Soundtrack of the struggle

2012-01-09 10:38

Of all the popular culture associated with the history of the African National Congress, it is music that occupies centre stage.

Whether it was the stirring vocals of superstars or the dust-raising stamp of toyi toying masses, music was the backbeat to the protracted battle against apartheid, fuelling the determination of millions to bring the monster to its knees.

As Hugh Masekela once quipped: “We will go down in history as an army that spent a lot of time singing, rather than fighting.”

While Aretha Franklin provided the soundtrack to the American Civil Rights movement with her anthemic Respect, across the seas Miriam Makeba kept the struggle songbook hip and happening.

By the time she crooned Nants’Indonda eMnyama (Verwoerd) in 1965, music was an essential part of the ANC’s repertoire.

Makeba was at the forefront of a generation of singers who were as fearless as they were passionate about their protest.

Her 1965 release An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba was a tribute to the struggle for freedom in South Africa with protest songs performed in isiZulu, Sesotho and English.
 
Message music spilled out of the 60s and 70s, written or performed by musicians who were exiled in the US and Europe.

Their music may have been banned in South Africa, but it sure got the international community to sit up and notice there was something amiss about South Africa.

When Abdullah Ibrahim released Mannenberg in 1974, mourning the forced removals of black people from District Six, the song became another hugely popular anthem in the growing canon of freedom inspiring music.

In the 80s it was in the trenches of recording studios that the fight-back was planned, hatched, and executed.
 
A new generation led by Sipho Hotstix Mabuse, Chicco Twala, Brenda Fassie, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and the poet Mzwakhe Mbuli took up the reins.

Their thinly veiled compositions ridiculed the apartheid government and celebrated the life of Nelson Mandela.

Fassie, dismissed by hard-core music “revolutionaries” of the day as a lightweight pop diva, even released Black President, her tribute to Nelson Mandela, as apartheid gave its dying kick.

It was 1990 and the album Too Late For Mama featuring the hit Black President, sold more than 300 000 copies.
It was at this time of intense political activism aimed to fulfil ANC president Oliver Tambo’s cry to make South Africa “ungovernable” that a fashionable crowd of international superstars jumped on to the bandwagon to support the ANC.

Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday party, organised by the Anti-Apartheid Movement at London’s Wembley Stadium in June 1988, marked a climatic moment.

To chants of “Free Nelson Mandela” by the capacity 72 000 crowd, a mind-boggling array of the top bands of the day played: they included UB40, Dire Straits, Simple Minds, Sting, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Salif Keita, Youssou N’dour and exiled South Africans Makeba, Masekela, and Jonas Gwangwa. The concert, which made headlines around the globe, was broadcast live to 67 countries and more than 600 million viewers – but not, of course, to South Africa.

The Mandela Birthday Concert came two years before Rivonia treason trialists Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Andrew Mlangeni, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada, Wilton Mkwayi and, eventually, Nelson Mandela, were released from prison. Pressure on the South African apartheid government was mounting.

Back home on the township streets the toyi toyi demonstrations became the loudest soundtrack of the 80s.

Songs like Siyaya ePitoli, Woza ANC, Dubula and Senzeni Na could be heard across the land.

In the mid-90s music lightened up as South Africa basked in the after-glow of the triumphant first democratic elections of1994. This was a boom period for Xhosa praise singers and poets-cum-musicians like Mbuli.

No ANC rally would be complete without a combination of the two.

The ANC has not forgotten the winning formula of their struggle days and often turn to music to lure young voters to their events.
The dynamic kwaito duo Arthur Mafokate and Chomee with their booty shaking dance routine became part of the travelling troupe that followed President Thabo Mbeki and, later, Jacob Zuma, to election rallies and other events.

On the eve of his election in 2009, Zuma was feted by the likes of Chicco Twala and Mara Louw at a star studded bash at Gallagher Convention Centre in Midrand, confirming once again music’s place in the ANC’s narrative.

Chicco Twala, who has been a key composer of these songs, released My Mother Was A Kitchen Girl which instantly became a hit with aspiring singers like ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe who has been known to belt it out at public functions.

Everyone will remember the 2009 ANC elective conference at Polokwane where the Umkhonto weSizwe struggle song Solomon, a tribute to Solomon Mahlangu – an MK cadre who in 1979 aged 23, was hanged by the apartheid regime.

In the run-up to this year’s local government elections, the ANC turned again to musicians to woo voters: the party released an album that featured Arthur, Chomee, Oskido, Professor, Chicco, Deborah Fraser and Ihash’ Elimhlophe.

These days there is a keen interest in the preservation of the old songs.

Jazz impressario Don Laka has recorded various struggle songs on Heritage, his upcoming album. Look out for blues’d and funked up jazzy versions of Hambakahle Mkhonto, Dubula, Senzeni Na, Siyaya ePitoli, Solomon and Noma Kukubi.

While it is impossible to pinpoint one song that sums up the centenary story of the ANC, it was a touching hymn, composed by a Methodist mission school teacher in 1897, that became the first part of the post-94 national anthem.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was composed by Enoch Sontonga and adopted by the ANC as its official anthem in its early days.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika would transcend its first home in the ANC to become the hand-on-heart anthem by which the world now knows South Africa, and by which we know ourselves.

Lesley Mofokeng’s Top 20 struggle hits plus a bonus track
1. Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika – Enoch Sontonga
2. Beware Verwoerd (Nants’ Indod’emnyama) – Miriam Makeba
3. Mshini wami – (as popularised by) President Jacob Zuma
4. Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela) – Hugh Masekela
5. Too Many People Are Crying – Blondie Makhene
6. Mannenberg – Abdullah Ibrahim
7. Black President – Brenda Fassie
8. Let Him Go – Yvonne Chaka Chaka
9. Bahleli Bonke – Miriam Makeba
10. Senzeni Na? – Vusi Mahlasela and Harmonious Serenade Choir
1 1. Give Us Our Land – Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba
12. Asimbonanga (Mandela) – Johnny Clegg and Savuka
13. Sis! Bayasinyanyisa/Ukulimala Kwengqondo/
Ngizwa Ingoma Ngizwa Isikhalo
– Mzwakhe Mbuli
14. Meadowlands – Nancy Jacobs and Sisters
15. War – Bob Marley
16. Apartheid – Peter Tosh
17. Whispers in the Deep – Stimela
18. Weeping – Bright Blue
19. Something Inside So Strong – Labi Siffre
20. Aluta Continua – Miriam Makeba
21. Bonus track: Mayibuye – Glen Mafoko (performed by Sibongile Khumalo

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