Salon: Sharps and Flats

Topics: Music,

With a dog’s menacing bark in the distance, the cautionary shrieks of seagulls overhead, the ominous groan of a fog horn and the sound of waves lapping insistently against the shore, “Robben Island Ambiance,” the opening 50 seconds of “Mandela –The Soundtrack,” encapsulates the troubled and often disturbing history of modern South Africa. Of course, Robben Island, now a national park and tourist destination, was home to the maximum security prison where South African president Nelson Mandela and many others who actively opposed apartheid, were incarcerated for their political beliefs.

The 25 songs which follow “Robben Island Ambiance” on “Mandela” also make a statement about the history of South Africa. Cleverly subtitled “The Essential Music of South Africa,” this collection — from the Island Films’ documentary scheduled to be released in March — points not only to the important music the country has produced, but to the vital role that music played in sustaining and transforming its people. In a nation where music and dance are an integral part of the culture, it comes as no surprise that the crossroads of politics and song should prove such fertile ground for poignant and powerful storytelling.

Beginning in the 1940s and ’50s, the popular music of South Africa flirted with rebellion. On the surface, the Manhattan Brothers’ “Vuka Vuka” sounds like a beautiful, albeit innocuous, doo-wop song. However, its message, “Get up and fight/Don’t be complacent,” was positively revolutionary. Similarly, the remarkable harmonies of Miriam Makeba’s Skylarks on “Pula Kgosi Seretse,” remind one of the Andrews Sisters, but by singing in the Tswana language they were able to make political statements without being understood by the Afrikaaner government. Even the breezy stylings of The African Jazz Pioneers’ “Sip N’ Fly” issues a challenge with its lighthearted optimism.

Many of the songs on “Mandela” are direct tributes to the South African leader. Jazz great Hugh Masakela joins forces with Cape Town’s Jennifer Jones on “Father of Our Nation.” With its chorus of “O Mandela/Son of Africa/Father of our freedom/Spirit of our love,” it expresses the feelings many South Africans hold for the man they affectionately call “Madiba” (leader or exalted one). Other songs written expressly for Mandela include Vusi Mahlasela’s magnificent “When You Come Back,” the Special AKA’s dance hall hit “Nelson Mandela,” Soweto superstar Brenda Fassi’s powerful “Black President,” and Johnny Clegg and Savuka’s “Asimbonanga” (We Have Not Seen Him).



It is a bit greedy to complain about omissions from such a wonderful collection, but “Bring Him Back Home,” from Masakela’s 1987 release “Tomorrow,” is a joyful demand for Mandela’s freedom that deserves new listeners. Likewise, it’s a shame that “Nkosi Sikelel’i Africa” (God Bless Africa), a song of inestimable beauty and resilience (and now one of South Africa’s national anthems) did not make the cut. It is available elsewhere of course, but it is a song so rich in texture and emotion that one never tires of hearing it. Other listeners may quibble about some of the selections made, but perhaps the soundtrack’s greatest accomplishment is that it remains accessible to the uninitiated while rewarding those already familiar with South African music.

Joe Heim is a frequent contributor to Salon. He lives in Washington.

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