67 Minutes For Mandela

The 18th of July is Mandela Day, the date on which we celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birthday. It is also the date of the “67 minutes for Mandela” campaign, when everyone is encouraged to volunteer 67 minutes of their time to do something for their community. The message of the Mandela Day campaign is that Nelson Mandela fought for social justice for 67 years and in return people are asked to reciprocate by contributing 67 minutes.

This mixtape celebrates the life and contribution of Nelson Mandela by featuring 67 minutes of music recorded in his honour.

There are many songs we have not featured here simply because there is an abundance of songs to choose from and therefore many songs simply could not be included. We decided to feature musicians from our own continent, and mostly from South Africa. Some of these songs were written while Mandela was still in prison and at the time they expressed a yearning that he would one day be free. This spirit of hope was particularly captured in Hugh Masekela´s “Mandela (Bring Him Back Home)”, Chicco’s “We Miss You Mandela”, and Savuka’s “Asimbonanga” – all of which became popular across South Africa in the late 1980s. Chicco’s song was released as “We Miss You Manelow” in a (successful) attempt to bypass censorship of a song overtly about Mandela. Youssou N’Dour’s “Nelson Mandela” celebrated Mandela’s life from Senegal, while Abdullah Ibrahim recorded “Mandela” from the distance of exile.

In the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, on the 11th February 1990, several musicians released songs commemorating his life to that point, and celebrating his new-found freedom. Brenda Fassie’s “Black President” was the most popular of these, especially on South African dance floors, while Bright Blue’s “Madiba” was a more circumspect tribute. Other tributes soon followed, including Prophet of Da City’s iconic “Neva Again” and the African Jazz Pioneer’s anthemic “Viva Madiba”. The mixtape closes with a sequence of lamentful songs in praise of Nelson Mandela: Vusi Mahlasela’s “Ntate Madiba”, Dorothy Masuka’s “Mandela”, Linda Kekana’s “A Song For Madiba”, Khadja Nin’s “Mzee Mandela”, and Simphiwe Dana’s “Madiba”.

Assembling the mix, it struck us that the passion, hopes, and dreams of many of the artists at the time have been betrayed by a social justice revolution corrupted by kleptocrats and grifters. One particular thought drives home the tragedy of lost promise and broken promises.

Bright Blue’s rousing chorus goes:

Is there a night without a day?
Can you imagine it’s all been for nothing?
Could it be any other way?
Oh no, never, no, no

One can’t help wondering if it was all for nothing. Perhaps if we’d imagined the conditions that might betray the hopes and dreams of a nation back in 1990, it might have been prevented. But we didn’t, and so today millions still live in abject poverty as social services, infrastructure, public utilities – everything – collapses. If ever there was an ironic metaphor for this decay, a Minister of Transport landed in hospital following an accident allegedly caused by potholes they’d failed to have repaired.

The only growth is crime, violence, and government corruption, and it will remain on-the-up while decent and hard-working South Africans have anything left to steal or the endurance to carry on sweating, bleeding and weeping.

Still, we can’t say it was all for nothing. It wasn’t. But at the same time, few of us are doing the same optimistic dance we were doing 30 years ago. It is hard to dance in the face of the biggest disappointment of the 20th Century.

But, the music was great, wasn’t it?

Thanks to these musicians, and many others, who dedicated their time to write and record songs in honour of Nelson Mandela, his legacy will certainly live on in song, a reminder to us and future generations of what he stood for, and a challenge to us to make our own contribution towards social justice. There is still a great deal of work to be done.

  1. Black President – Brenda Fassie
  2. Mandela (Bring Him Back Home) – Hugh Masekela
  3. We Miss You Mandela – Chicco
  4. Nelson Mandela – Youssou N’Dour
  5. Asimbonanga – Savuka
  6. Mandela – Abdullah Ibrahim
  7. Neva Again – Prophets Of Da City
  8. Viva Madiba – African Jazz Pioneers
  9. Madiba – Bright Blue
  10. Ntate Mandela – Vusi Mahlasela
  11. Mandela – Dorothy Masuka
  12. A Song For Madiba – Linda Kekana
  13. Mzee Mandela – Khadja Nin
  14. Madiba – Simphiwe Dana

Poetry In Music

Today’s sleeve notes are are guest-written by poet and anthology editor Alan Finlay.

When Brett Houston-Lock sent me a message asking me if I would like to write this introduction, he also asked if I thought anything was missing from the list of South African “songs based on poems” he had forwarded. It’s a strangely difficult question to answer, not just because it prods the hornet’s nest of when poetry is song and song poetry, but because, off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of any other examples.

