Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) in music – A tribute by Gwen Ansell

Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba

This tribute to Nelson Mandela was written by Gwen Ansell from Johannesburg, expert writer on the South African music scene for several decades, instigator and leader of the journalism programme at the Cape Town Jazz Festival and the author of Soweto Blues, Jazz, Popular Music and Politics in South Africa. Gwen writes:

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela passed away at his Johannesburg home yesterday Thursday December 5 at 8:50pm. He was 95 years old.

A period of national mourning has begun, and a State funeral will be held at the iconic FNB Stadium in Soweto, before the former president’s body is laid to rest in his birthplace, the Eastern Cape, in the village of Qunu. The order of service has not been made public yet, but it is likely to include many solemn and beautiful works of music, given both the former President’s stature and achievements and the rich musical associations of his life.

He was born to a high-ranking family of the Mvelo Clan of the Thembu people in Transkei, South Africa, on July 18 1918. Apartheid reduced groups like the Thembu to “tribes”, but such groups represented important political states and kingdoms before colonialism arrived. Throughout his life, Madiba (his clan name, and a title of respect) showed appreciation for music; his home province, the Eastern Cape, is home to some of the most intriguing musical traditions in the country.

Mandela’s childhood: the sounds he grew up with

The Xhosa speaking-peoples of the region have a tradition of split-tone singing: vocalists can create more than one note simultaneously, and weave those tones together in magically complex rhythmic patterns. They call it “putting salt in a tune” and this is the music Mandela heard during his village childhood.


 In addition, the region was a place of settlement for some of the earliest Christian missionaries to Southern Africa. The first indigenous hymn in South Africa, Ulo Tixo Omkulu (Thou art God who is great), was written in the early 1820s by Ntsikana son of Gaba, a Xhosa prince who converted to Christianity:

The clip above shows the hymn sung in church fashion by an Eastern Cape choir, but it has passed into the South African canon, and was also recorded as Ntsikana’s Bell by jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (then – 1983 – known as Dollar Brand) with bassist Johnny Dyani on the album Good News From Afrika:

Mandela excelled at his various schools, taking his leaving exams at a mission school, the Wesleyan Healdtown Academy. He began studying law at Fort Hare University, also in the Eastern Cape, but after being expelled for joining student protests, he returned home and completed his first degree by distance study. By 1941, he had left the Eastern Cape for Johannesburg, where he began articles with a law firm and enrolled for an LLb with the University of the Witwatersrand. But increasing involvement in politics meant he did not complete the degree at that time, although he obtained sufficient qualifications to practise and to co-found South Africa’s first black law firm, Mandela & Tambo, in 1952.

In Johannesburg: practising law and organising rebellion

He was also a promising amateur boxer, a stylish dresser, and a much-admired man-about town, who socialised in the politically aware racially-mixed suburbs of the city, such as Sophiatown. The late jazz guitarist, General Duze, remembered “Mandela had always been a fan of mine…he liked his jazz, and whenever we played…he’d jive (dance).” For a flavour of the music Mandela may have danced to, listen to the late singer Dolly Rathebe – the most admired beauty and singer of her generation – working here with the African Jazz Pioneers, a revival band composed of veteran former stars of the South African Jazz scene. The song is Meadowlands, written by Strike Vilakazi to protest the destruction and forced removal of Sophiatown in the early 1950s by the apartheid government.

This reflects the era when Mandela was energising the African National Congress Youth League, organising protest, and fighting cases related to unjust apartheid laws. Much of this work had to be carried out clandestinely, as he was carrying a suspended sentence for organising mass defiance and was “banned” (forbidden to take part in public life or any gatherings) for a period starting in late 1952:

By the early 1960s, repression had increased and Mandela was tasked with establishing and leading Mkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, MK) the armed wing of the African National Congress. In 1962 he travelled to the UK to build support for the anti-apartheid struggle, and around Africa, receiving training in Morocco and Ethiopia. Months after he returned he was arrested and charged with leaving South Africa illegally. As the apartheid state uncovered more of the scope and effectiveness of ANC plans, the imprisoned Mandela was put on trial again, with other comrades. In June 1964 he began a term of life imprisonment on the harsh lime-quarry prison isle of Robben Island. And it was at that point that the musicians of South Africa and the world began drawing attention to his plight, and the nature of his – and South Africa’s – struggle.

