South Africa

Anthems of democracy: The country’s artists celebrate 20 years with a song and dance

By J Brooks Spector 28 April 2014

This year's Freedom Day marks the twentieth anniversary of a new, non-racial, democratic dispensation in South Africa, after all those years of a race-based political order that spread from Cape Town to the Limpopo River. A pedant might say this year's celebration actually marks the beginning of the twenty-first year of the revolutionary change in the country's political fortunes rather than the twentieth year. Regardless, this anniversary represents a momentous change in the political order of the nation. And it is absolutely right and fitting that such an event should be celebrated with special fanfare. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Some two hundred years earlier, in acknowledging a roughly equivalent anniversary for Americans after their own revolution against Great Britain, John Adams, co-author of that country’s two founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and its Constitution – as well as its second president had penned a letter to his wife, Abigail, concerning July 4th, in which he had written, “I believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other…”

And he was entirely right, of course. Without doubt, the commemoration of a fundamental, even revolutionary change in the political condition of a nation deserves special recognition, whether it uses fireworks or some very special theatrical music – composed for that very occasion.

Music specially composed to mark important events is an international gold standard, of course. One of the most popular – even populist musical compositions ever – Peter Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”, was composed not to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Napoleon’s capture of Moscow, but his ultimate crushing defeat in his campaign to conquer Russia. Complete with church bells, actual cannon shots and, often, fireworks, it has gone on to become an orchestral standard of Russia’s new patriotism (as well as its prior service in support of the Romanov dynasty, pre-1917). In addition, this stirring music has been adopted by orchestras and embraced by audiences around the world as the perfect end to almost any symphonic celebration of glorious patriotism – except perhaps in Paris on Bastille Day or Napoleon’s birthday.

But music can be a potent force to rally a shell-shocked nation as well. Back in early 1942, as the US was reeling from the effects of a disastrous attack by Japan on the fleet at Pearl Harbor as well as America’s initial defeats in the Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean, composer Aaron Copland had married a text drawn from Abraham Lincoln’s greatest, most inspirational speeches and letters, and put the results together with that “American-esque” orchestral language he had virtually created, for his composition, “Lincoln Portrait.”

The result was music that bolstered the country’s spirit in what may have been its darkest hour ever. The composition was performed hundreds of times across the country during the war – and it was often performed in tandem with rallies to sell war bonds – those government bonds through which citizens could help underwrite the country’s defense expenditures. In subsequent years, “Lincoln Portrait” has become a staple of patriotic day concerts throughout America and celebrities vie for a chance to read the inspiring words.

This year, across South Africa, naturally enough there have been popular music and orchestral concerts in honour of the country’s coming of age as part of national commemorations on Freedom Day. Of course, since this is also an election year, with the actual election date only a little more than a week away, inevitably, politics has more than crept into various of these ostensibly non-partisan, national celebrations. And that doesn’t count the way some political campaigners like Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula have been the recipient of some very pointed expressions of dissatisfaction by potential voters.

In the country’s actual musical tributes, throughout the week of 24-27 April, composer/musician Sipho Hotstix Mabuse in association with long-time pop music promoter Roddy Quin, staged a rollicking musical tribute to the country’s political struggles at the Jo’burg Theatre. Featuring the music and words of the Soweto Gospel Choir, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Jennifer Ferguson, Gcina Mnhlope, Vicky Sampson, Joan Armatrading, and Bright Blue, in addition to Mabuse and a superb backup band, audiences were treated to a litany of music that in large part had become part of the soundtrack of the revolutionary times that preceded 1994.

Bright Blue’s evocative “Weeping”, and a glorious, haunting ensemble performance of Johnny Clegg’s “Assimbonanga”, put the crowds in a teary-eyed, “remember when” mood. But, inevitably, it was Mabuse’s own “Burn Out” – perhaps the country’s premier all-races, all-time dance tune – that had the crowds dancing in the aisles, remembering those heady, hopeful days, “back in the day”. And then there was Vicky Sampson’s “African Dream” anthem from that astonishing 1995 Rugby World Cup victory to wrap up the evening in a virtual bath of rainbow nation nostalgia.