What Houston-Lock and his co-conspirator Michael Drewett have come up with is a rich and surprising collection of tracks that straddles genres – country-folk ballad, experimental reggae/funk, techno, electronic soundscape, jazz, choral, goth metal etc. – with three live tracks – by Koos Kombuis, David Kramer and a performance of Paul Mealor’s ‘Invictus’ – thrown in. Most but not all are South African musicians (Mealor is Welsh). Houston-Lock, who formed his band The Sighs of Monsters in the UK and who have recorded a translation of Ingrid Jonker’s ‘Tekening, lives abroad. Except for Mary Oliver, and William Ernest Henley who wrote ‘Invictus’, all the poets are South African.

Not every track here fits the bill of “songs based on poems” – and it’s clearly the intention to test the liminalities of the idea. Some are the result of creative collaborations between poets and musicians (e.g. Lesego Rampolokeng and the Kalahari Surfers, or Robert Berold and Larry Strelitz, who have worked together on and off for decades now). The Buckfever Underground is more like a poet-band project, where Toast Coetzer reads the often meandering and vivid landscapes of his poems to the background weaving of chunky electric guitar and drums, as if the point of the performance is the live search for the moment when the two cross paths. Mzwakhe Mbuli, as far as I know, always performed his struggle poems to a backing track. ‘The Beat’, which was to become one of the mainstays for the anti-apartheid left, was recorded in 1986 in the Shifty studio with amongst others Ian Herman and Gito Baloi, who a year later would form Tananas.

The work of poet-musicians is also included: Abdullah Ibrahim (whose reminiscing in ‘Knysna Blue’ shifts into some interesting, slow freestyle jazz poetry), Koos Kombuis, and the reclusive Gert Vlok Nel, known for coming out of hiding every so often to perform his poems as songs.

Musicians aren’t always faithful to the original poems they use – modifying them in small or big ways to fit the rhythmic needs of their songs, deleting lines, or shifting and repeating them to create a chorus, or for effect. David Kramer makes mostly slight changes to Christopher Hope’s ‘Kobus Le Grange Marais’ – which Hope calls a “satirical ditty” – to suit his characteristic African-infused country Cape carnivalesque style (at one point he goes as far as changing the name of a town, and it would be interesting to known why). I found this annotated version of the poem online, which shows the changes for his performance of the song at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1983. I’ve only quoted from the last two verses, and Kramer’s changes are in square brackets:

From Slagtersnek to [R’]Sonderwater
He smears the Boers’ good name;
And God is still a rooinek God,
Kommandant op [Koppiefontein] {Koffiefontein}:
[And] if what I hear about heaven is true,
[Well] it’s a racially mixed affair;
In which case, ons gaan kak da’ bo,”
Said Kobus Le Grange Marais

“[Now] the times are as cruel
As the big steel wheels
That carried my legs away;
Oudstryders like me
Are out on our necks
[We] {and} stink like the scum on [the] {a} vlei;
And [the] white man puts the white man down,
The volk are led astray;
There’ll be weeping at Weenen once again,
No keeping [those] {the} impis at bay;
(2 times) [And the/ yes, the] {and}tears will stream
From the stony eyes
Of Oom Paul in Pretoria Square:
[For/’Cause] he knows we’ll all be poor whites soon,”
Said Kobus Le Grange Marais

For their version of Mary Oliver’s ‘When I Am Among The Trees’, Lucy Kruger & The Lost Boys repeat lines and phrases for effect (also changing ”Stay awhile” to “Why don’t you stay awhile?”) and reorganise the last two stanzas into a kind of chorus to create an hallucinatory sense of the movement and energy of swirling trees. The result is a haunting, almost bewitched soundscape – drawing on a sense that is already there in the poem, but creating something darker, more dramatic.

Koos takes a different approach. They shatter the necessity of the form of Chris van Wyk’s ‘In Detention’ entirely, fragmenting it into a series of rearranged statements and ad libs with the poem as a reference point. It’s a piece saturated with a ‘fuck you’ to the apartheid state and everything that comes with it.

