Africa, Mandela, life, and music

Writing about the forthcoming funeral ceremonies for Nelson Mandela, I wrote last Saturday:

As the sparks fly upward into the star-speckled sky the praise singers will intone Mandela’s glory, composing songs that will be handed down for generations to come.  As the coals redden the sangomas and inyangas will sprinkle them with muti, waving leafy branches through the smoke, inviting – imploring – importuning the ancestral spirits to welcome into their midst a Great One, the Father Of The Nation.  There will already be those offering sacrifice to Mandela’s spirit, asking his aid.

I can almost taste the salt of their tears, and smell the smoke of their fires, and hear their chants, and feel the vibrations in my body as they beat their drums and stamp their feet in the dance.  I won’t be there in body, but I’ll be there in spirit . . . because these people, the ordinary people of Africa, beyond politics or ideology, were near and dear to my heart, and a part of it will always be theirs.  I’ll mourn their loss with them.  It’s something I can’t explain.  Only those who understand tribal Africa will understand what I’m saying here.  It’s too deep for words.

I’m very conscious of a massive sense of communal, spiritual anticipation in southern Africa right now.  People are preparing to bid farewell to a Great One, someone in the mold of Shaka or Cetshwayo, both great Zulu kings.  The ‘ordinary people’ of Africa, the rural tribal societies, don’t care about Nelson Mandela’s political, social or economic views.  Debates over Communism or terrorism are irrelevant to them.  They just know that the ‘Father Of The Nation’, one to whom they have all looked up as a father figure since as long as they can remember, is no longer there.  There is an emptiness in that place in the land.  Who will fill his place?  Who will be a father to them now?  Who will be their wise ruler and counselor?  Johnny Clegg expressed it well just the other day.

As I said on Saturday, this is not something anyone will understand unless he or she has been a part of tribal Africa, and has it in their blood.  Africa’s like a disease that way.  Once it’s got hold of you, it never lets go, even if you live thousands of miles from it.  Lawdog and I have discussed this in the past, and we both understand it very well.  We didn’t have to explain it to each other – it was beyond words – but we couldn’t explain it to someone who hadn’t shared our experiences.  It’s a weird feeling.

This sense of loss, of emptiness, of awaiting, will be expressed in music above all else.  Africa is a land, a continent, of rhythm and music above all else.  Life is lived to the rhythm of the seasons, and that rhythm is incorporated into the spirituality and anthropology and society of Africa in a unique way.  Foreign music is not so much enjoyed as assimilated, made a part of the African musical tradition, absorbed and renewed and played in a new way, enriching both the tradition from which it came and the African tradition that has now made it a part of itself.

I’d like to illustrate by taking just one small slice of Africa’s music.  Kwela was a musical form inspired by pre-World-War-Two Western jazz music.  It layered it on top of African tribal rhythms, and adopted the trumpet and the penny-whistle as the best expression of it.  Hugh Masekela is a very well-known African trumpet player who came out of a South African township and tribal background to rise to the heights of Western jazz music.  You’ll find a lot of his music on YouTube, if you don’t already know it.  Here’s ‘Stimela’ – ‘Coal Train’.

As for the penny-whistle, Spokes Mashiyane was the unquestioned ‘King of Kwela’, acknowledged as such by every South African musician since his untimely early death.  Again, you’ll find much of his work on YouTube.  Here’s one of his fusions of Western jazz and township rhythms called ‘Chobolo’.

When Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu formed the band Juluka in 1969, they inherited this Kwela/jazz fusion and layered it with rock and pop influences to form, in their turn, something new.  Their music became immensely popular in South Africa, and eventually throughout the world.  From their 1982 album ‘Scatterlings‘, here’s their tribute to their musical heritage, ‘Kwela Man’.

Juluka broke up later that decade, and Clegg formed Savuka as a successor group.  He tours to this day with a band that varies in makeup, but remains true to the African rhythms that shaped and formed him and his music.  You’ll find a lot of it on YouTube.  Here they are in Portland, Oregon in 2011, with a live performance of ‘Great Heart’.  Note the fusion of African rhythms, jazz, rock and folk music.  I find it fascinating.

It’s those musical roots that informed and engendered ‘Asimbonanga’, that I embedded in my memorial post for Mr. Mandela last Thursday.

Another South African mega-group that formed in the 1980’s was Mango Groove.  They embraced the jazz heritage already influencing African music, and emphasized and reinforced it – to such an extent that they’ve performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival.  Again, there’s a lot of their music on YouTube.  Here’s perhaps their greatest hit, ‘Special Star’, which opens with a very specific tribute to Kwela music and Spokes Mashiyane.  Note the ‘gumboot dancers‘.

That rich fusion of music and musicians will be gearing itself for this week’s ceremonies.  Will we get another ‘Biko‘ or ‘Asimbonanga’ out of it?  Frankly, I’ll be surprised if we don’t . . .



  1. I don't personally know the bone-deep affinity with Africa and its heritage/music/peoples/customs … but I understand how that can be. I've experienced it in how my Scots-Irish/Celtic heritage speaks to me, across the years and the miles. It resonates within me, sometimes moving me to tears, in a way I cannot explain to anyone else.

  2. Reading "The Washing of the Spears" taught me more than I ever knew of the southern portion of the continent, enough to appreciate the struggle that went on there in more modern times. Heavy reading but most interesting and tremendously informative.

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