one of the festival’s sweetest moments, Williams swooped up to Malangatana on stage and flirted, as Carmen, with him. Malangatana is about 5'3" and Williams towers over him at 5'11". Not one to be flustered, the portly Malangatana, 73, played up to Williams. The audience went wild with ululations.
Editor's note: This dispatch was updated to correct some details.
More GlobalPost dispatches on Mozambique:
Reviving Mozambique's crown jewel
The hunt for the Black Charaxis
More GlobalPost dispatches on African cultural festivals:
A desert party near Timbuktu
African TV comedies attract viewers
The unlikely home of Africa's Oscars
View Larger Map