Militant music still mostly hidden from history

The Amandla Cultural Ensemble performs in Malaysia in 1990

Last week’s Wits conference on the politics of armed struggle in Southern Africa devoted one session to visual arts and music. As in most of the discussions, the time was nowhere near adequate to the topic – but it was an important start.

The cultural criticism encouraged by globalised capitalism often asserts that when politics come in the door, art goes out the window. Many times that assertion is silent and implicit, simply cemented into an ideological wall constructed between ‘politics’ and ‘art’.

Yet the images, poetry and music inspired by the experiences and dreams of political struggles are shaping and asserting their own aesthetic and expressive language. Those aesthetics and expressive languages are as real as (and often far more interesting than) the three chords of commercial pop, the simpering shepherdesses of Romantic landscape art or the marital shenanigans of the Hampstead novel. Denying their validity erases an important element from cultural history – it’s not only hegemonic oppression, it’s bad theory.

A case in point is the history of the musics of the South and southern African liberation struggles.

At the conference, South African protest music was represented by scholar Retha Langa’s study of the 2011 tug-of-war that took place in and out of court between Afriforum and the ANC over the meaning and ownership of the song Dubul’ibhunu [shoot the Boer]. Langa’s work offered thought-provoking framing for discussion of how music may be deployed and (mis)interpreted; its intention was not to ‘get inside’ the music to analyse changes over time in the aesthetics and expressive language of struggle songs.

It was left to an audience member, film-maker, former combatant and former Ambassador Zeph Makgetla, to raise some aspects of those, as he remembered how, in the MK camps, news of world events and developments in the struggle impacted on how those songs were both sung and heard by young soldiers. His memories recalled something also observed by Pallo Jordan and recounted in an interview he gave for the sleeve notes of the 2-CD compilation South African Freedom Songs ( ): “[There was a change in the 1960s]. The words move away from biblical codes and become much more direct. A hymn like Somlandela uJesus (We will follow Jesus) is changed to Somlandela Luthuli. A song about a train [that helps us move] becomes a song about Mandela.” In the same publication, Ronnie Kasrils adds that many songs also became “more rhythmical and repetitive – they were essentially becoming marching songs.”

We need those changes mapped. We need to understand how lyrics, musical feel, and the gestural vocabulary of choral singing changed over time – and we need to bring those maps up to date, for, as Tshireletso Mati observes in a Media for Justice post ( the songs are still being sung. “There have been robust arguments”, he notes “around which song takes the award for song of the year.” The contention, he says, is between two songs that struggle veterans will recognise as having very venerable roots: Iyoh Solomon (Mahlangu) and Shiweeele.

There are other questions still awaiting answers. Why, for example, do most histories of South African choral music ignore mzabalazo, the struggle songs of the workers’ choirs of the 1980s? Did gestures and elements of musical language from the MK camps find their way into the performances of those union choirs and by what routes? How did lyrics get composed, adopted and disseminated? We know the name of Vuyisile Mini, but who were the other, still unacknowledged,  composers of workers’ music?fosatu-worker-choirs

Certain songs, it is clear, found audiences outside MK camps and South African protest meetings. They have come to emblematise the struggle worldwide, although they are only a small sample from a much greater repertoire. Some were popularised through the work of Jonas Gwangwa when he directed the Amandla Cultural Ensemble, which toured the world. As both a militant and an internationally experienced composer/arranger, Gwangwa was unapologetic about shaping those songs and the performance around them to speak to the hearts and minds of Western audiences: that was his mission. It worked, magnificently.catch_a_fire

But it would also be interesting to consider what his adaptations were, and how they have shaped the concepts of those songs contemporary listeners – including those young #FeesMustFall demonstrators – now carry. The same question exists about the way certain songs were presented by the documentary Amandla: A Revolution in Three-Part Harmony. And what did a contemporary composer like Philip Miller hear in those songs – why did he select certain of them for the soundtrack of the movie Catch A Fire (and later the album Shona Malanga) and how did he re-vision them?amandla

Struggle songs are still being revived and refreshed, and new ones are being created: in service delivery protests and around the Marikana Massacre. Some are being crafted by the choir of NUMSA as we approach the launch of a new trade union federation. What will be their mood: how will they reflect on the past – such as the mzabalazo tradition – and prefigure the future?

We saw in the #RememberKwezi demonstrations that struggle songs also carry messages about social roles. That’s another route back into women’s history in struggle, from the idealisation of the mothers of militants, through the limited numbers of soldiers’ songs praising women as fighters, to the gendered nature of some more aggressive fighting lyrics (which women soldiers also sang). President JG Zuma amassed patriarchal political capital through the phallocentric appropriation of UmshiniWam’ (my machine-gun) outside his rape trial before he was acquitted. But other singers raised alternative voices there, notably with Lo Mthondo Wakho Udal’inyakayaka (Your penis is causing chaos). It was a contention outside a courtroom as worthy of scholarly attention as the Dubul’ibhunu case.