Meanwhile, on Freedom Day itself, the Western Cape government hosted a performance of Bongani Ndodana-Breen’s vocal-orchestral work, “Credo”, with a libretto from the pen of author Brent Meersman along with words drawn from the original “Freedom Charter.” This performance drew on the talents of soloists Sibongile Khumalo, Monika Wassung, and Otto Maidi, the Cape Town Opera Chorus, and the Cape Town Philharmonic, all under baton of conductor Jonas Alber. “Credo” was originally composed for the centenary of the founding of Unisa, and concurrently to honour the late Nelson Mandela on his 94th birthday. Significantly reworked, “Credo” has become a much leaner musical work that now allows the singers’ vocal lines to soar above choral or orchestral accompaniment.

On second hearing almost a year after its premiere, interestingly the work now much more clearly demonstrates vivid acknowledgement of the global impact on Ndodana-Breen of composers like Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein – and, inevitably, Aaron Copland and Vaughan Williams as well, in providing the modern musical vocabulary and structure for works suitable for national celebrations. This time around, rather than simply glorifying the South African state in the manner of a coronation anthem by, say, George Frederick Handel, for his royal sponsors, “Credo” has become a significantly more complex – and more interesting – work politically.

As the singers intone the many demands and promises of the Freedom Charter, it is probably inevitable listeners now contemplate how far today’s political and economic realities are from the grand, all-encompassing (and sometimes naive) promises made at that epochal Kliptown meeting, back in 1955 – and, importantly, from the current circumstances of the country’s leadership. That latter point is crucial too. At the speeches welcoming guests to this Cape Town performance, speakers – including ex-president FW de Klerk and Archbishop (emeritus) Tutu’s granddaughter representing the “Arch” – took turns lambasting the current national government for its inability to carry out its stated obligations to the country.

More problematic, however, but in a rather less inspiring manner, perhaps, was the Department of Arts and Culture’s announcement it had commissioned a new national Freedom Day dance and pop music patriotic anthem in honour of the national holiday. The dance is by Somizi Mhlongo and the song is from Chicco Twala. Both men have had considerable success in their pop genres – and much “strum und drang” in their personal lives, including occasional public fights with other performers – and even a brief bit of jail time.

In announcing the two, the department had explained, “The dance is inspired by various high points in the past twenty years and includes the dance moves of the iconic late former President Nelson Mandela as well as encompassing his raised fist after his release, “thobela” dance moves and others.” And the song is “a re-work of the Peace Song penned by the legendary Sello Chicco Twala and accompanied by younger artists. The refrain of the song ‘’South Africa, we love you, our beautiful land’’ is as relevant and inspiring today as it was two decades ago. The video of the song will be played at the Freedom Day celebrations on 27 April at the Union Buildings.”

The department helpfully provided a YouTube link for a tutorial to the dance and complete dance video for anyone who wants to watch the finished product or learn the moves here and here. Readers can judge for themselves if they are ready to help turn this dance into the country’s newest craze. Or not.

More seriously, however, should it be an issue as to whether a government department commissions instant heritage pop tunes like this in an effort to inculcate the nation with the proper spirit of enthusiasm for the country’s progress over the past two decades? Or, rather, should the country’s own transformation be the guiding force in generating the resulting musical and dance works?

After all, probably that most evocative of national melodies, “God Bless Africa”, was first designed to be a religious hymn of supplication and devotion; only later becoming that iconic liberation struggle anthem, and then, finally, married astonishingly to music and lyrics that had symbolised the government’s oppression of three-quarters of the nation’s inhabitants, a new, unified (and sometimes still-contested, as with Mondli Makanya’s recent column in the Sunday TImes) national anthem. For homework, readers are asked to be ready to discuss this question for next week’s seminar meeting. DM

Photo: Joan Armatrading who performed in South Africa as part of the 20 years of democracy celebrations. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

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