Who was Mandela’s favourite singer?

2013-12-12 15:46

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As the nation breaks into song to honour Madiba, Charl Blignaut investigates what artists the former statesman loved. It is one of his more closely guarded secrets

It is well known that Nelson Mandela loved music and believed it played an important role in the struggle.

But what everybody wants to know is what Madiba’s favourite song was and who his favourite singers were. Says Verne Harris, the director of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory: “In fact, he made it a principle never to prioritise like that.”

Mandela didn’t want to show favouritism.

Yet there are quite a few clues in his private writing and interviews.

Madiba loved Handel and Tchaikovsky, he loved Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He was inspired by The Manhattan Brothers, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Tracy Chapman. He hugged Brenda Fassie and The Spice Girls. His greatest love, though, was the traditional Xhosa songs he heard as he was growing up.

Mandela, the recording artist

Mandela is frequently quoted as saying: “Music is a great blessing. It has the power to elevate and liberate us. It sets people free to dream. It can unite us to sing with one voice.”

This is literally on record. Irish musician John Hughes overheard him saying it to a group of musicians playing a Freedom Day concert in London and asked Mandela if he would record it as a spoken word element of the track The Mandela Suite.


Subversion on the island

During apartheid, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela once summoned Yvonne Chaka Chaka to her Soweto home to deliver a note and a message from her husband in prison on Robben Island.

“It was just a note to say ‘your music keeps us, your fathers, alive in jail’,” the Princess of Africa told me earlier this year. I asked her if Madiba ever told her what song of hers he enjoyed most.

“Umqombothi,” she replied. It remains her most popular track.

Mandela always enjoyed a hit. None more than the catchy Free Nelson Mandela by The Specials, a British ska band, which charted all around the world.

“Madiba records sell well,” wrote Mandela in prison in 1984. “Record calling for the release of NM has made big impression on pop charts after only one week. ‘Free NM’ by the Specials, a multiracial group, is No 4 on the Capital Radio charts.”

In Nelson Mandela: A Life in Music, the blog Okay Africa reports on this and other gems from the archives.

“When Zenani Mandela wrote lyrics from an Elvis song on the back of a letter she sent her father in prison, he replied with a list of musicians he thought she should be listening to. Among them was Lesotho-born folk composer JP Mohapeloa,” they write. Mandela also recommended that she listen to African American activist Paul Robeson.

In a new documentary Music for Mandela, director Jason Bourque interviews Eddie Daniels, who was imprisoned with Mandela.

Daniels describes how music was used on the island to raise inmates’ spirits and how Mandela would help stage an annual Christmas concert.

When he was studying at Fort Hare, Mandela had taken ballroom dancing classes and joined the drama society, where he no doubt partook in musical theatre.

On camera, Daniels sings Bonny Mary of Argyle, a song he says Mandela used to sing.

“In prison there were subversive folk songs that they could sing and get away with,” Bourque told Spin in a recent interview. “They would sing these folk songs while working on the lime quarry … Shosholoza was one of the workers’ folk songs, which Mandela compared to the apartheid struggle.”

Chaka Chaka says: “He loved the music. Oliver Tambo was a conductor for God’s sake. They loved music. It kept them going.”


The sounds of home

Writing for NPR, jazz aficionado Gwen Ansell traces Madiba’s love of music back to his Eastern Cape family roots.

“The Xhosa speaking-peoples of the region have a tradition of split-tone singing: vocalists can create more than one note simultaneously, and weave those tones together in magically complex rhythmic patterns. They call it ‘putting salt in a tune’ and this is the music Mandela heard during his village childhood.”

She also notes the influence of early Christian missionaries and the rise of indigenous hymns in the region.

Mandela loved traditional sounds but he also famously said he loved to listen to classical composers like Handel and Tchaikovsky and watch the sun go down.


The great songbirds

One of the things Mandela took with him from his childhood was a love of women singing traditional songs.

“Mandela was very funny,” says Chaka Chaka. “He would ask me about these traditional musicians and I kept on saying ‘Tata, those were like my mothers, I didn’t know them.’ But, obviously, Miriam Makeba was at the top of his list, always. Dolly Rathebe, he would say… and Dorothy Masuku … and there was a woman, I don’t know whether it was Sophie something, not Sophie Mgcina, and he would always say to me, ‘Do you remember that woman … that beautiful woman?’ And I would say to him, ‘Tata I don’t know her. I was probably not even born.’

Chaka Chaka recalls hosting Makeba’s 60th birthday, with Tambo and Mandela seated on the couch having great fun and urging Makeba to sing. I asked if she did. “Of course she sang. She loved to sing, you know, when she was at a function she would sing…”

In 1988 Makeba had performed Hugh Masekela’s Soweto Blues for Mandela’s 70th birthday concert in London. She was a regular among the band of music stars who fought apartheid through song, raising Mandela’s profile and demanding his release from prison.

When Makeba died in 2008, Mandela called her “South Africa’s first lady of song” and “the mother of our struggle”.


Man about town

Makeba’s professional career began with her performing in jazz groups and her jazz influences were no doubt part of her appeal to Mandela.

“He was a huge jazz fan,” says Bourque, the filmmaker. “Leading up to his incarceration he was well known on the jazz scene, from what I uncovered in some interviews.”

Ansell agrees: “He was also a promising amateur boxer, a stylish dresser, and a much-admired man-about-town, who socialised in the politically aware racially-mixed suburbs of the city, such as Sophiatown.

“The late jazz guitarist General Duze remembered ‘Mandela had always been a fan of mine … he liked his jazz, and whenever we played … he’d jive.’ For a flavour of the music Mandela may have danced to, listen to the late singer Dolly Rathebe – the most admired beauty and singer of her generation – working here with the African Jazz Pioneers, a revival band composed of veteran former stars of the South African jazz scene. The song is Meadowlands, written by Strike Vilakazi to protest the destruction and forced removal of Sophiatown in the early 1950s by the apartheid government.”


Global pop star

As he raised money for charity, Mandela associated with countless contemporary pop stars. He may have gushed about the Spice Girls, but there’s no confirmation that he loved their songs.

There are murmurs within the Mandela family that he was a fan of Bongo Maffin’s Thathi Sgubhu but again no confirmation. Speaking to Thandiswa Mazwai and Speedy from the newly reunited outfit, they recall an invitation from Zindzi Mandela to have lunch with Madiba and Michael Jackson. I ask Speedy if Mandela mentioned loving their song, but he says, “No, all the focus was on Michael Jackson.”

There are similar rumours about Brenda Fassie’s Vulindlela, written for him, as was her iconic Black President. Mandela is pictured hugging her and visiting her at home. He also visited her in hospital before she died.

Harris, the historian, says there are some actual clues in Mandela’s memoir Conversations with Myself.

“There is a reflection by Madiba of that concert in London where he was distracted, when he really wanted to see The Manhattan Brothers and really wanted to see Tracy Chapman.”

Mandela had only just been released from prison when he attended the concert, Nelson Mandela: An International Tribute for a Free South Africa. Of the star-studded line-up at the Wembley Stadium it is telling that who he really wanted to see was an African jazz band and a female folk singer.

So who was Mandela’s favourite artist? Bourque says that by the end of filming his documentary he believes he has the answer: “Ladysmith Black Mambazo was Mandela’s favourite band.”

The truth, though, is probably that Mandela loved many artists for many different reasons.


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