“Your penis is causing chaos!”Demonstrators outside the rape trial courtroom

These are just a few of the aspects of our militant music that remain unexplored. This is history only partially – if at all – written. The documentary record is scanty, and those who remember the roots of some songs are growing older. Next time, we should be able to fill a whole conference with discussion about the aesthetics and forms of the cultural expressions of our struggle.

AMENDED JULY 2 2017: See for example this superb example of the kinds of studies we need more of:



Who’s got the map? What bloody map?

I ended my obituary of Lucky Ranku last time with the Malian proverb that when a musician dies, a library burns. But some things I’ve been involved in over the time since then are rather sharply telling me that it doesn’t take death to create yawning chasms in our cultural history. It just takes bad media arts policy.

In an article I’m working on for a music journal, I argue that the racist blinkers historically imposed by apartheid gave a special role to our music journalists. These “unofficial musicologists” mapped territory that apartheid ethnomusicology often erased or distorted – particularly for the world of South African jazz, where the narrative of non-tribal black urban sociality and sophisticated attainment found a very poor fit amidst demeaning stereotypes and the ideological drive towards retribalisation.

But I’ve also been judging the National Arts Journalism Awards (no spoilers, but we have an intriguing crop of winners – wait for Nov 28) and doing another writing task that’s involved researching the biographies of some current South African musicians.

And what I’m finding – apart from the few truly wonderful writers and titles – is a wasteland.

We currently have what’s probably the largest, most inspiring crop of innovative young jazz players we’ve heard for a very long time. Not only is technical proficiency sterling, but the ideas and sounds are fresh and widely diverse. Even on the same instruments, you can’t put, say, pianists Bokani Dyer. Kyle Shepherd and Thandi Ntuli, or bassists Romy Brauteseth, Dalisu Ndlazi, Amaeshi Ikechi and Benjamin Jephta in the same box. Siya Makuzeni’s voice chills your spine in an entirely different way from that of Gabisile Motuba.

But most newspapers have dropped specialist arts columns, reduced their use of external specialist writers or economised via one-size-fits-all ‘national’ supplements that ignore the rich nuance of local creative scenes. Even where space for arts coverage exists, it’s small. Stories have to compete for those limited page-slots, and either non-specialist reporters have to create the content, or one hardworking arts writer has to demonstrate equal expertise across every genre – briefed, too often, by editors with apparently equally stretched insight into the field. So there’s showbiz aggregation (mostly skandaal from foreign sources), or reviews that are simply accounts of the contents of something, or interviews where it feels like the recorder has just been left running, and then transcribed and chopped to fit. No context, no analysis, no insight, no sense of what’s happening now. And very little jazz. I can find out more about Boity Thulo’s latest pair of heels than about the processes and motivations of half a dozen important jazz players.

Last I checked, only one South African national newspaper, the Daily Sun, had the respect to mark in a timely fashion the deaths of international giants Pinise Saul and Lucky Ranku. Seek an online biography for the late Peter Nthwane, and you can’t find one. Shameful.

RIP Peter Nthwane: 

There are, of course, exceptions: you’ll encounter some of them at the awards. There are bloggers and online sites presenting good, fresh content, and the few remaining radio jazz presenters do a great job. But it’s not enough. And the presence of exceptions does not compensate for the overwhelming bleakness future researchers will encounter when they try and find out about the discourse of jazz in South Africa in the early and mid-2000s.

Because jazz isn’t just a sound; it is a discourse too. When Todd Matshikiza documented how jazz came to Joburg for Drum, his writing didn’t just tell you about the sounds, but about lives, experiences, the texture of social life and the weight of politics (albeit that latter often obliquely, because of censorship). It’s ironic how little space our ‘liberated’ media devote to doing that.

Now, we worry, too, about the future of one of the spaces where the discourse of jazz was not only discussed but enacted. Founding partner Aymeric Peguillan is leaving his role at the club at the end of November, following financial hard times and divergent opinions about future programme policy. Without the Orbit as it has functioned since its foundation (and its circuit brethren, Nikki’s and the African Freedom Station), we wouldn’t know about all the richness of our young jazz scene; would not have been able to buy the albums at launch, and would not have been able to listen to the music in an atmosphere that offered respect to its creators’ intentions. Often, the Orbit programme biographies gave us the only information available anywhere about some musicians’ lives. Certainly, the Orbit was unique in offering musicians a decent, private green room and a beautifully maintained, top of the line, piano.

Au revoir Aymeric Peguillan

We’ve no evidence, yet, about what may change – but some things clearly will. We can hope that the managers taking over understand what has made the Orbit such a special place – developmentally, and for Cape Town, Pretoria and Durban musicians as well as Joburg players – and keep at least some of that in place. But, whatever, Aymeric, thank you – you’ll be missed!

