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:



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