Show #10: A Tribute To Nelson Mandela & South Africa

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mandela sculpture

This weeks Rhythm Planet program celebrates South African music, including many songs paying tribute to Nelson Mandela. I hope it sends out healing vapors and spreads healing vibrations out toward Nelson Mandela’s hospital room. This music not only celebrates Mandela’s courage, leadership, and legacy: it is a celebration of life and the triumph of hope over despair.


Rhythm Planet Playlist: 6/28/13

  1. Dollar Brand | Cape Town Fringe (Fill) | Cape Town Fringe | Chiaroscuro
  2. The South African national anthem – Nkosi Sikelel Afrika
  3. Miriam Makeba | Iyaguduza | Reflections | Heads Up
  4. Nelson Mandela | Speech After Becoming Elected President May
  5. Joy (feat. Brenda Fassie) | State Of Independence | 12″ Unreleased | Island
  6. Eric Bibb | Mandela Is Free | Home To Me | Earthbeat! Records
  7. Freshly Ground | Doo Be Doo | Nomvula | Freeground Records
  8. Macka B | Proud Of Mandela | Natural Suntan | Ariwa
  9. Lucky Dube | Different Colors | Lucky Dube: Retrospective | Ryko
  10. Peter Gabriel | Biko | Plays Live | Geffen
  11. Miriam Makeba & The Skylarks | Phatha Phatha | The Best Of | Kaz
  12. Paul Simon | Under African Skies | Graceland | Warner Bros.
  13. The CDM Globetrotting Choir | Free Nelson Mandela | Single | iTunes
  14. Ladysmith Black Mambazo | Long Walk To Freedom | Long Walk To Freedom | Heads Up (note: Long Walk to Freedom is the name of Mandela’s autobiography)
  15. Hugh Masakela | Mandela: Bring Him Back Home | Hope | Triloka
  16. Mahlathini and The Mahotella Queens | Bayeza | Mbaqanga (Zulu Jive) | Verve
  17. Theo Blaise Kounkou | Mandela Wetu | Belle Amicha | Weedo Music
  18. Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) | Cape Town Fringe | Cape Town Fringe | Chiaroscuro

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As former South African president Nelson Mandela‘s life hangs in the balance, we hope and pray he will recover and leave the Pretoria hospital. As of this writing he is on life support, so this seems less and less likely. His lung infection may well lead to his demise, and it is a terrible scar left behind from his 27 years in solitary confinement 1964-1991, much of it spent in prison on Robben Island off the picturesque coast of Capetown, where he contracted TB so many years ago in an unheated cell. It is one more shameful mark on the apartheid and its hideous legacy. Mandela actually was given a life sentence, which was only lifted when apartheid fell in the beginning of the 1990s. In 1994, he was elected President of South Africa, becoming the father of a new “Rainbow Nation”. South Africans call him their beloved “Madiba”, “Papa” and “Father”. President Obama called him a personal hero when speaking in Senegal the other day. For those of you in LA, the wonderful UCLA Fowler Museum has a Nelson Mandela exhibit: Mandela for President: South Africa Votes for Democracy that will run until September 8th.

The 1970s and 1980s in South Africa were in many ways similar to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s in America. And, like the United States, there was plenty of music that was part of the struggle, both above ground and underground. The BBC film documentary by Jeremy Marre, Rhythm of Resistance, chronicles the musical underground of Johannesburg in the 1970s. It is still fascinating and chilling. Like Martin Luther King at almost the same time in history in the early 1960s, the young anti-apartheid lawyer and activist put his life on the line for the cause of freedom and equality. Both men were  inspiring leaders whose visions and sacrifices changed millions of lives.

Johnny Clegg & Sipho Mchunu (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

South African mpaqanda music (soul stew, zulu jive) is one of the most joyful musics in the world. Black South Africans make the music there. Who has ever heard of a white South African artist, aside from Johnny Clegg, who learned how to play zulu jive and was a prime mover in getting the world to listen? In fact, his group Johnny and Sipho was the first bi-racial group in apartheid South Africa. Today top groups like Freshly Ground are mixed-race bands, almost unthinkable before Johnny Clegg broke the color barrier. It’s always striking to me to find joyful music coming out of countries that are beset by hate, distrust, and prejudice. In the 1970s, much black music was played in shebeens, black underground clubs where people drank and danced their Saturday nights away. In Rhythm of Resistance, there is a zulu men’s choir–South Africa had segregated hostels where black miners and other workers stayed–in a contest with other choirs. The men are dressed to the nines, with white gloves and shoes. The judge is chosen because of his complete ignorance of black South African music–in this case, a chain-smoking white man just released from prison. It is an unforgettable scene.

Here is a clip from Rhythm of Resistance, showing Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, doing their famous duet; a duet between a white and a black South African was unheard of in the 1970s when the underground film was made.

