Multimedia

From our vault: Ras Dumisani, The Star Mangled Banner and other Sour Notes

By J Brooks Spector 18 December 2010

The firestorm now engulfing Rastafarian reggae singer and French resident Ras Dumisani's unusual rendition of the South African national anthem over the weekend in Toulouse, France, is the latest version of an old song – a musician is asked to open an important sports event and he – or she – doesn't quite get it right. Or misses by a country mile – or more.

Years ago, actor-singer Robert Goulet famously was asked to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the opening of the May 25, 1965 Sonny Liston – Muhammad Ali boxing match in Lewiston, Maine, and he got the words all scrambled. Goulet had achieved a major career on Broadway and had created his most famous role as Sir Lancelot in the Lerner and Loewe musical “Camelot” with Julie Andrews and Richard Burton. Goulet marched to the centre of the field, started in on the anthem and promptly got the words all scrambled. He didn’t blame it on a wardrobe malfunction – Janet Jackson was still a baby after all and her contribution to popular miscues hadn’t been thought of yet – but, after a few moments where he basically denied the whole thing, Goulet finally fell back on the best excuse he could come up with – he was a Canadian and he knew “Oh Canada” and “God Save the Queen” – setting a pattern for generations of singers who couldn’t get it right, first time around.

Then, of course, there is Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 hallucinogenic version of “The Star Spangled Banner” at – where else? – Woodstock before 400,000 hungry, mud-covered fans at the first genuine love-in, be-in, rock festival. His jazz inflected, R and B influenced, rocker illuminated guitar riffs with those long, long extended chords and that phantasmagorical audio feedback ultimately became the classic alternate version of the anthem, even though the patriotic were horrified at first – and when they had a chance to think about further, concluded Hendrix was probably so far influenced by pharmacological studies that he probably didn’t know what he was doing. Hendrix’s performance came right smack in the middle of the American participation in the Vietnam War and tempers were running, well, “high”. Contemporary musicologists now enthusiastically embrace Hendrix’ effort as a kind of Stockhausen meets Buddy Holly, so you just don’t know where or how things are going to end up, sometimes.

Even before Hendrix, Latin pop idol, ‘Light My Fire’ Jose Feliciano actually began the tilt towards tweaking the anthem when he did a bluesy rendition for a World Series game in Detroit, in October 1968. Music critics tend to see it now as a kind of an aural Declaration of Independence, opening the door for a whole litany of national anthem controversies. 

For example, a week before Marvin Gaye received his two Grammy Awards for “Sexual Healing”, he got to strut his stuff at an NBA All-Star game in California, 1983. His unique interpretation added  archetypical soul and funk elements to the national vocal test. 

Then, of course, there was Roseanne Barr in 1990 (the TV actress then at the height of her fame with her eponymously-named TV show). She gave audiences an early version of the wardrobe malfunction by shrieking, spitting and grabbing at her crotch while singing the anthem for a baseball game. This provoked president George Bush (the senior) to call her “disgusting” and “a disgrace,” thereby enhancing her fame even further. Nobody ever lost out by sinking to a new level of tastelessness, to paraphrase H. L. Mencken.

Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler found a new approach by deciding to tailor the lyrics to match up with specific sports events, replacing “home of the brave”, the final peroration at the end of the 2004 song, with “home of the Indianapolis 500”. That in turn got him in trouble with military veterans, even though racing fans may have loved it. Of course lyricists everywhere cringed from the visible lack of poetry in Tyler’s “improvements”. Eventually Tyler commented, “I got in trouble my whole life for having a big mouth.” Yup.

Of course it isn’t only pop singers who deconstruct the American national anthem.  Giacomo Puccini’s opera, “Madam Butterfly” (1904), is built upon a play by David Belasco, which is, in turn, ultimately derived from an authentic historical narrative. Boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, girl really falls for guy across racial and national frontiers and they have a local wedding, then he forgets to tell her about the modest fact that he’s already married back home where these things matter a bit more. Puccini obviously wasn’t an American patriot since he samples the American national anthem almost every time Lt. Pinkerton comes on stage, usually when he is about to lie or cheat. Of course some people might say Puccini got it just about right (although he made up for it with “The Girl of the Golden West”), but they probably won’t get visas to the US in this more cautious, more watchful era.

And that brings us to the poor unfortunate, and now totally unforgettable Ras Dumisani, who clearly hadn’t learned the lesson of Susan Boyle – everything you do instantly goes on YouTube or Facebook to be stored forever – for your fans or those who need a good laugh. Out there in Toulouse, Ras was identified by the South African Embassy in Paris as the perfect singer to perform “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica” at a rugby match between France and South Africa. Never mind that reggae and rugby don’t really go together, even if they share two letters of the alphabet; that Ras had been living abroad since 1992 (before the current anthem, an amalgam of the hymn “Nkosi Sikelel’ Africa” and the old regime’s “Die Stem” had been created); and that it is incontrovertible that Ras simply doesn’t sing very well outside a 64-track recording studio.

If you live in Tierra del Fuego and you haven’t seen Dumisani’s butchering of our anthem, here it is:

Well, you would have thought Ras had just committed ritual murder or bet against the Boks in this match. In his own defense, Ras Dumisani has already told anyone who will listen to him that he was given a skedonk, second-hand mike and a bad wireless pickup and that his horoscope said Saturn and Jupiter were misaligned (no, he really didn’t say that last excuse but I’ll bet he would have, if he had thought of it at the time). Ras is now fast becoming South Africa’s most famous musician – whole blogs and more have been taken over by the debate. A usually staid academic email discussion group on choral singing in South Africa that I follow sometimes has been enlivened by postings not publishable in a family newspaper. And what if they only knew that the SA flag was upside down?

But maybe the whole thing is a diversion from what the anthems do say. Take the lyrics in “La Marseillaise” or “The Star Spangled Banner”, for example.

The American anthem’s third verse has these gentle, pacifist thoughts (although wise singers rarely get that far, having been sufficiently challenged by the first verse):

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Of course, not to be outdone with apocalyptic patriotic gore, the French anthem counters with:

Let’s go children of the fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny’s
Bloody flag is raised! (repeat)
In the countryside, do you hear
The roaring of these fierce soldiers?
They come right to our arms
To slit the throats of our sons, our friends!

Or the Japanese anthem, “Kimigayo” that draws on a thousand year waka poem to music from a foreign musician to get:

May your reign
Continue for a thousand, eight thousand generations,
Until the pebbles
Grow into boulders
Lush with moss

The International Olympic Committee, remember, decided that regimes that have problems – South Africa in 1992, for example — get to march to Frederick Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It works equally well as sung or played and works best of all with a huge choir and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Or, perhaps, it is simply better to follow the example of the Italians who can sing to the following:

Weave o maidens
flags and cockades
make souls gallant
the invitation of love

Whatever the heck that means! Or, maybe it’s just best to emulate the Spanish with their “La Marcha Real”. The Spanish anthem has no lyrics at all – although some people, not knowing a good thing when they see it in the first place — insisted on a national competition to come up with words singers can make their own mistakes with when they open a bull fight — or a football match between Real Madrid or Barcelona.

By Brooks Spector

Well, not to be cruel to hapless Dumisani, here are the two videos where he appears to be singing reasonably well:

Rus Dumisani live in Lyon ‘reggae bash 2005’:

Ras Dumisani Live at the New Morning:

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