Here in the U.S. (and in many other Western countries), the notion that popular music can actually effect social change is considered incredibly naive. That, however, is precisely what happened according to the film Amandala! A Revolution in Four-part Harmony. The soundtrack album features many performances from the film (29 tracks in all) by performers both widely known and more obscure, but the real point of the CD is the music’s subject matter and buoyant spirit.
That spirit is readily apparent on the first full track, Vusi Mahlasela’s soulful “When You Come Back”, which segues from an emotional a cappella first two minutes to a delicately rhythmic song. The song celebrates the return of a hero, an optimistic expression from the period following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Mahlasela, whose U.S. debut release, The Voice, was recorded after Dave Matthews signed the singer to his ATO record label contributes three other songs to the soundtrack: “Thina Lomhlaba Siwugezi ,“Mayibuye”, and “Kuzobenjani Na?” His music is crucial to the story of resistance through song, as is his personal story. The documentary shows him voting in 1994, layering a personal victory onto the story of the victory of a people and a country.
Hearing these freedom songs, one cannot help but be impressed by the wealth of musical influences that find their way into them, from American folk to blues, jazz, and elements of Western pop music. For example, listen to the Nancy Jacobs and Sisters track “Meadowlands”, and marvel at the perfect 1940’s-style big band swing vocals used to present this song about the ghetto to which Johannesburg’s blacks were confined. Or the Duke Ellington-esque “Sad Times, Bad Times” from the musical King Kong that opened at London’s Princes Theatre in February of 1961. The title of the musical referred to Zulu boxer Ezekiel Dhlamini, who became a folk hero for his defiant stance towards white society (not unlike American boxer Jack Johnson), and whose nickname was “King Kong”. Many of the stars of that show—Miriam Makeba, Avdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, and others—were either unable to return home following their stint in London because of comments they made about conditions back home, or they simply refused to return, becoming refugees from their homeland.
Indeed, Miriam Makeba had her passport canceled by the South African government, so she went to the U.S. instead, eventually becoming the wife of Afro-American activist Stokely Charmichael. Makeba is represented here by the tracks “Beware Verwoerd” and “Bahleli Bonke”. The first is a lively vocal harmony number with a lilting calypso rhythm, but it’s message, a warning to Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoed, whose ideology spawned apartheid, is deadly serious. The second is a protest song from the 1960s, a time when all the opposition leadership was imprisoned for life on Robben Island, a prison island reserved for those who had committed crimes against the government. In fact, you can hear a performance by the Robben-Island Prison Singers on this soundtrack as well, the work song “Y’Zinga.” The song states, “The back-side of a loafer is as hard as the concrete.” It’s a song sung for no other reason than to get through the day.
South African jazz occupies a special space in both South African music and the jazz world. Hugh Masakela and Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly known as Dollar Brand), both of whom appear here, are among the most famous South African musical exports, and certainly they have had the longest careers to date. Masakela’s haunting “Stimela” is a lament by a migrant worker in the diamond mines of South Africa who misses his wife and children. It is particularly poignant because Masakela wrote it during his period of exile from his homeland and the song’s tone of loneliness mirrors what its composer must have been feeling at the time. Ibrahim’s “Mannenburg”, an anthem, is a pretty folk melody rendered with a gospel sensibility. The impressionistic “Did You Hear That Sound? (Dreamtime Improv)” is more traditional solo piano work. Ibrahim gets the last word, as well, the closing “Kramat”, which melds Cuban rhythms with the unique sounds of Cape Town. It’s a joyous celebration that ends the soundtrack on an emotional high note.
One question that I believe should be asked of a soundtrack album, even one for a significant and socially important film, is simply whether the music stands up on its own. In this case, the answer is a very clear yes. There is such a rich feast here of South Africa’s varied musical influences that it should be required listening for anyone with an interest in the music produced by South African artists. Though the music is inseparable from the social situation from which it emerged and which it described, mourned, and railed against, the music is never merely a vehicle for the delivery of words of protest. The music itself contributes to the message. Like the O, Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Amandla! is a collection that can educate and inspire truly interested listeners to explore new realms of music from traditions outside of their own.