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Review by Brad Green:
Protest songs can be the most annoying things. Not every songwriter’s pen flows with the lyricism of Bob Dylan, and there is nothing worse than some pop poseur spouting off on an issue they’ve deeply researched on the overleaf to a magazine article about themselves. Unfortunately, today’s glamour idols were yesterday’s sixties folk fans and it remains a common occurrence. More admirable are the artists who present observation over opinion: Bono emoting about the bullet-scarred skies of El Salvador; Sting paying tribute to the mothers and wives of The Disappeared in Pinochet’s Chile. But far more powerful again are the instances when the oppressed sing their own exhortations; it is then that music’s unique ability as a vehicle of communication becomes palpable. 

Here is a 29-track album from a documentary that explores the significant role of music in the South African black community’s struggle against apartheid. For years the world anticipated nothing less than a bloodbath in their country. Boycotts and sanctions had been jabbing away without ever really threatening to knock the racism out of the National Party; and for all the international pressure, the situation seemed intractable. That the resolution came, in relative terms, remarkably peacefully speaks volumes for the resolve of the oppressed. It was a resolve built on martyrdom, courage and, not least, an unlikely optimism that manifested itself in music.

These are the authentic sounds of protest that we are more usually exposed to in stylised recreations, such as in the tribal prison chanting scene of The Power Of One. The sprawling nature of this soundtrack, including individual vocalists, ensembles, professional choirs and prison singers, is patchy in quality but never less than fascinating. The virtuosity of jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and the informal harmonies of the Soweto Community Hall alike strip an especially ugly facet of 20th century history down to its basic humanity.

One of the stars of the album is Vusi Mahlesla who, backed only by economical acoustic guitar, skips easily between monologue, rhythmic vocalisations and sky-scraping melodies. Even his speaking voice captivates with its mellow machismo: rich, deep, articulate and strangely gentle. Nearly all the music on the album resonates with the Zulu tradition of pulsing vocal phrases embellished with dense harmonies. Songs of defiance, songs of adoration for Nelson Mandela and songs of solidarity are delivered from the heart of deep suffering. Yet at the same time you can hear the breath of hope exhaled in every refrain. 

At the conclusion of the Harmonious Seranade Choir’s performance a lone voice declares, “The revolution in South Africa is the only revolution anywhere in the world that was done in four-part harmony”. Long live such revolutions. The song is truly mightier than the sword. 

Published November 6, 2003

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TITLE: Amandla! The Soundtrack
ID: 79102-21510-2
ARTISTS: Vusi Mahlasela; Mbongeni Ngema; Nancy Jacobs and Sisters; The Original Cast of King Kong; Miriam Makeba; Robben-Island Prison Singers; Hugh Masekela; Abdullah Ibrahim; Soweto Community Hall; SABC Choir; Tananas; Amandla Group; Joe Nina; Sophie Mgeina and Dolly Rathebe; Sibongile Khumalo with Themba Mkhize; Harmonious Serade Choir; The African National Congress Choir

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