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Culture, Reality

Mourning Song

by Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi / 13.12.2013

The way in which the Cape Town’s administrators organized the city’s Nelson Mandela memorial service gave little opportunity for criticism from detractors. There has been a sometimes ebbing and sometimes flowing debate on the issue of access to the city centre for years. In an inclusive spirit, the organisers of the Nelson Mandela memorial service on Wednesday, December 11 made public transportation to and from the venue free to the public.

The phrase “we sing when we are happy, we sing when we are sad” has become a trite shorthand for journalists, local and international, to describe the seemingly bonhomous atmosphere after the passing of Nelson Mandela on Thursday, December 5 2013. It is lamentable that local media pundits have failed to put this phrase into any kind of context, and have used it by and large as an immutable explanation for the way in which South Africans are mourning.

In 2002, when the thought of Madiba passing was somewhere in the far off heelal, a film called Amandla was released. This film went by the tag line “A revolution in four part harmony” and attempted to document the role music played in the fight against apartheid. At the memorial, the songs which were sung and played reflected, in many ways, the aural history of a particular era in the South African political narrative.

Mourning Song

The memorial service, called A Life Celebrated, brought together an interesting mix of musicians to the stage. A significant aspect of the memorial was the interplay between the audience and the stage. Allou April, who has contributed to the Cape Town music scene significantly, was in the first group of acts on stage. Although he and his band played with audible sentiment, some of his impassioned guitar solos were suffocated by the songs being sung in the grand stands. Somehow, his instrumental music failed to capture the audience’s attention.

It did not help matters much that the MC, radio presenter Shado Twala, was completely out of her depth and lacked even an ounce of the kind of presence an event of that scale deserved. The crowd was getting noticeably restless by the time Ms. Twala announced a fourth choir performance in her good-for-radio voice.

The definitive turn-around moment of the memorial service came when Khanyo Maphumlo sang the lines “The year 1963/The people’s president/ Was taken away by security men/ All dressed in a uniform/ The brutality, brutality/ Oh no, my, my black president”. Before she sang the Brenda Fassie song originally released in 1989 when South Africa was teetering on the edge of destruction, there had been a faction of roughly 100 people chanting, singing and walking around the circumference of the stadium’s field. That group almost unwillingly gravitated to the stage and joined the thousands who had been raised from their seats when the first few lines of the song were sung. Ms. Maphumlo was backed by the Heavenly Voices Choir who did a remarkable job of adding body to that song and a number sung by the Bala brothers later that evening.

Premier Helen Zille came on stage after Don Matera’s heart wrenching poetic renditions and more than half of mayor Patricia De Lille’s speech had been lost to the once again restless and vociferous crowd. In a suave display of her political savoir faire, Zille came on stage and sang “UMandela lo, abamaziyo, abakaze bambone (This Mandela, this one who is well known, they have never seen anyone like him before)”. The song bears historical significance harking back to the early 1990s before the first democratic elections. Premier Zille sang the song again after her multilingual speech as a punctuation politicians often employ in South Africa.

The 46664 ambassador Annie Lennox could have possibly been the worst line-up choices made by the organisers. Her chanting over conga drums and the small djembe under her armpit had roughly the same musicality of a walrus’s mating call. Interestingly, the HIV/AIDS awareness message which she chanted was unable to rouse the crowd in any significant way. This is interesting because it shows how much power music has in conveying a message to South Africans.

Mourning Song

Zwai, Loyiso and Phelo Bala followed Johnny Clegg who had raised the mood in the stadium and recaptured the attention of the crowd. The brothers opened with some opera numbers that extracted some early and stubborn tears from some. Many in the crowd would sit and stand in turn as each stirring song was sung. But most of the seats were abandoned when the trio sang Circle of Life (Disney Lion King 1994) followed by a cover Johnny Clegg’s Nkosiyeza. Their performance came to a crescendo when they fused a popular church chorus, which had its own dance steps, with the Tkzee song Shibobo. The song was aptly remodeled to fit their voices and those of the Heavenly Voices Choir which were backing them, and pitch perfect for the occasion.

Freshlyground were the rainbow nation feel good music after the Bala Brothers had unleashed a torrent of tears. They went through their set with equal measures of fervor and restraint apart from the moments when the lead singer Zolani Mahola seemed like she had to hold back tears. Ladysmith Black Mambazo have been a constant presence at the key moments in Nelson Mandela’s life. Importantly, they were there when Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk accepted their joint Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. They also performed for Madiba and Queen Elizabeth when Madiba was on a state visit there. They have grown to enormous international popularity with their entertaining and vocally astounding act.

Mourning Song

During the medley at the end of the memorial, one couldn’t help but recognise just how much history is embedded in the recorded and unrecorded music of South Africans. Through our songs anger can find its impactful outlet, joy can multiply itself through melodic unison, and sorrow can find its harmonic comfort in the voices of others. Only when the voice is hoarse, can a South African say that they have mourned the death or celebrated the life of the first Black South African president.

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*Images © Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi

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