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Rhythmical Resistance: Musicians From The Apartheid Era
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Rhythmical Resistance: Musicians From The Apartheid Era

Picture of Sarah Mitchell
Updated: 13 October 2016
Apartheid influenced every aspect of life in South Africa; culturally, music functioned as a popular initiative and response to the political repression of that era. Hugh Masekela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Miriam Makeba were artists who used their music to campaign against the profound injustice of Apartheid. Ladysmith Black Mambazo will now be performing at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre in September of 2014 in a unique collaboration with Mark Baldwin and world-class dancers from the Royal Ballet and Rambert.

As revealed in Anne Schumann’s essay about the role of music in the resistance of apartheid, music initially started as a mirror reflecting the popular experience, however as time went on and resistance movements started to emerge, music and creative expression started to become a hammer with which to “shape reality.” In this sense, music in South Africa went from “reflecting common experiences and concerns in the early years of apartheid” to “eventually functioning as a force to confront the state and as a means to actively construct an alternative political and social reality.”

During the apartheid era, it was difficult for musicians “of color” in South Africa to perform, especially as formal employment. These musicians were not seen as equals and were denied opportunities and rights. However, their talent and music was indeed still heard; many of these “colored” musicians fought hard to oppose the politically imposed limitations upon them, and their resistance is a vital part of the story of South Africa’s resistance and recovery during and after the Apartheid years.

Hugh Masekela: The Man With The Horn

Born in Witbank, South Africa in 1939, Hugh Masekela is a South African flugelhorn, trumpet, and cornet player who, to this day, has played in numerous jazz ensembles around the world. Masekela was inspired after watching the film Young Man with a Horn, where Kirk Douglas plays an American jazz trumpeter. He was first given a trumpet at the age of 14, from Trevor Huddleston, a British anti-apartheid archbishop working at his township school. He quickly mastered the instrument, and along with others at his school, formed South Africa’s first youth orchestra.

From then, his solos have been incorporated in the framework of pop, R&B, disco, Afro-pop, and jazz music and he has also toured with many renowned musicians such as Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and the Byrds. His interest in his African roots instigated a collaboration with other African musicians during Paul Simon’s controversial tour Graceland. Masekela’s music was also featured in the Broadway play, Sarafina! and he appeared in the documentary, Amandla! He has won two Grammy Awards, with his albums Grazing in the Grass and Sarafina, and wrote, recorded, and performed several international hits. His 1987 hit Bring Him Back Home was written as an anthem accompanying the movement to release Nelson Mandela from prison.

Interestingly, Masekela didn’t start out to make a statement, but rather his music became linked to apartheid because of where he came from and the fact that he would inevitably find inspiration from his people and his country. In respect to Schumann’s essay, Masekela’s music takes the role of the “mirror.” In 1961, he was exiled from South Africa to the United States, returning only after apartheid had ended in 1990, with a musical style that is now best described as African jazz. Capable of “outstanding ballad and bebop work,” Masekela is not only a charismatic musician, but also an important icon in relation to apartheid times.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: Zulu Chorus

The voices of the male choral group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, have come to represent another example of traditional South African culture, specifically through their fusion of Christian gospel music with unique African rhythms and harmonies. They are considered something of a national treasure at home. Formed in Durban in the 1960s by their leader Joseph Shabalala, they are now one of South Africa’s most exciting groups. Regardless of the listeners’ choice of faith, Mambazo’s music instigates enthusiasm through the sheer power and quality of their combined vocals. They first found fame in 1970, and their discography currently contains more than fifty albums.

Even though they are popularly referred to as entertainers, staying true to their musical heritage is an important aspect of their performances; they do this by drawing from traditional South African mine music called “isicathamiya” and South African acapella called “mbube.” They were rediscovered by Paul Simon in the 1980s, the two soon collaborating in 1986 for Simon’s album Graceland, which received a Grammy Award for Album of the year. This album was considered a landmark in terms of introducing world music to mainstream audiences, and connecting the diverse mix of musical styles that it featured. Mambazo’s first U.S. release, Shaka Zulu, won a Grammy Award, and since then, has had 15 Grammy Award nominations.

In 1993, when apartheid was abolished and Nelson Mandela was released, they came out with the album Liph Iqiniso, which celebrated the end of apartheid, especially in the album’s last track Isikifil Inkululeko (Freedom Has Arrived). Mambazo then accompanied Mandela to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway and sang at his inauguration in 1994. After continuing to release a multitude of albums reflecting their experiences, they released Long Walk to Freedom, which celebrated the 45 years of their musical career. Accompanying this album was a night, where musicians such as Sarah McLachlan and Natalie Merchant were guest performers. Now, leader Shabalala has set up the Ladysmith Black Mambazo Foundation, so that Zulu youth have a chance to learn about their traditional culture and music.

Miriam Makeba: Mama Africa

Miriam Makeba, the legendary South African singer and civil rights activist, is an example of what Schumann deems the “hammer” in the way she actively spoke out against the realities of apartheid; The Guardian called her “one of the most visible and outspoken opponents’ of the regime. Starting in a township, her music very quickly launched her into celebrity status. This started in 1954 when she featured as a vocalist for the Manhattan Brothers which led to her winning the role of the female lead in the show King Kong in 1959.

In 1966, she became the first African artist to receive a Grammy Award for her album An Evening With Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba. However, her popularity cost her her citizenship, forcing her to take asylum in Guinea where she became extremely active in the United Nations General Assembly’s activity in relation to South Africa.

Makeba appeared in the 1960 anti-apartheid documentary Come Back Africa. In 1967, she gained even more recognition with Pata Pata, and soon after published her autobiography Makeba: My Story, where she revealed tragedies and injustices she faced throughout her life. Her experiences led her to be extremely involved with the black consciousness movement. While she was in Guinea, she met and married Stokely Carmichael, the leader of the Black Panthers. Similarly to Hugh Masekela and LadySmith Black Mambazo, Makeba also performed with Paul Simon on his Graceland album and tour.