In memoriam Lucky Madumetja Ranku (1941-2016)

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions,” wrote Shakespeare. In the past two weeks, it’s been true. Close on word of the passing of singer Pinise Saul, her closest musical collaborator of recent years, Lucas “Lucky” Madumetja Ranku has also left us.



Born in 1941 in Lady Selborn, Pretoria, Ranku followed a learning pattern almost traditional for aspiring guitarists here: honing his skills on a home-made oilcan guitar before he could scrape together the cash for a real instrument. Malombo music was his traditional grounding, and by the time drummer Julian Bahula split from Philip Tabane’s Malombo in the mid-1960s, Ranku had become so admired that he took the guitar chair in the newly-formed Malombo Jazz Makers alongside reedman Abbey Cindi and Bahula ( ) ( ) The group won acclaim and a recording contract at the 1964 Cold Castle Jazz Festival.


Politics was always in his life and his music; his grandfather had been one of those who rallied the community of Garankua against forced removals. Ranku did not work only with malombo musicians: the Malombo Jazz Makers formed a short-lived partnership in the early 1970s with white psychedelic pop band Freedom’s Children. Member Ramsay Mackay recalled a 1972 joint concert where the band attempted to evade onstage segregation by wearing skeleton costumes and masks. “I remember in the midst of all the madness guitarist Lucky Ranku turning to me with tears in his eyes: ‘I can only play in my own country if I look like a spook.’”

Eventually, apartheid drove him and his band-mates into exile, as it had done to so many others. In London, he found a nascent South African music scene, but also cold, racism and loneliness to which the warm, gentle player never fully reconciled. But his musical career flourished. As well as working with Bahula’s Jabula and all the greats of the South African scene – bassists Ernest Mothle and Johnny Dyani, saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, trumpeter Mongezi Feza and of course singer Pinise Saul – he was also an in-demand session guitarist across a surprising range of musics. Jazz, of course (he guested on Courtney Pine’s 2012 House of Legends, and worked with Mike Oldfield), but also such oddities as this 1983 minor hit from UK pop group Jimmy the Hoover, Kill Me Quick, ( ) where his uncredited guitar lifts a slight hook into something truly memorable and dancefloor infectious.

Because the rent still had to be paid. I got to know Ranku  when he and artist Dumile Feni shared a cramped flat in Streatham close to my own, and saw a domestic side of both: borrowing an iron to iron gig attire, watching football, cooking (and in Feni’s case, sketching nonstop on anything from table napkins to the backs of discarded receipts). In public, Ranku was a self-effacing and restrained talker; in private, his analysis of why apartheid must end, and his stoic acceptance that even gigs that never paid must be played in that cause were vehement. Most famously, that commitment is expressed in the 1978 Jabula album Banned in South Africa (it was) from which this track, Raining in Amsterdam, is taken. ( )


Meanwhile, Ranku’s star as a guitarist in all contexts was rising. American critics compared his gift for fearless improvisation to that of James ‘Blood’ Ulmer (something that quietly amused him – as far as he was concerned, he was merely playing as he always had). At his shows, young English boys sat at the foot of the stage intently watching his fingers – later, some of them such as Eric Richards went on to play in South African bands themselves. When he toured with the SA Gospel Singers, the New York Express called him “truly, a one-man marvel of the fretboard.”

In 1997, he and Saul co-founded Township Express, and for more than 40 years before and after that Ranku played a major role in shaping what British audiences understood by “township jazz”. For many, “township jazz” had come to mean music underpinned by that dancing, chiming, astounding, malombo-rooted guitar.

But Ranku’s musical vision always sought wider horizons. He had no problems with being labelled a jazzman, so long as it was also acknowledged that, as he always declared, “Jazz originates from Africa.” So when he founded and toured with the pan-African African Jazz All Stars, he declared “it wasn’t difficult to put musicians from everywhere in Africa together.”

In 2005, Ranku played a solo concert at London’s South Bank, an unprecedented accolade for a South African guitarist. He did, intermittently come home, to play the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, and to tour with Adam Glasser and Pinise Saul. He found South Africa changed, in both good and bad ways, and the need for his music and its messages undiminished. “It was political… is political,” he told a French interviewer. “And I’m still playing it. The struggle isn’t over yet.” He was still playing it in 2014, in this (unfortunately rather poorly recorded) concert at London’s Vortex club ( ) During 2015, his health declined. A benefit was held for him at the 100 Club, traditionally the home of South African jazz in London. The range of musicians who appeared demonstrates the respect his British musical village had for one of its most talented elders.cs-suhzwiaalqhk And now he has left us. Too soon – but then it’s always too soon. When a musician dies, they say in Timbuktu, a library burns. We are immeasureably poorer without this one.

Hamba kahle Madumetja.