Music of South Africa During Apartheid

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, known as the “mother of the nation” of South Africa, passed away earlier this month at the age of 81. During the apartheid era, she fought tirelessly for her then-husband Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and for the rights of poor black South Africans. Winnie became a powerful symbol of the resistance, and was herself harassed and imprisoned for her anti-apartheid struggles. With her recent passing and South Africa on my mind, I pulled out some of the music from those years to share on this week’s show.

We begin with a famous song from a young Miriam Makeba and penny-whistler Spokes Mashiyane, the so-called “King of Kwela Jive.” It’s the original version of Makeba’s hit song “Pata Pata,” which charted in South Africa as well as in Europe and America. Sadly, Makeba once told me she had to keep touring because she didn’t receive any “Pata Pata” royalties.

We next hear some classic Zulu jive (called “mbaqanga” in Zulu) from the Mahotella Queens and Mahlathini, dubbed the “Lion of Soweto” for his deep, growling voice. The music is joyous and rhythmic. Quincy Jones once said when you want rhythm, you go to West Africa, but when you want voices you go to South Africa. No doubt the churches (and choirs) in South Africa had a lot to do with that, just like with American gospel music. It was a place to feel free.

Brenda Fassie, niece of Nelson Mandela, sang briefly with the next group we hear from called Joy. They recorded this South African version of the Jon Anderson & Vangelis’ song “State of Independence.” This version was issued by Island Records publishing but was never released commercially. I have the 12” vinyl single from the 80’s.

The next track comes from the first bi-racial group in South Africa—Johnny & Sipho. The BBC recorded the song underground in South Africa during the 1970’s with a young Johnny Clegg (white)—who had mastered Zulu music and dance and Sipho Mchunu (black)—the latter then working as a gardener. The song comes from an extraordinary BBC Film documentary called Rhythm of Resistance.  I have the soundtrack on vinyl, but you can find a cd version, too. I highly recommend the documentary film.

We move on to a later song from Johnny Clegg called “Asimbonanga,” a Zulu word for Nelson Mandela. This anti-apartheid song comes originally from a 1987 album called Third World Child by Clegg’s interracial band Savuka. Mandela was still then a prisoner on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town. The late trumpeter Hugh Masekela next sings his anti-apartheid anthem “Bring Him Back Home,” dedicated to Nelson Mandela.

Peter Gabriel wrote the powerful song “Biko” for his album Peter Gabriel 3 in 1980. The song is named after a black South African journalist, Steve Biko, who died from injuries sustained in jail after his arrest. A haunting line in the song has always captivated me:

You can blow out a candle /  But you can’t blow out a fire
When the flames begin to catch /  The wind will blow it higher

Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland featured many great South African musicians and won universal acclaim. I interviewed Simon for Morning Becomes Eclectic back then, which you can hear here. It was the only interview Simon gave on his press tour in Los Angeles, and he told us the story of the album. We listen to “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” with the incredible Zulu men’s choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Next up is an early track from Lucky Dube, South Africa’s first big reggae star after apartheid fell. Although Bob Marley was known in South Africa during apartheid, reggae was not allowed, its protest message not tolerated by the Afrikaner government. This song is in pure Zulu jive style, and I chose it for Retrospective, a cd/dvd history of Dube’s career that I produced. He was tragically shot and killed in a carjacking while picking up his kids from school in Johannesburg.

We hear a beautiful ballad by singer Sibongile Khumalo called “Umhome,” recorded at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre and released only in South Africa. I was fortunate to see her at Grand Performances downtown LA with Hugh Masekela years ago. I love her voice and obviously the assembled crowd does, too.

We cap the show with an excerpt from Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim’s anthemic “Mannenberg – Is Where it’s Happening" aka “Cape Town Fringe.” Ibrahim recorded the song on harpsichord in 1974 on a return trip to South Africa after his exile. The song refers to Manenberg, a town on the outskirts of Cape Town. Black and coloured residents were forcibly removed from white neighborhoods and resettled in Manenberg beginning in 1966.

Watching the BBC documentary Rhythm of Resistance is a reminder, even a revelation, of how the black and coloured majority lived in South Africa after apartheid was put in place in 1947. It finally ended in 1991. I witnessed many of the events from my KCRW perch and featured a lot of South African music on the air. Our The African Beat show on Saturday afternoons also followed the events and music there. This week’s Rhythm Planet show only gives a small taste of this fascinating, sometimes tragic, and ultimately triumphal story.

Rhythm Planet Playlist for 4/13/18

  1. Miriam Makeba & The Skylarks / "Phatha Phatha" /The Best of Miriam Makeba & The Skylarks / Kaz/Camden International
  2. Mahlathini and The Mahotella Queens / "Kwa Volondiya" / A Taste of the Indestructible Beat of Soweto / Earthworks
  3. Joy / "State of Independence" / Island Records
  4. Johnny & Sipho / "Inkunzi Ayi Hlabi Ngokusima" / Rhythm of Resistance: Music of Black South Africa / Shanachie
  5. Johnny Clegg & Savuka / "Asimbonanga" / In My African Dream / Parlophone UK
  6. Hugh Masekela / "Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)" / The Best of Hugh Masekela / Columbia
  7. Peter Gabriel / "Biko" / Peter Gabriel 3: Melt / Real World
  8. Paul Simon & Ladysmith Black Mambazo / "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" / Graceland / Sony Legacy
  9. Lucky Dube / "Baxoleleni" / Retrospective / Rykodisc
  10. Sibongile Khumalo / "Umhome" / Live at the Market Theatre / Sony
  11. Dollar Brand / "Mannenburg / "Cape Town Fringe" / Cape Town Fringe / Chiaroscuro Records





Tom Schnabel