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Two film students capture beat of Mozambique

Budding Newhouse School documentarians reflect on their music-filled adventure in Mozambique.

Before June 2011, Mike Armour, a Syracuse University television, radio and film senior, had never crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

Armour's high school buddy, Josh Eisenfield, also a television, radio and film senior, had an idea to film a documentary in Mozambique about a local band who uses music to educate the masses on hygiene and water sanitation. Eisenfield envisioned Armour as someone he could both trust and put up with for the 35-day adventure.  

Photo: Josh Eisenfeld
Micheal Armour surveys the Lichinga skyline after landing at the city's airport on June 24, 2011.

A year after Eisenfield’s initial proposal, the pair traveled 30 hours by plane to a town called Lichinga, the capital of the Niassa Province in Mozambique. The town has only three streets, one of which is paved. “It’s the size of Armory Square with half the amount of buildings,” Armour described.

Twenty years ago, the Niassa region was devastated by civil war. The U.S. Department of State estimated that one million Mozambicans died in the war and 1.7 million sought refuge in neighboring countries like Malawi and Zimbabwe. The civil war ended in 1992 and by 1995 many Mozambicans, previously displaced by the conflict, returned.

In the wake of the war, the band, Massukos, was formed. Felicio dos Santos, a Niassa native, started the six person Afrobeat band, singing songs that promote the simple act of washing hands. The musical subject matter derived the film’s title, “Wash Your Hands.”

The town of Lichinga has electricity and running water but the outlying areas do not. “Pretend every suburb of Syracuse doesn’t have a waste system and doesn’t have running water,” Armour said. That is the reality for the surrounding villages, he explained. Streams, rivers and wells are contaminated, most by nearby latrines.

The children in Lichinga go to one schoolhouse, Armour said. “They learn about the earth, but not stuff like this. They don’t know why they’re getting sick.” The problem is widespread. Dos Santos himself contracted polio as a child from the contaminated water in the area.  

In a combination of Yao, the local tribal language, and Portuguese, the official language of the land, Massukos sings songs encouraging children to wash their hands. The band partners with several organizations including one called Estamos that Dos Santos founded to build clean wells in the area.

Forget Purell. “A clean source of water goes so far,” Armour said. “It’s wild to us,” he said, but “just water alone is a great thing.”

Armour and Eisenfield's documentary centers on the delivery of this call for hygiene. “For the most part the message in music is put last,” Eisenfield said. In the western world, the way a song sounds and is received by the public takes precedence over the melody’s meaning, he added.

The two budding documentarians continue to work on the film’s crux. “What music means to a lot of people in our society isn’t that powerful anymore,” Armour said. “It’s mostly commercial driven.” In Africa it’s different. “They don’t hear a lot of music being played,” Armour explained. “So, at a concert when a person is singing about washing your hands or hygiene, it’s big. I want that to be our focus,” he said.

Despite the band’s appearances on CNN, PBS, BBC, Al Jazeera and the like, Massukos’ popularity remains limited to Mozambique. “I thought it was really cool that they could have this popularity on a smaller scale but still be singing something that I can imagine Raffi singing. It was an anomaly to me and I wanted to learn more about it,” Eisenfield added.

Dos Santos’ bandmates have largely remained out of the spotlight. “The band members have been overlooked,” Eisenfield said. “We were excited to learn about them. We could tell they had ideas burning in their heads.”

Over their monthlong stay in Mozambique, Armour and Eisenfield followed Massukos to three of their concerts, visited their homes and attended their practices. Both carried a camera on their shoulders and made sure to stay out of the other’s shots.

Over time, the band members warmed up to the pair — each had a distinctive personality. Carlitos, the band’s keyboardist and guitarist, had a makeshift recording studio in his garage. He put egg crates on the walls to help absorb the sound. Mbedu, the band’s drummer, or “our boy” as Armour refers to him, loves hip-hop. Mbedu, along with Carlitos and lead vocalist, Simao, “was where the life of each song came from,” Armour said.

Gaining this knowledge was a challenge, though. Armour knew Spanish, but neither filmmaker spoke Portuguese. Three weeks ago, the pair received the translation of their footage. “We probably could have captured something stronger if we knew the language,” Armour admits in hindsight.

Now in the editing process, the two hope to complete a rough cut of the documentary by early this May. The film will be 20 minutes long with the goal of showing it at festivals or as a 30-minute TV spot.

Eisenfield hopes the film will show a new side of Africa, he said. Beyond poverty and war, “there are happy people there living more rewarding lives than we are,” he said. “Music is awesome no matter where you live,” Armour added. “It binds us all.”

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