As Music Director of KCRW during the 1980s, both I and the music staff were watching the events in South Africa. We had an African show and were featuring African music daily, including many South African artists, and this was long before Paul Simon’s Graceland. We asked listeners who were visiting Johannesburg to visit the Kohinoor Store to bring back the latest hit LPs for us (Kohinoor’s motto was on every LP: “Where we sell records like cornflakes”). We still have those records in the library: The Cockerel Boys, Afabana Boseka, and early Ladysmith Black Mambazo LPs from the early 1980s. We also had regular visits from a South African producer, Di Brukin, who moved between LA and Johannesburg and brought us the latest music and news. KCRW’s host of the popular Sunday afternoon Reggae Beat show, Roger Steffens, was making cassettes of those early LPs and sending them to Paul Simon, who was inspired to make Graceland as a result. We also supported the 1985 boycott of Sun City, along with many top artists who refused to perform in this apartheid-era South African music festival, e.g., United Artists Against Apartheid. We frequently played Peter Gabriel’s moving song “Biko” about the South African journalist who died in 1977 while in police custody and soon became a martyr in the anti-apartheid movement.

We also featured early South African stars like Miriam Makeba and The Skylarks, the Cape Town bantu band The Manhattan Brothers, and the penny whistle master Spokes Mashiyane. Also the great Mahotella Queens and the Lion of Soweto, Mahlathini. On the jazz front, we played (and still play) Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly known as Dollar Brand), and trumpeter Hugh Masakela, all the way back to his debut MGM album The Americanization of Ooga Booga, a most unfortunate title but perhaps reflecting the Tarzan stereotypes of the time.

I once interviewed Rian Malan, author of the controversial book, My Traitor’s Heart, on MBE. His father was David Malan, one of the architects of apartheid. Rian loved zulu jive and guest DJ’d his favorite sides. Mama Africa, Miriam Makeba, visited us several times. Makeba got a double whammy: exiled from South Africa because she spoke out  in the United Nations General Assembly against apartheid, then blacklisted by agencies because she married former Black Panther Stokely Carmichael, then exiled in Guinea, West Africa. South Africa punished her by revoking her passport and citizenship. She wasn’t able to return to her homeland for almost 30 years. Here is an excerpt of what she said in 1963 at the UN:

“I ask you and all the leaders of the world, would you act differently, would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place? Would you not resist if you were allowed no rights in your own country because the color of your skin is different from that of the rulers, and if you were punished for even asking for equality. I appeal to you, and to all the countries of the world to do everything you can to stop the coming tragedy. I appeal to you to save the lives of our leaders, to empty the prisons of all those who should never have been there.”

The lineage of non-violence in South Africa is interesting: it took root with Mahatma Gandhi, who was a young lawyer there before returning to India. Gandhi in turn inspired Martin Luther King. Mandela was inspired by both great men. He was imprisoned in 1964, a year after the MLK’s march on Washington and a year before the march on Selma, Alabama.

A few years ago, I was in a line to buy tickets to a Santa Monica Civic Auditorium concert of Ray Charles. After waiting for a long time, I got to the front, only to be told that I couldn’t buy tickets without a Sears credit card. The woman in front of me came around and said she’d charge the four tickets and I, a complete stranger, could just pay her back. She handed me her card; she was an anesthesiological nurse at Santa Monica Hospital. She had a South African accent. I put a bunch of Ladysmith Black Mambazo songs on a cassette tape and enclosed it with a check. She’d never heard of the group but fell in love with it. So did her colleagues. That cassette became the favorite music for surgeons in the operating theater.

In apartheid South Africa, all music had to pass the censors. All cuts had to be 3 minutes long. When we got the first Boyoyo Boys LP (the group was also featured on Simon’s Graceland) it was a little creepy to see all cuts just 3′ long. Creative South African artists created music with fabular lyrics, songs about big animals being outsmarted by smaller animals, and other fables that had deeper messages and subtexts, meanings that escaped the censor’s ears. You see this on the Jeremy Marre documentary.

Quincy Jones once said that if you want rhythm, you go to West Africa. If you want voices, you go to South Africa. Like the US, black music was nurtured by the Black Church, by leaders like Bishop Desmond Tutu. Like the US, the Black Church was a place of refuge, a place to publicly celebrate the spirit and spiritual music. Hence South African gospel and American gospel music share many things in common. Aretha Franklin belongs to us; Sibongile Khumalo is her South African counterpart. Both grew up in the church.

Reggae became the top music in the 1990s, when apartheid was lifted. Bob Marley became one of the biggest inspirations in the struggle for freedom and justice. He stood for freedom, strength, and justice. Rebellion too. His anthemic songs were smuggled in on cassette to thousands if not millions of eager young people. Lucky Dube became the biggest star of the 1990s, and I was fortunate to produce a wonderful 2-disc retrospective on his music for the Ryko label a few years ago.

I hope you enjoy this edition of Rhythm Planet and its celebration of Nelson Mandela and music’s role in the struggle against apartheid.

Who could forget the film Amandla?

The Soweto Gospel Choir singing Nkosi Sikelel Afrika, the South African national anthem:

The English translation of the South African national anthem is:

Lord Bless Africa

May her glory be lifted high

Hear Our Petitions

Lord bless us, your children

Lord we ask you to protect our nation

Intervene and end all conflicts

Protect us, protect our nation

Protect South Africa, South Africa

Out of the blue of our heavens

Out of the depths of our seas

Over our everlasting mountains

Where the echoing crags resound.