Music walks the political and cultural tightrope

Music walks the political and cultural tightropeMusic walks the political and cultural tightrope.
by Struan Douglas

Iisiginci siyakha’ ilizwe – a guitar builds a nation.

Brenda Fassie

“1963, the peoples president was taken away by security men, all dressed in a uniform of brutality.”
“We miss you Manelo, Where are you?”
“You’re casting your spell on my soul, why don’t you leave me alone?”
“Sit dit af. Sit dit af..”

Amandla – ngawethu: Chicco, Brenda, Juluka, Harari, Johannes Kerkorrel. These were some of the stars far-flung South Africa jived with. The stars of protest and popular music that came together and gave the people inspiration, courage, and comfort. Siyaya phambili – we are going forward.

Campuses danced, whistled, communities marched, cheered and stadiums were alive with the shouts, screams and songs of freedom. Radical, satirical, jazz or pop – music by its nature was politicised. It was about society, about freedom, fashioning an honest culture and building a democratic nation. Musicians spearheaded the cultural revolution to seize power from the oppressors and conscientise people to the struggle for liberation.

One monster, many musicians, and a desire for triumph through common expression.

Liberation from the monster, the single monster that destroyed vibrant communities, segregated people, forced hundreds of talented writers and artists into exile and isolated the rest in a land where those that milked the cow got no honey. Yet, like Madiba used the time he had on Robben Island for reflection, good came out of South Africa’s time home alone too. One monster, many musicians, anda desire for triumph through common expression.

Isiginci asakh’umuzi – a guitar doesn’t build a homestead goes the age-old Zulu prophecy, but in such circumstances- isiginci siyakha’ ilizwe – a guitar builds a nation.

Through the two dark decades of Apartheid’s desperate repression musicians scattered. Some stayedin the country compromising their ethics, abilities and earnings. Chris Macgregor wore a cap to hide his blonde locks. Winston Mankunku played behind a curtain, Basil Coetzee quit the scene to work in a shoe factory and Kippie Moeketsi died a very frustrated man. Abdullah Ibrahim couldn’t take the humiliation. He left. So too with the King Kong musical and The Blue Notes. And the rich vernacular of South African culture had been sucked dry exposing a desolate musical vacuum.

Ray Phiri (R)

By the sixties, black America had wrestled civil rights, post-war economics had improved and the whole world was dancing to a new consciousness – peace, universal love and flower power. Even BraHugh Masekela became a hippie. Against this back-drop of ‘peace’ and ‘tolerance’, the PAC (Pan African Congress) split from the ANC, giving birth to the Black Consciousness movement and stimulating another purposeful arm for the struggle and a sense of belonging for musicians abroad.

Black South Africans were challenging, building confidence and redefining who they were. Through milestone recordings like ‘Union of South Africa’ and Abdullah Ibrahim’s ‘Mannenberg’ in the 70’s, artists were cementing and celebrating the culture of their oppressed homeland. It was an outpouring of African culture and self-validation, on still a small and distant scale, but the liberation movement was evolving and striving to a point of full confidence.

“There is a train …,” sang Masekela in ‘Stimela’. “Sixteen hours of work a day for almost no pay. Deep, deep down in the belly of the earth, where they are digging and drilling for that mighty evasive stone. They’re dished up mishmash food on their iron plates with an iron shovel or when they sit in their stinky, funky, filthy flea-ridden barracks, they think about the loved ones they’ll never see again because they have been forcibly removed… Think about their lands and their herds taken away from them with the gun and the bomb and the teargas and the cannon.”

“Music is our strength, our mobilizer. Music makes our people very strong when they are together…”

Music sang of the fears, dreams, hardships and joy of the communities. Music brought hope where there was despair and a strong message to gather our routes, explore our expression and wrestle civil rights from the authority. Musicians were entertainers, oral historians and social commentators. They made a massive contribution to where we are now.

“Music is our strength, our mobilizer. Music makes our people very strong when they are together, it enables people to keep on struggling under terrible conditions, ” said Don Ngubeni – director of Radio Freedom.

As part of the ANC’s cultural wing, Amandla, Radio Freedom provided the only alternative to the strongly censored South African Broadcasting Corporation. It merged political content and news with popular music of many banned artists here, in exile and internationally. From Miriam Makeba’s banned records to Jimmy Cliff’s ‘Struggling Man’ and Bob Marley’s ‘Blackman Redemption’. Aspirations suddenly found expression in the media and gave the ANC the possibility of being in constant and dynamic contact with the people – building the protest platform and shifting the consciousness of the people to a restlessness and a defiance of apartheid. ‘Freedom or death.’

‘Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights.’ The late seventies was slowly freeing itself from cultural imperialism. Young people were defying cultural and racial intolerance all over the world, freeing themselves from repression and getting on down to the simple reggae messages of liberation and equality. The birth of the eighties was a period of revival.

Philip Tabane (Malombo)

“In a time of intense repression where people didn’t meet – young people of all colours and cultures could come together to jol [party],” says Steve Gordon of Making Music. “And this attracted the interest of the police and made those ordinary jol activities a focus of petty repression and police brutality, whether it be teargas or cracking people over the heads. They would then become politicised. This stimulated a consciousness and desire for us in South Africa to have our own expression forms and to assert, platform and develop them in a gut and soulful way.”

