Take the slow train

For Business Day's monthly lifestyle supplement, Wanted

In a metallic bikini, Neyma curves her back, catlike, kicks her bare feet in the air and breaks into a frenetic dance, muscles taut and glistening, her voice rising to match the men on electric guitar.

A clutch of gyrating dancers topped with chiffon rosettes and impossibly high foot arches shimmies in front of a capulana kaleidoscope cyclorama - flowers and hearts and spinning discs of stars emerging from the smoke.

The crowd is entranced, the rhythm contagious, hips picking it out on wooden benches.

But it is the sweet old man in crimson Hawaiian print and low-slung dress trousers that brings them to their feet.

Dilon Djindji, a father of the genre, mic in hand, hopping from foot to foot in deliberate slow motion, in a matching marathon of hypnotic drum beats, the spotlight picking out the enormous whites of his eyes as he croons, eyebrows raised, raspy, soulful, seductive.

The melody picks up speed, intensity building to a climax. As bodies swing to the floor, a frantic saxophone solo cuts through the rumble. Then three deft bass drum thumps, and silence.

An intake of breath and the air is filled with the singing of the crowd, a song as if they’d agreed it prior. They sing of marrabenta, the music of their struggle, Portuguese fado given African heart and turned against their colonial oppressors.

Nameless until 1930, there is pleasure in speaking the word aloud. The rrrs roll around mouths, reverberate around the open air theatre, through the sweat and song and echo from the corrugated iron roof of the Centro Cultural Franco-Mozambicano.

Rebentar: ”to break”; instruments, emotions, hearts.

Sunday afternoon at the train station, and the dimpled station master wants his photograph taken. A tired tree droops in the mid-afternoon heat, amid drifts of multicoloured plastic litter. The enormous hanging station clock is five minutes slow.

The comboio de marrabenta with its cargo of musicians, artists, shoelaceless streetchildren and caramel tanned expats slowly pulls out towards Marracuene.

The bongo drums begin, met with ululating in the aisles, dreadlocks tapping on the cracked vinyl seats, bare feet running between carriages, as papaya trees and chicken wire pass the windows.

A crush of capulana-draped women wearing sequins and surprised babies push through, cooler boxes in hand, a 2M gelado for 45 Mets.

It is a lingering journey, met with happy car horns and music-lovers clambering onto carriages, drawing eventually to a tiny whitewashed station, where first to disembark are the enormous speakers, passed from hand to hand.

In the sand off the tracks, a haphazard mass picnic awaits: the celebration of Gwaza Muthini, and a stand against the Portuguese army.

Bubbles and giggles drift across the dirt, cartwheels next to tablecloths set in the dust. The intoxicating smell of roasting meat mingles with fermenting marula; canhu, the local love potion, murky in its re-purposed soda bottles, sour and sweet and yeasty tangy.

Shadows lengthen on the dirt road, above a makeshift market of roosters and steering wheel covers and lukewarm Coca Cola. As the sun sinks, the beats get bigger.

A Michael Jackson impersonator takes to the crowd, white glove and all. Silhouettes line the rickety sound stage, as the drums begin.

On the road towards Maputo, a disco ball mounted in a mango tree.

Amid the heaving bodies, the rain begins, a fizzy percussion above the musical frenzy.

Yet under the casuarina pines, a couple still finds eyes only for each other.

Maputo’s annual 3-day marrabenta festival takes place in late January/early February, but performances of the genre continue throughout the year.