Moreira Chonguica: making Sounds of Peace for a troubled post-pandemic world

East, West, home’s best. Studying music at a South African university has helped to open doors and build creative networks for many jazz musicians from across the African continent. But sometimes it’s the warmth and intellectual riches of home that carry their creativity to the next level.

Take Mozambican saxophonist Moreira Chonguiça, a music and ethnomusicology graduate of UCT way back then. He relocated back home 11 years ago and it’s been five years since his last (seventh) album, M&M with Manu Dibangu, the one that brought him to broader world attention.

Now an eighth Chonguiça release, Sounds of Peace has appeared. And notwithstanding the truly lovely music he made in the company of Dibangu – how could anyone not? – Sounds of Peace has to be his most musically interesting and powerful work to date.

Chonguiça had already established himself as a substantial jazz voice when he was still based in South Africa. He rapidly built a following for his warm, full reed sound, appealing compositions and vibrant live shows with The Moreira Project. Five albums (and multiple nominations and awards) ensued.

Back in Mozambique, he’s been making more music live and in-studio, teaching and energising music projects and festivals, as well as continuing to study the music traditions of his birthplace. Covid (he was hospitalised for a week) and lockdown – as they did for many musicians everywhere – forced a period of introspection and exploration. Out of that came Sounds of Peace.

The message of the album title is not merely a simple, unarguable, “let’s not fight”. It’s about making peace with self and overcoming self-doubt. That’s the metaphor that informs the album’s first single and video Hosi/King, as he told broadcaster Nicky B

But it’s also about making peace with the diversity that has always characterised community life in Africa, something the album enacts as it draws from musical traditions across Mozambique and from languages including Changana, Makonde and Makhuwa. It’s a vibrant rejection of narrow regionalism.

Thematically, some of this revisits the territory of the reedman’s 2011 album Khanimambo . But the approach in 2022 is far more intricate. The sounds that emerge as you listen – layered, textured and intricately woven – include spoken conversation from men, women and children (and between instruments); the chants of traditional performance from the excellent Xindiro dance company; and the melodies of folk-song. All these segue back and forth into laid-back contemporary grooves and all flavours of jazz. In my favourite, Retardando, a stately walking bassline from the ever-solid Helder Gonzago weaves in and out of vocalcall and response and Chonguiça’s sax wailing almost Kansas City-style.

Retardando, says Chonguiça, is about the need, post-pandemic, to slow down from the fast lane and savour life around us. Like Jonas Gwangwa’s Hurry Up And Wait, it’s one of those tunes that toys with a listener’s rhythmic comfort zone, transforming a tricky theme from uptempo to spiritual by periodically hitting the brakes. It’s also an impressive demonstration of Chonguiça’s instrumental control; all these rich, intriguing ideas are grounded in a foundation of highly accomplished musicianship.

The Bandcamp album lacks a personnel list, which is a pity. As well as Gonzaga’s bass, there’s some gorgeous singing and tight, joyous instrumental work from an ensemble drawn from the Morejazz Big Band that Chonguiça has been developing as a mentor, and from other traditional performers like the Xindiro company. It would be nice to be able to commend a singer here and a keyboardist, guitarist or percussionist there.

Xindiro feature on the video for Hosi, clearly having great fun with marching chants, stick-fights, impressive flic-flac somersaults over barrels of flame and the other moves of xigubu dance. (Where South Africans might spot some affinity to indlamu; truly there is unity in diversity).

In how that number is arranged and choreographed, we see Chonguiça the ethnomusicologist, sharply aware that tradition and modernity exist on a continuum: the former not static; the latter not springing fully-formed from nowhere.

The album is a satisfyingly long listen, offering 13 tracks and well over an hour of music. The tracks are diverse, from folkloric to free and from a classic ballad like Mamana Wanga/My Mother to the infectious Afro-Latin-mbaqanga of the closer, Songo. The meditative Myadi vya Imumu/ Tears from the Soil offers environmental reflections as Chonguiça’s meditative sax and two singers apologise to the ancestors for the scars of extractive mining. Jo’burgers will have a chance to hear some of this material as part of Chonguiça’s set at Joy of Jazz: last of the evening on the Dinaledi Stage on Friday 25 November.

It’s been a long wait for Sounds of Peace, but definitely worth it. Chonguiça promises that this path of braiding together sonic heritage and jazz innovation has only just begun – there’s more where this album came from.    


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