The audience, the artists, the communities were all hungry for expression and the emergence of the activism and organised resistance of the UDF provided this catalyst inside the country. The UDF created a political platform for musicians to come out of hibernation and play and be heard through rallies, festivals and community concerts.

Basil Coetzee left the shoe factory, guys like Robbie Jansen could get out of the funk and pop of
the club scene. Local bands came together with a greater mission than just jamming. They had to balance in the treacherous world of South Africa, with that chilling chip of local politics weighing down the one shoulder. They looked to the roots, the pride of the Africanist music perspective for the counterbalance.

Musicians chose commitment over aesthetics. Poetry and art wasn’t about flowers or sun-sets – it was about what was happening – the suffering, inequities and brutality. Sakhile, Malombo, Sankomoto, Stimela, Bayete and Harari symbolised the cultural orientation of black consciousness – bringing a voice of courage, protest, comfort and inspiration to a disenfranchised nation. ‘It takes time’, warned Sipho Mabuse, ‘What’s going on? Trouble in the land of plenty.’ exclaimed Ray Phiri whilst Sankomoto’s Sekunjalo called for justice, pride and celebration of South Africa’s heritage and tradition

“Coming back home, man it was like John Glen coming back from space,” said Hugh Masekela.

And when the necessary evil of the cultural boycott arrived in full force in the mid-eighties our culture was further entrenched. It was a hugely disguised luck – a little like a hunger strike. Artists were prevented from performing to segregated audiences, meaning the lucrative international arm and influences were lost which clearly slowed our musical growth and development. But, through isolation local artists were forced to look at themselves and do the best with what they had. Psychologically it
was crucial in gaining solidarity abroad, giving South Africans the sense that there was a world out there and they were with us, which strengthened things internally. It was the beginnings of a cultural revolution, are-unification, and a realisation of South Africa’s artistic ability.

Attenborough’s ‘Cry Freedom,’ and Mandela’s massive birthday at Wembley Stadium (the third biggest media event ever – more than a billion people watched it live) made a huge international impact, and began closing the gap on apartheid, speeding up the economic embargoes.

‘The Info song’ – a ‘We are the world’ type propaganda song featuring ‘sell-out’ black musicians Zane Adams and Steve Kekana tried to slow the inevitable, but was a massive failure. Young white South Africans were also gradually becoming  conscientised. ECC (End Conscription Campaign) was mobilised and had a significant cultural profile and white musicians joined for the passionate and impulsive ‘Voel vry’ tour of suburbia and the campuses.

Eighties music became the reflection of the blossoming of years of mass struggle: Celebrating cultural heritage and identity; representing the shifting perceptions of community, empowerment, identity and gender relations; and projecting the birth pangs of a new world of change.

Johnny Clegg

One human – one vote, many races – one people. Salvation, liberation and unity across racial and cultural barriers was becoming a popular ideology. And when Paul Simon and the Graceland tour controversially broke the boycottwith local acts like Ladysmith Black Mambaso, Ray Phiri and Savuka on a hugely spectacular local and international platform, the face of South African music was being exposed and the multi-cultural base solidified.

“Coming back home, man it was like John Glen coming back from space,” said Hugh Masekela. The exiles returned and Madiba was freed. The euphoria had begun, South Africa was emerging from the belly of imperialism, divide and reaction.

And now, the posters of protest, the colour of hope and the vibrant performance energy lace our world with nostalgia. We may remember those that died on the road, Johnny Dyani,
Steve Bantu Biko, Kippie Moeketsi, Dudu Pukwana, Nat Nakasa to name but a few. We may celebrate the good, those that never faltered from the path of Africanist intentions and we
may draw survivalist lessons from the horrors that paved their way.

A generation suffered and struggled and they are the true African renaissance people. It is through their pain that we, the youth, may grow together. “Go on, go on my son, take over,” said Tsepo Tshola, and don’t forget your heritage, it’s what they struggled for and its what we have.

The artists who have been before are all unique and authentic. The African Renaissance is an African thing, for Africa, by Africans. And that’s the doctrine youth culture can benefit from explains Valmont Layne, “it needs to touch base with what’s been before, a sense of cultural heritage – the local touch that gives our culture its uniqueness.”

“We have to look at the wealth that is here,” agrees Steve Gordon “and slowly build content on that. Otherwise this African Renaissance is just a package of zebra skins and marimba music in elevators.”

Vulindlele. What was a stream yesterday is now a river. The world, the market, the media and the industry have changed. It is a digital age, a global market and music video culture. The previously fragmented youth market is slowly merging and young artists are endowed with many more opportunities to record, gig, be recognised and sell albums. Musicians are asserting their identity with a lot more freedom, scope and confidence to express themselves multi-lingually and multi-culturally in an environment that encourages sharing and development. And that is liberating. Africa Beats is brought to you each month courtesy of the Afri-Beat Web Site.

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