Compare this to Mealor’s ‘Invictus’ – a poem Nelson Mandela read to other prisoners on Robben Island. It’s a choral for a 70-voice children’s choir, composed as the third part to a three-part movement called ‘Spirit of Hope’, and apparently performed in Cape Town (although I don’t know where this recording’s from). Mealor changes the poem too, dropping a stanza, repeating phrases and lines, but, like Lucy Kruger & The Lost Boys’ take on Oliver’s ‘Trees…’, is an impressive example of how a poem can be carefully reset to music using precise and articulate phrasing. Henley’s four-beat poem lends itself more easily to this sort of job than, for example, ‘In Detention’, with its modernist energy and form. But it’s worth reading the poem while listening to the recording to see how Mealor does it – never mind the stunning percussive coda to the composition.

‘Sunship’ – a tribute to John Coltrane – is equally careful, with Strelitz’s aching melody following the phrasing in Berold’s poem closely; although I feel that at times Strelitz’s predilection for the blues vocable (the ‘mmm-ing’ and ‘oh-ing) gets in the way of the poem – I wanted to hear it more starkly, the lines more alone.

In counterpoint to Mealor’s composition, Rampolokeng and Ibrahim work organically with different forms – reggae/funk, and jazz – with freer, and ultimately more complex phrasing, but to a different purpose.

These sorts of collaborations (let’s call the use of a poem such as Jonker’s a form of collaboration between the musician and the poet’s work) shift audiences and introduce new ‘readers’ to poems – and maybe the other way around too. It’s a way to wrest us out of our cultural echo chambers. I hadn’t read Christopher Hope’s poem, and didn’t know David Kramer had sung it, and haven’t read much of David Chislett’s stuff. Shannon Hope’s ‘Daylight’ (Chislett) is beautiful and moving, drawing effectively on the universal resonance of its refrain of love and loss: “My love was never going to be enough/in daylight”. Matthew Van der Want’s interpretation of Chislett’s poem ‘For You Or Someone Like You’ closely maps his own concerns in his song-writing, refracting interpersonal exchanges and situations through his complex and layered mix of tracks, effects and rhythms. I also hadn’t heard Edi Niederlander’s electric, energetic version of ‘Come Wi Goh Dung Deh’, which sent me back to listen to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s dub original.

The list could be expanded. There must be traditional oral poetry in indigenous languages set to music. I’d be surprised if someone like Miriam Makeba hadn’t done this. Johnny Clegg drew on the izibongo tradition and rituals in his music. There’s definitely more that’s gone on in the performance poetry or hip-hop – but you need to be immersed in the scene to know where to find it. I also thought of Maskandi, which the poet Mxolisi Nyezwa is currently exploring as a way to reinvigorate the isiXhosa poetry tradition. But that moves quite quickly out of the more straightforward ‘poem to music’ frame that Houston-Lock and Drewett are using.

As it is, the list is exciting – and I really enjoyed listening to these tracks. That they have taken the time to put this selection together is another selfless act of informal archival work that is the hallmark of their podcast series – a curation and reframing of cultural production in a new and simultaneously historical light. It is exactly how cultures flourish, and, although probably less acknowledged, is no different to the important work being done by institutions such as the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature in Makhanda. It deepens us, and reminds us of the possibilities that are right in front of us.

  1. The BeatMzwakhe Mbuli (Mzwakhe Mbuli)
  2. Toilet PoemKoos Kombuis (Andre Le Toit)
  3. In DetentionKoos (Chris van Wyk)
  4. When I Am Among The Trees – Lucy Kruger & The Lost Boys (Mary Oliver)
  5. Come Wi Goh Dung DehEdi Niederlander (Linton Kwesi Johnson)
  6. Kobus Le Grange MaraisDavid Kramer (Christopher Hope)
  7. Die Dans Van Die Reen – Laurinda Hofmeyr (Eugene Marias)
  8. The Desk – Lesego Rampolokeng & the Kalahari Surfers (Lesego Rampolokeng)
  9. Sunship – Larry Strelitz (Robert Berold)
  10. Drawing -The Sighs of Monsters (Ingrid Jonker)
  11. Vyf Lewens – Chris Chamelion (Ingrid Jonker)
  12. Daylight – Shannon Hope (David Chislett)
  13. For Your Or Someone Like You – Matthew van der Want (David Chislett)
  14. Beautiful In Beaufort Wes – Gert Vlok Nel (Gert Vlok Nel)
  15. Invictus – Paul Mealor (William Ernest Henley)
  16. Jy Gee Geboorte Ann Jou Asem – Breyten Breytenbach (Breyten Breytenbach)
  17. The Last Days of Beautiful – Buckfever Underground (Toast Coetzer)
  18. Knysna BlueAbdullah Ibrahim (Abdullah Ibrahim)
  19. December Poems – Guy Buttery (Instrumental)

Alan Finlay is a South African poet who lives in Argentina. He has published several collections of poetry, most recently ‘That kind of door’ (2017, Deep South Publishing), and ‘The cactus of a bright sky’ (2021, Dye Hard Press). He has  founded and edited poetry journals, and co-edited selections of South African poetry and prose. He works on internet and media rights, and part-time at the Wits Centre for Journalism in Johannesburg.

