The Elton John of Mozambique
This summer, Josh Eisenfeld and Michael Armour, two students at SU majoring in television, radio, and film, are traveling to Mozambique, Africa for a month to follow a man who is referred to as the "Elton John of Mozambique." But instead of singing about Bennie and the Jets, Feliciano dos Santos sings about the importance of washing your hands. Dos Santos spreads the message of ecological cleanliness to the most remote corners of Mozambique and empowers villagers to participate in sustainable development and rise up from poverty. Along with his band, dos Santos uses music to promote the importance of water and sanitation, and that program is serving as a model for other sustainable development programs around the world.
Dos Santos is a member of the music group Massukos, which – according to its website – works to preserves traditional rhythms of a province in Mozambique that was almost extinct after 17 years of civil war in Africa. Massukos captures and spreads their musical heritage through three traditional African languages.
Massukos gained international fame in the 1990s, and now, the two SU students are attempting to raise awareness about something the world knows very little about by following dos Santos while he travels on tour. Eisenfeld first read about dos Santos last July in an issue of National Geographic. From there, he listened to Massukos’ music online and read about their background. The more he read, the more he was inspired – so he decided to contact dos Santos and make a film.
JERK Magazine: Was it difficult to get in touch with dos Santos at first? Josh Eisenfeld: He got back to me in two days. I sent him a three-paragraph email saying, “I’m a student. I’m not sure how okay you are with a student filmmaker following you around and getting your story. But if you are, I would love to come there and just sort of follow you on tour.” And his response was “This sounds great, let’s find funding together.” I still have that email saved.
JM: How did you get the funding to take this trip to Africa? JE: We had been talking about this trip and trying to get money all semester. We decided to apply for a few grants and just go straight to Chancellor Cantor, straight to Newhouse, and say, “Hey we’re doing this, can you help us?” We heard back from them within hours. The money they gave us came with strings attached; they expect to see something in the fall. So it went from getting a bunch of money from random people on this website to having something kind of important expecting a project.
JM: How much money have you raised? JE: Half our budget – around $17,000.
JM: Do you need to get any shots before you travel? JE: Yellow fever shots are the only required ones.
JM: Is there a personal connection behind Massukos’ mission? JE: It all stems from Feliciano’s own experiences. At a pretty early age, he was stricken with polio from contaminated water and sort of embraces that. If you ask him why he limps, he’ll get a smile on his face and tell you his story. Because he knows that how you save lives by your own experiences, your own stories. So, his band started in a time where Mozambique was just ending a 17-year civil war. And his music was more than just teaching people the importance of sanitation; it was about bringing his country together. They use three languages from the village communities in the Niassa Province [in Mozambique], and also they use Portuguese as well, which is the national language. Michael Armour: The government can only do so much because illiteracy is so high in Mozambique. So they began teaching children in illiterate areas about washing their hands and why it is important to keep good hygiene. That went into HIV/AIDS prevention and more about diseases. So it went from giving a good message, and explaining how to teach these basic things, to making music and a band out of it.
JM: Why is Massukos’ story worth telling?
JE: There are tons of bad things we can say about popular music, but one of the obvious things is that it has sort of lost the importance of message in song. [The message] can be a valuable tool in an area that doesn’t know how to read or write. And the fact that [dos Santos] is the pop star of his country really drew me to this country. He was labeled the “Elton John” of Mozambique. MA: [Dos Santos' story] is so different than anything you’ve heard before – at least the polio aspect of his childhood and the beginning of his story, which was the spark that led to everything else. Polio is not something that people consider here. We learned about it in what, middle school?
JM: What do you want people to take away from your film? JE: Anytime you can shed light on an area or region that’s suffering, that’s not a bad thing. If you can imagine the last waltz with a socially active perspective, that’s what I want this film to be. Sundance is a big goal for us – you always have to shoot higher than you expect to land. MA: In the grandest scheme, I want to change some sort of thought or mindset with how people view and appreciate music. With the quality project we plan to put out, I want to take it to SXSW [South by Southwest], I want to take it to big film festivals. I want to go to different colleges and show it, and hold events and fundraisers for [dos Santos'] humanitarian work.
JM: What’s your biggest fear during this trip? JE: I’m not afraid for my life or afraid that I’m going to be like held for ransom. I’m more afraid of someone stealing our equipment and then we can’t make our documentary. I’m also afraid of having technical problems.
JM: What can other SU students do to help? JE: What we need from Syracuse is hype. Follow us on Twitter. This really is a ground-up project. If anyone is encouraged by the story, contact us. We’re always looking to bring in new people and skills that we lack.
WATCH | Check out this video of Feliciano dos Santos talking about the importance of environmental health: