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Ululating for Carmen

Maputo's music festival fuses African and European cultures.

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.