South African Songs About Political Places

Music has the ability to capture moments and sentiments. On occasion it reminds us of places and also of events which transpired in those places. This mixtape includes a selection of musical pieces written about political events which unfolded in specific places in South Africa. Some of these focus on particular events such as the Rivonia Treason Trial, the Mdantsane bus strike, and the Marikana Massacre, while the majority reflect in one way or another on that especially heartless apartheid practice of forced removals: moving people against their will from the place they called home to a different, hostile, and unfriendly place: away from one’s community, away from all the familiar associations of home. Because forced removals were so painful it is no surprise that there are so many compositions about places from which people were forced to move by the apartheid state. Sophiatown, Cato Manor, Crossroads, and District Six are covered in this mixtape . People lost their homes and their communities but held onto their memories … and the songs remain.

One of the songs included here captures the mood of most, if not all, the pieces featured on this mixtape. In Mdantsane in July 1983, in response to severe price increases, a boycott was called, of buses partly owned by the Ciskei government. The apartheid Ciskei security forces, supported by vigilantes, attempted to force people to use the buses, resulting in bloody assaults, injuries and death. Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu wrote the song “Mdantsane” about the bus boycott. They asked, “Why don’t you sing about the African moon; Why don’t you sing about the leaves and the dreams; Why don’t you sing about the rain and the birds?” And they answered, “’Cause mister I’ve seen mud coloured dusty blood; Bare feet on a burning bus; Broken teeth and a rifle butt; On the road to Mdantsane.”

All the musicians on this mixtape similarly chose to document government and employer atrocities rather than to only sing about the leaves and the dreams.

Mzwakhe Mbuli contemplated the apartheid legislative capital, Pitoli, Dolly Rathebe & the Elite Swingsters commemorated the accused at the Rivonia treason trial, and Lesego Rampolokeng and the Kalahari Surfers reflected on the Sebokeng siege. The Junction Avenue Theatre Company (who performed the musical Sophiatown), the African Jazz Pioneers, and Miriam Makeba & the Skylarks all lament the forced removals from and bulldozing of Kofifi/Sophiatown, while Nancy Jacobs & her Sisters sang about people’s reluctance to be moved from Sophiatown to Meadowlands, established by the apartheid state as an alternative township to Sophiatown. In a song named after Soweto, Barry Gilder sings of the struggle to live and work in South Africa, in a society where people were expected to travel vast distances under the migrant labour system, yet whose lives were not valued by business owners and the government. Stimela’s “Soweto save the children” alerted listeners to the detrimental effects apartheid was having on the children of Soweto.

The only song on this mixtape about a post-apartheid atrocity is Lilitha’s mournful “Marikana” about the Marikana Massacre. A reminder that the alliance between the government and capital continues to be problematic, even in a post-1994 government, and an even harsher reminder as to where exactly the state is prepared to draw a moral line.

Sipho Gumede & Pops Mohamed remembered Cato Manor in the Durban area and Juluka documented the violence surrounding the Mdantsane bus boycott. The mixtape ends with a series of songs related to the Western Cape. Winston Mankunku and Mike Perry, Sakhile, Syd Kitchen, and Roger Lucey all contributed songs about the apartheid state’s attack on the residents of Crossroads, targeted for forced removal. “Mooi River Textiles” is a song by workers at that factory, recorded and documented by Shifty Records. Finally Cyril Valentine (with a song from the District Six musical), Hugh Masekela (featuring Corlea) and Abdullah Ibrahim, remember District Six, another area which the apartheid state decided to bulldoze into oblivion and forcibly remove all its inhabitants because they decided to rezone it as a white area.

Sometimes the songs on this mixtape are a mournful and painful reminder of places, and sometimes they recall spirited community togetherness. They often remind us of defiance – that people resisted and continue to resist oppressive laws, policies and actions. Crucially, they are documents of the events that occurred and of the places where they took place. As long as this music plays we cannot be allowed to forget.

