Music in the time of revolt

2009-10-17 12:16

The musical bull that was Winston Mankunku

Ngozi bellows no more. His passing marked the end of an era, as cultural

commentator ­Vusi Mchunu ­remarked on ­hearing the news that devastated the

country’s jazz community. How often have we observed these “endings of eras”?

But as glib as it this phrase is, the silencing of Mankunku’s tenor saxophone

resonates deeply. His life ­mirrored the reality of the South African creator

more than most.

As word of his passing spread in the ­early hours of Tuesday

morning, the haunting melody of his signature tune, ­Yakhal’inkomo, echoed

through the day’s routine activities.

The anthemic Yakhal’inkomo, which refers to the bellowing of the

sacrificial bull, was one of the country’s better­selling jazz recordings,

sitting comfortably on the apex of the South African jazz songbook, right there

alongside Basil ­Coetzee’s Mannenberg and ­Kippie Moeketsi’s Tshona!

And much like Tshona! and Mannenberg, Yakhal’inkomo touched a nerve

with its ability to capture the mood and sentiment of the time. It was a mood

captured in an iconic black-and-white portrait of Mankunku by veteran

photojournalist Alf Khumalo, who happened to sit in on the 1968 rehearsal and

recording of the tune. The lensman recalls being touched by the notes.

The era-defining work that is Yakhal’inkomo expressed a strong

sense of injustice. He may have been young – a mere 24 – when he recorded the

­mantra, but – just listen to his work – Mankunku was adroit in his ability to

hide his message of oppression in music.

Yakhal’inkomo offered a metaphor for the harshness of the

oppression of colonialism and apartheid. Through it, its creator was holding up

a mirror to society for all to see – except apartheid’s clueless censors.

That Yakhal’inkomo became an anthem of freedom for the liberation

movements in exile or the resisters at home is no surprise. Its haunting

melodies – expressed through the drumming of Early Mabuza, bassist Agrippa

Magwaza and pianist ­Lionel Pillay – are there for all to hear.

The piece resonates with a rough but hopeful time.

It coincided with the resurgence of revolt that ­followed the mass

exodus inspired by ­restrictive pass laws and the bloodletting of the

Sharpeville massacre.

Most significantly, Yakhal’inkomo came with the emergence of the

black consciousness movement and with it a sense of belief among the masses. It

became the song of praise for the emancipation of the black masses; a sacred


This was the time when the haunting themes of Fikile Magadlela’s

paintings and the poetry of Wally Serote and Mafika Gwala captured the

imagination of South Africans.

He may have defined an era, but his life is a reminder that the

history of South Africa has not been kind to its creative geniuses. And every

hearing of Yakhal’inkomo should remind us of this.

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