Singing Mandela: South Africans at home and abroad

The ANC was establishing effective liaison offices in independent Africa and in Europe; in March 1960, 8 000 people attended an anti-apartheid solidarity rally in London’s Trafalgar Square. Black musicians and artists had long been leaving the country: apartheid’s rules restricted what they could play and record and who they could collaborate with. These restrictions, and the censorship, intensified through the years that followed. After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, and even more after the 1976 Soweto uprising, many young people fled the country to train as ANC cadres, and to find educational opportunities that were closed at home. From the military training camps, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa recruited a performance ensemble, the Amandla Cultural Ensemble, to take the story of the imprisoned Mandela and the struggle to stages across the world. Here, they sing the marching song Abazali Sobashiya (“We have left our parents…”)

Most of these performances took place in the pre-digital age, but contemporary South African composer Philip Miller has created modern vocal and instrumental arrangements of freedom songs on his album Shona Malanga, including the one sung in direct solidarity and named after Nelson Mandela.

In London, a group of exiles formed the Mayibuye (‘freedom’) Cultural group, weaving together poetry and traditional and original new songs – including another called Rolihlahla Mandela – to tell the story:

In America in 1963, a young exiled South African trumpeter called Hugh Masekela with his sweetheart (they married in 1965) the singer Miriam Makeba, began work on her first hit album: An Evening with Miriam Makeba. Both musicians constantly referred to the South African struggle and Mandela’s plight in their performances, as in this clip of Makeba with Harry Belafonte in the 1950s, singing Give Us Our Land (Mabayeke):

Although Masekela and Makeba later divorced, Masekela always acknowledged that “Miriam carried the torch for this country, and I think she kept the names of the Oliver Tambos, Robert Sobukwe’s, Nelson Mandelas alive in people’s minds all that time.” So did Masekela himself, with songs such as Stimela (Steam Train) depicting the plight of migrant mine-workers, and his 1987 hit single, directly calling for Mandela’s release, Bring Him Back Home:

Moving between South Africa and international stages, a white academic turned performer, Johnny Clegg, working with a Zulu guitarist Sipho Mchunu in bands such as Savuka and Juluka, constantly referred to the South African struggle for freedom in their music. In the moving Asimbonanga, Clegg sang (in Zulu) “We have not seen him/ We have not seen our Mandela/ in the place where he is kept/Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey/Look across the island into the bay/We are all islands till comes the day/We cross the burning water.” In this performance, he reprises the song in company with Mandela, after the statesman’s release:

Back home in South Africa, even pop singers were taking courage to call for Mandela’s release. Sometimes they sang lyrics with ambiguous meanings. Chicco Twala had a hit with a lightweight ‘bubblegum’ song We Miss You Manello, which he said was “about a friend of mine who has gone away”. But in live performance, audiences – and Twala – positively roared “We miss you Mandela.” Others were more upfront. South Africa’s most popular female singer of the 1980s, Brenda Fassie, sang two songs directly addressing the man she saw as president-in-waiting. Black President is self-explanatory; Vulindlela (“Let it be opened”) was about flinging wide the prison doors. Here, she sings the songs after Mandela’s release, in the latter case, at the 2001 Kora African Music Awards, with her president in the audience:

Singing Mandela: solidarity across the world

It wasn’t just in his homeland that Mandela was honoured. Musicians across the world made tracks in his honour: his Google playlist tops 100 tracks, and that’s only the ones that exist in digital formats. One of the best-known is Free Nelson Mandela, made in 1984 by the British multiracial ska band The Specials a.k.a. The Specials had a mission: to fight racist attitudes among their generation and build links between the UK’s many diverse ethnic communities and towards international solidarity. This clip shows the song’s debut on British TV, on the programme Top of the Pops, and although the quality is typical of an airshot, it conveys the intense energy and emotion of the song. The Specials have sung it many times since, including at London birthday solidarity concerts for Mandela, and on the occasion of his 1990 release:

In Africa, musicians from every part of the continent used the imprisoned leader’s name as shorthand for struggle, nobility and the fight against colonial oppression. Zimbabwe’s Lovemore Majaivana and his Zulu Band created a reggae-flavoured Hymn for Mandela:

In the DRC, Congolese divas Faya Tess and Mbilia Bel and top bandleader Tabu Ley Rochereau teamed up in 1988 to record an entire album dedicated to Madiba, including this track Sisi Mandela. This was the period when Rochereau had moved away from his former wife Bel towards using Tess as the Orchestra Africa’s lead vocalist, but whatever the tensions behind the scenes, the cause of Mandela brought them together for this project . VIDEO HERE:

Mandela’s 70th birthday, in 1988, while he was still imprisoned, produced a spate of compositions, many of them performed at the massive Wembley Stadium concert held to remember the man and make a worldwide call for his freedom and that of all black South Africans. Other international artists including Salif Keita, Ismail Lo and James Ingram, as well as many South Africans, featured on the bill. Some reprised tribute material they had already composed. But UK group Simple Minds composed a new song: Mandela Day:

Singing Mandela: the freedom years

Since the euphoria – musical and human – of Mandela’s release, followed by South Africa’s first democratic election and the dismantling of apartheid’s structures (relatively rapid) and its socio-economic legacy (much slower), the urgent need to campaign for his freedom has gone. But while the chart-topping campaigning songs may have ceased, artists have not forgotten Mandela. The massive birthday concerts of his period in prison have been succeeded by events around 4664: the social action and fundraising campaign linked to his former prison number. Every July 18, the world has been urged to celebrate UN International Nelson Mandela Day by dedicating 67 minutes (one minute for each of Madiba’s years of struggle) to a community service or social upliftment project.

And the music has not stopped. While his health permitted, Mandela spent time back in his home village of Qunu, still rich in traditional Xhosa and church music. Even young artists still remember him. For his 90th birthday in 2008, Cape Town singer Melanie Scholtz, the late jazz saxophonist Robbie Jansen (himself a struggle veteran) and other Cape musicians created Nelson Mandela: Born in the Land of the Sun. Based on a struggle song of the 1980s, the music has now become a tribute and expression of gratitude:

Even more interesting is the way Mandela’s life, times and heroic struggles are now moving into the concert hall: his achievements now becoming a subject for symphonies, suites and operas. This is entirely fitting: many composers have seen Mandela’s life and the victories he won represent the triumph of the human spirit on an epic scale – a Fidelio for the modern era. The Cape Town Opera company in 2010 created The Mandela Portrait: a three-part tribute featuring traditional Xhosa music adapted by UK-born, South African resident Allan Stephenson, 1950s Sophiatown jazz re-imagined by Cape Town University music professor Mike Campbell and a contemporary opera final act by composer Peter Luis van Dijk.

Contemporary composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen has created two Mandela-linked works. This year’s Credo is an oratorio, using text based on the 1955 Freedom Charter. It premiered on July 18th 2013. Back then, as a banned person, Mandela had to hide himself, comrades and family members in the crowd when the Charter, democratic South Africa’s founding statement, was proclaimed in Kliptown. Last year, Ndodana-Breen premiered Winnie, the Opera, focused on the turbulent life of Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The early scenes of the opera, such as the one in the clip below, evoke the years when the Mandela family lived on Vilakazi Street in Soweto and were instrumental in community action:

Madiba retired from the Presidency in 1999 and formally withdrew from public life in 2004, although he continued to work tirelessly, as his health permitted, for causes close to his heart, and particularly to campaign for the welfare and futures of children and young people. Anecdotes and reminiscences from friends and colleagues in those final years depict a man who still cared passionately about justice, and who lived simply and honestly in accordance with his principles.

Members of Mkhonto we Sizwe still remember him as their commander-in-chief from the days when it was necessary to resist the bullets of apartheid. Across South Africa, former MK militants will sing this song in mourning, Hamba Kahle Mkhonto (“Go well, MK soldier”): the anthem traditionally sung within the movement when a militant dies. This version is that of the Mayibuye Cultural Group, recorded back in 1978


Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

  1. There is one thoroughly recommendable gig tonight in London to highlight where the music of Mandela's country will be played with authenticity and special poignancy: Adam Glasser's Mzansi with Pinise Saul will be doing South African standards at the Ivy House in Nunhead MORE DETAILS HERE

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