  1. Pitoli – Mzwakhe Mbuli
  2. Rivonia – Dolly Rathebe & The Elite Swingsters
  3. Sebokeng Siege – Lesego & Kalahari Surfers
  4. Kofifi Sophia – Junction Avenue Theatre Company
  5. Kofifi – African Jazz Pioneers
  6. Sophiatown Is Gone – Miriam Makeba & The Skylarks
  7. Meadowlands – Nancy Jacobs & Her Sisters
  8. Soweto Song – Barry Gilder
  9. Soweto Save The Children – Stimela
  10. Marikana – Lilitha
  11. Remember Cato Manor – Sipho Gumede & Pops Mohamed
  12. Mdantsane – Juluka
  13. Crossroads Crossroads – Winston Mankunku & Mike Perry
  14. Crossroads – Sakhile
  15. Crossroads – Syd Kitchen
  16. Crossroads – Roger Lucey
  17. Mooi River Textiles – Fosatu Worker Choirs
  18. Heart Of District SixCyril Valentine
  19. District SixHugh Masekela & Corlea
  20. District SixAbdullah Ibrahim

Blasphemy!

This mixtape focuses on songs banned by the apartheid government’s central censorship board because they were deemed blasphemous.

The apartheid government propagated a form of Calvinism so conservative and tainted that it justified apartheid, restricted nudity and sex to the procreative bedroom and exalted a bigoted and prudish god, whose sabbath was kept boringly sacred. It comes as no surprise therefore, that the central apartheid censors took a dim view on any song that undermined their narrow view of god, ridiculed Christians and, even worse, promoted Satan.

John Lennon’s “God” was banned simply because John Lennon stated that God is a concept and that he didn’t believe in the bible and Jesus.  Meanwhile Chris De Burgh’s song “Spanish Train” was viewed as blasphemous because in the song God and the devil play chess and poker over the souls of the dead, and the devil cheats and wins more souls, without God realising.

Both Peter Sarstedt’s “Take Off Your Clothes” and Glenda Kemp’s “Strip Tea” raised the ire of the censors because they brought into disrepute men of the cloth, especially in a sexual context. In the former, because the protagonist’s “daddy is the pope you know, and I just want to grope you know” while in the latter, Glenda Kemp’s vicar comes to visit for a pastoral cup of tea but ends up partaking in an unexpected “Strip Tea”.

Don McLean’s “American Pie” offended the censors because of lines like: “No angel born in hell could break that Satan’s spell; And as the flames climbed high into the night; To light the sacrificial rite, I saw Satan laughing with delight” and “The father, son and holy ghost, they caught the last train for the coast.”

Two musicals based on the life of Jesus – Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell – were controversially received by some Christians far and wide. The South African censors were no exception. They objected to the way Mary Magdalene tried to seduce Jesus on both soundtracks: Yvonne Elliman’s sensual “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar and Sonia Manzano’s burlesque-style “Turn Back, O Man” from Godspell, with the provocative line “C’mere Jesus, I’ve got something to show ya!” The theme song, “Superstar” from the former show, sung by Murray Head and the Trinidad Singers, was viewed as blasphemous for calling Jesus a superstar, banned by way of being a song on the album but also as a single.

The censors thought that Des & Dawn’s humorous treatment of ‘Dese Bones Gonna Rose Again” was unacceptable, and that the Kalahari Surfers’ protest about the SADF Maseru cross-border raid, through adapting the words to the Christian “Lord’s Prayer”, was equally unacceptable. Similarly, “Prayer” by Spooky Tooth and Pierre Henry was deemed undesirable by the censors, because of its use of the same prayer in a progressive rock context.

The censors strongly objected to Christ The Album by Crass; believing the album title was blasphemous, as were lyrics to the song “I Know There Is Love” which was critical of the role of Christianity in propagating war: “You’ve … thrust in my hands your gun and your bible, you told me to kill for the lord up above.”

“Ishmael” by Abdullah Ibrahim was the only song banned by the Directorate of Publications for reasons of blasphemy according to a religion other than Christianity. In this instance, the Muslim Judicial Council objected to Abdullah Ibrahim putting words from the Koran to a musical backing, an act which they deemed blasphemous, and which was upheld by the state censors.

The censors also objected to the name of a group called Satan and banned their album Court In The Act because of songs like “Hunt You Down”, which they argued promoted the power of Satan. Likewise, Mercyful Faith’s “The Oath” and “Mark Of The Beast” by The Sinyx (off the Crass Records Bullshit Detector compilation) were regarded as anti-Christian by means of promoting Satan. Finally, Diamanda Gala’s “The Litanies Of Satan”, affronted the censors, who objected to what she looked like on the cover, what she sounded like on the record and the fact that she prayed to Satan. The song and album were promptly banned.