Radical Rhythms: Music to Rock Your World

Against the Current, No. 100, September/October 2002

Kim D. Hunter

South African Freedom Songs
Inspiration for Liberation
Making Music Productions 001

“Without (this) music ours would have been a much more protracted and bloodier struggle.” –Desmond Tutu, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, South Africa

IN 1979, DURING some of the darkest days of apartheid, South African freedom fighters began returning from North African training camps to the frontlines in their native country. Besides the sense of renewal that training and discipline encourages, they returned with what was in effect a war dance, a hybrid of Northern African chants and Southern African movement. Toyi-Toyi, as it was called, swept the land. Like a politicized version of step dancing, this highly syncopated and extremely physical dance/chant was employed by South Africans to anger their oppressors while keeping their own spirits high.

The Toyi-Toyi is one of the more striking examples of the culture of struggle in South Africa, but it is only one of many such musical examples that have been gathered on South African Freedom Songs — Inspiration for Liberation. This well-packaged, two CD set consists of a one-hour radio documentary and a CD of the songs. Judging by the 001 record number, this seems to be the debut and a rather auspicious one for the Making Music label out of South

My inclination was to jump right to the music, produced by Barry Feinberg and Shamiel Adams. Only a few days later did I put on the spoken word radio documentary, liberally laced with music. To my surprise it was at least as entertaining as the music CD. Lucie Page, the writer, producer and co-narrator — along with Shado Twala — has done a great job. Of course neither of these CDs are going to rock your party, but they might rock your world.

The illustrious South African vocal style is well represented here and placed in a context of the struggle against apartheid, it is all the more inspiring. You may have heard the distinctly “nonpolitical” music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. This music, influenced by European vocals but shaped by Zulu migrant workers, is among the region’s biggest cultural exports. As noted on the record, every struggle has its music, but the role of the music in the protracted and bloody struggle against apartheid was great.

“This was a time when violence was ripping this country (South Africa) apart. One could tell, especially in places like Natal, if it wasn’t for the Toyi-Toyi, those communities would have been very demoralized.” –Beleka Mbete, Deputy Speaker of Parliament, South Africa

Like most expression, the Toyi-Toyi served as both inspiration and release valve (with all of the contradictions of those two roles). In one of the most gripping moments on the record, Tutu recounts a moment in church on the third anniversary of the Soweto Uprising when the congregation began chanting and singing (also on the record) “Viva the AK.” The AK-47 was, of course, the weapon of choice in the armed struggle. While Tutu did not condone advocating violence, he did nothing to dissuade the chant. He thought the people needed to vent their frustration.

This venting could be seen to have a double edge. On the one hand, the forces of liberation were so severely outgunned that armed struggle as carried out in neighboring Zimbabwe would have been futile and exceedingly bloody. So masses of folks taking up the gun might not have worked. On the other hand, if people had been satisfied with only singing and chanting, the struggle would have also failed.

Bertolt Brecht urged against relying strictly on emotional appeals in political art lest clear analysis suffer. But very emotional music was as much a part of the struggle in South Africa as the church (also seen as double-edged factor) was in the Nicaraguan Revolution. In both cases, the political clarity of the people, honed in no small part by the brutality of their oppressors, overcame whatever contradictions were present.

The record also shows, as in the struggle against U.S. apartheid laws, how religious music served the struggle. The most famous example of this is “Nkosi Sekel’ iAfrica” (or “God Bless Africa”), which became first the ANC anthem and then one of the two official South African anthems.

The radio documentary features many of the notable leaders of movement: Desmond Tutu, veteran ANC leader Walter Sisulu and Beleka Mbete, Deputy Speaker of Parliament. The record is dedicated to Vuyisile Mini, one of the martyrs of the music, who with fellow freedom fighters went to the gallows singing his “Naants’ inod’ emnya” (“Watch out Verwoerd, the black man is gonna get you!”)

A Nelson Mandela interview would have been nice given that he has specifically addressed the role of music in helping him and other prisons survive decades in the infamous Robben Island prison.

Nonetheless the CDs are a great inspiration in these dark days of the “endless war” in the midst of capital attempting to straddle the globe. Even without the radio documentary, it is great to hear the London ANC Choir doing “Nkosi Sekel’ iAfrica” and chanting the Toyi-Toyi. It is good to know that the struggle against apartheid lives in songs like “Ha Ke Sheba” (“When I look to the mountains, remember June 16 in Soweto”).

The most uplifting music on the CD is delivered by the Workers Choir. Unlike the London ANC Choir who are all spit and polish, these folks spit fire. Their version of “Ilizwe Ngelethu” (with the lyrics “Workers let’s unite, power is ours!”) is closer to what I expected more of the CD to sound like. It has the chants, side comments and encouragements of a live political rally. It sounds like liberation in progress.

ATC 100, September-October 2002