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The Mandela Playlist: A Life And Legacy, Told In Music

South African President Nelson Mandela joins the choral group at the signing of the country's new constitution at Sharpeville stadium in 1996.  Mandela lived a life filled with rich musical associations.
Walter Dhladhla
AFP/Getty Images
South African President Nelson Mandela joins the choral group at the signing of the country's new constitution at Sharpeville stadium in 1996. Mandela lived a life filled with rich musical associations.

It's worth pausing to consider not only the legacy and achievements of former South African president Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who died Thursday, but also the rich musical associations of his life.

Mandela was born to a high-ranking family of the Mvelo Clan of the Thembu people in Transkei, South Africa, on July 18, 1918. Apartheid reduced groups like the Thembu to "tribes," but such clans represented important political states and kingdoms before colonialism arrived. Throughout his life, Madiba — his clan name, and a title of respect — has shown appreciation for music. His home province, the Eastern Cape, is home to some of the richest musical traditions in the country.

The Sounds Of Mandela's Childhood

The Xhosa-speaking peoples of the region have a tradition of split-tone singing: Vocalists can create more than one note simultaneously and weave those tones together in magically complex rhythmic patterns. They call it "putting salt in a tune," and this is the music Mandela heard during his village childhood.

In addition, the region was a place of settlement for some of the earliest Christian missionaries to Southern Africa. The first indigenous hymn in South Africa, "Ulo Tixo Omkulu" (Thou art God who is great), was written in the early 1820s by Ntsikana son of Gaba, a Xhosa prince who converted to Christianity.

The link above demonstrates the hymn sung in church fashion by an Eastern Cape choir, but it has passed into the South African canon, and was also recorded as "Ntsikana's Bell" by jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (at the time, in 1973, he was known as Dollar Brand) with bassist Johnny Dyani on the album Good News From Afrika.

Mandela excelled at his various schools, taking his leaving exams at a mission school, the Wesleyan Healdtown Academy. He began studying law at Fort Hare University, also in the Eastern Cape, but after being expelled for joining student protests, he returned home and completed his first degree by distance study. By 1941, he'd left the Eastern Cape for Johannesburg, where he began articles with a law firm and enrolled for an LLB (an undergraduate law degree) with the University of the Witwatersrand. But increasing involvement in politics meant he did not complete the degree at that time, although he obtained sufficient qualifications to practice and to cofound South Africa's first black law firm, Mandela & Tambo, in 1952.

In Johannesburg: Practicing Law, Organizing Rebellion

Mandela was also a promising amateur boxer, a stylish dresser and a much-admired man-about town who socialized in the politically aware, racially mixed suburbs of the city, such as Sophiatown. The late jazz guitarist General Duze recalled Mandela as a fan of his music, a jazz enthusiast in general and an avid dancer. For a flavor of the music that made Mandela dance, listen to the late singer Dolly Rathebe — the most admired beauty and singer of her generation — and her work with the African Jazz Pioneers, a revival band composed of veteran former stars of the South African jazz scene.

The song above is "Meadowlands," written by Strike Vilakazi to protest the destruction and forced removal of Sophiatown in the early 1950s by the apartheid government. This reflects the era when Mandela was energizing the African National Congress Youth League, organizing protest and fighting cases related to unjust apartheid laws. Much of this work had to be carried out clandestinely, as he was carrying a suspended sentence for organizing mass defiance and was "banned" (forbidden to take part in public life or any gatherings for a period) in late 1952.

By the early 1960s, repression had increased and Mandela was tasked with establishing and leading Mkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress. In 1962, he traveled to the U.K. to build support for the anti-apartheid struggle, and around Africa to receive training in Morocco and Ethiopia. Months after he returned, he was arrested and charged with leaving South Africa illegally. As the apartheid state discovered more of the scope and effectiveness of ANC plans, the imprisoned Mandela was put on trial again with other comrades. In June 1964, he began a term of life imprisonment on the harsh lime-quarry prison of Robben Island. It was at that point that the musicians of South Africa and the world began drawing attention to his plight, and to the nature of his struggle.

Singing Mandela: South Africans At Home And Abroad

The ANC was establishing effective liaison offices in independent Africa and in Europe; in March 1960, 8,000 people attended an anti-apartheid solidarity rally in London's Trafalgar Square. Black musicians and artists had long been leaving the country: Apartheid's rules restricted what they could play and record and with whom they could collaborate. These restrictions, and the censorship, intensified through the years that followed. After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, and even more after the 1976 Soweto uprising, many young people fled the country to train as ANC cadres, and to find educational opportunities that were closed at home.

From the military training camps, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa recruited a performance group, the Amandla Cultural Ensemble, to take the story of the imprisoned Mandela and the struggle to stages across the world. Here, they sing the marching song "Abazali Sobashiya" (We have left our parents...).

