Various Artists: Amandla! A Revolution In Four-Part Harmony

Marshall Bowden

Various Artists

Amandla! a Revolution in Four-Part Harmony

Label: ATO

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

The Force, which details the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts, is best viewed as a complimentary work to prior Black Lives Matter documentaries, such 2017's Whose Streets? and The Blood Is at the Doorstep.

Peter Nicks' documentary The Force examines the Oakland Police Department's recent reform efforts to curb its history of excessive police force and systemic civil rights violations, which have warranted federal government oversight of the Department since 2003. Although it has its imperfections, The Force stands out for its uniquely equitable treatment of law enforcement as a complex organism necessitating difficult incremental changes.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.