Community gatherings are often filled with the buzz of chatter, the energy of laughter, and a strong sense of togetherness. Growing up in the Gaza province of Mozambique, Nyttu Chongo remembered another important staple of these collectives –
“As a kid, you show up, and they encourage you to start singing, dancing, and then playing” Chongo reminisces, “that is the way my music started.”
After growing up surrounded by the music of nature, of community, and his ancestors, it wouldn’t be until 2011 when Chongo realized he was “musical” in any sense of the word, or was anywhere close to becoming a recognized musician. Even today, he still defines himself as something else:
“I don’t see myself as a musician. I see myself as just a normal human being playing different instruments” explains Chongo. As he continued to create music, the experience of playing began to change. Chongo noticed the biggest difference after he began to play in the capital of Mozambique, “Maputo is where it was organized – like okay, ‘here, you can have a stage’ and ‘you can have the festival’, but back in Gaza, anywhere was our stage, under the tree was our stage… Deep down in myself, I don’t see that we need the stage to play music.” The transition of playing music to performing was an adjustment Chongo never saw coming, but he took it in stride.
Whether or not it was his intention, Chongo’s work garnered lots of interest amongst those in his own community. However, he encounters numerous obstacles when he introduces his work to those outside his own culture. After moving to the United States in 2016, Chongo’s had trouble getting his foot in venue doors with his eclectic lineup of instruments, such as the Mbira, Chopi Timbila, and Inanga. Once in front of a crowd, Chongo still found that the cultural differences between the audience and himself influenced the way people receive his pieces.
“Being an African musician and playing African instruments for Americans… When you perform, the audience, they pay more attention not to the message that is coming through the notes, or through the music itself, or through the instrument” he explains, “They try to look to culture… In this process of trying to read my African culture, they are losing the message in the notes.”
This stereotype of how an artist should perform on stage or how they should represent themselves to an audience can be extremely limiting for many musicians. However, in Chongo’s eyes, the performance or his appearance isn’t the important part. Chongo channels messages that are crafted by the ancestors he calls to before his shows.
“The spirits, they use my hands and use my body to play” describes Chongo. Many of his songs come to him in his sleep. Chongo says that ancestors or spirits give him different notes or instruments they want him to use to communicate with those with us here on Earth. This practice of ancestral communication through music has been in his community for as long as he can remember. In his youth, Chongo recalls times where “people would play instruments like the drums, and [he] saw the spirits in them… they would come with a message, and then the spirit would disappear.” However, the song would be left for the audience to hear.
In the United States, this kind of communication or way of understanding may not be commonplace, but Chongo truly believes that looking at music through this lens could push people to better understand themselves, and others. The influence of one’s ancestors through art and music could have an immense impact on people from all walks of life. In fact, Chongo is working on this challenge.
“The main goal of the project is for people to connect with their ancestors through music” describes Chongo. The project entitled Ancestral Connections is set to launch in the near future. His inspiration for this project came from audience members at shows that acknowledged a presence of more than just Chongo on the stage. “Each time I perform, someone comes to me and says that there is more than the person they see in front of them, that there’s some energy… For them, something changed.”
Ancestral Connections comes just two years after his 2021 album release, Libandzuwa: The Power of the Sun. With this new project, Chongo continues to encourage the same ancestral dialogue he’s known since his youth. The general unfamiliarity with these practices are precisely why projects like this are so important. Whether on the stage at a local Minneapolis cafe or sitting under a tree in the park, Chongo will continue to make music that speaks not just from the heart, but from the spirit.
More about Nyttu Chongo: Bio
Watch Nyttu Chongo on the Minnesota Orchestra Hall stage at The Forum’s Annual Conference: Here (starts at the 11:30 mark)
More about guest writer Jacey Mismash: Here
Photo by Sarah Morreim Photography