Most of these performances took place in the pre-digital age, but contemporary South African composer Philip Miller has created modern vocal and instrumental arrangements of freedom songs on his album Shona Malanga, including the one sung in direct solidarity and named "Nelson Mandela."

In London, a group of exiles formed the Mayibuye ("Freedom") Cultural group to weave together poetry and traditional and original new songs — including another called "Rolihlahla Mandela" — in a way that would tell the struggle's story.

In America in 1963, a young exiled South African trumpeter named Hugh Masekela — working with the singer Miriam Makeba, whom he married in 1965 — helped make her first hit album: An Evening With Miriam Makeba. Both musicians constantly referred to the South African struggle and Mandela's plight in their performances, as in this clip of Makeba with Harry Belafonte in the 1950s, singing "Give Us Our Land (Mabayeke)."

Although Masekela and Makeba later divorced, Masekela always acknowledged that Makeba helped keep the plight of figures such as Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe and Nelson Mandela at the top of people's minds. Masekela did the same, in songs such as "Stimela" (which depicted the plight of migrant mine workers) and his 1987 hit "Bring Him Back Home" (which directly called for Mandela's release).

Moving between South Africa and international stages, a white academic-turned-performer named Johnny Clegg, working with Zulu guitarist Sipho Mchunu in bands such as Savuka and Juluka, constantly referred to the South African struggle for freedom in his music. In the moving "Asimbonanga," Clegg sang (in Zulu), "We have not seen him / We have not seen our Mandela / in the place where he is kept / Oh, the sea is cold and the sky is gray / Look across the island into the bay / We are all islands till comes the day / we cross the burning water." In this performance, he reprises the song in company with Mandela, after the statesman's release.

Back home in South Africa, even pop singers were gradually finding the courage to call for Mandela's release. Sometimes they sang lyrics with ambiguous meanings. Chicco Twala had a hit with a lightweight "bubblegum" song called "We Miss You Manello," which he said was "about a friend of mine who has gone away." But in live performance, audiences — and Twala — positively roared, "We miss you Mandela."

Others were more upfront. South Africa's most popular female singer of the 1980s, Brenda Fassie, sang two songs directly addressing the man she saw as president-in-waiting. "Black President" is self-explanatory; "Vulindlela" (Let it be opened) was about flinging wide the prison doors. Here, she sings the songs after Mandela's release, in the latter case, at the 2001 Kora African Music Awards, with her president in the audience.

Solidarity Around The World

Mandela hasn't just been celebrated in his homeland. Musicians around the world made tracks in his honor: His Google playlist tops 100 tracks, and that's just the ones that exist in digital formats. One of the best-known is "Free Nelson Mandela," made in 1984 by the British multiracial ska band The Specials. The group had a mission: to fight racist attitudes among its generation and build links between the U.K.'s many diverse ethnic communities. This clip shows the song's debut on British TV, on the program Top of the Pops; although the quality is typical of an airshot, it conveys the song's intense energy and emotion. The band has sung it many times since, including at London birthday solidarity concerts for Mandela, and on the occasion of his 1990 release.

In Africa, musicians from every part of the continent used the imprisoned leader's name as shorthand for struggle, nobility and the fight against colonial oppression. Zimbabwe's Lovemore Majaivana and his Zulu Band created a reggae-flavored "Hymn for Mandela."

In the DRC, Congolese divas Faya Tess and Mbilia Bel and top bandleader Tabu Ley Rochereau teamed up in 1988 to record an entire album dedicated to Madiba — including this track, "Sisi Mandela." This was the period when Rochereau had moved away from his former wife Bel toward using Tess as the Orchestra Afrisa's lead vocalist. But whatever the tensions behind the scenes, the cause of Mandela brought them together for this project.

Mandela's 70th birthday in 1988 — while he was still imprisoned — produced a spate of compositions, many of them performed at the massive Wembley Stadium concert held to honor the man and issue a worldwide call for his freedom and that of all black South Africans. Other artists, including Salif Keita, Ismail Lo and James Ingram, were featured on the bill. Some reprised tribute material they had already composed, but the U.K. band Simple Minds composed a new song called "Mandela Day."

Singing Mandela: The Freedom Years

Since the euphoria surrounding Mandela's release, followed by South Africa's first democratic election and the dismantling of apartheid's structures (relatively rapid) and socioeconomic legacy (much slower), the urgent need to campaign for his freedom has gone. But while the chart-topping campaign songs may have ceased, artists have not forgotten Mandela. The massive birthday concerts reflecting on his period in prison have been followed by events around 4664, the social action and fundraising campaign linked to his former prison number. Every July 18, the world has been urged to celebrate U.N. International Nelson Mandela Day by dedicating 67 minutes (one minute for each of Madiba's years of struggle) to a community service or social-uplift project.

The music hasn't stopped, either. When his health permitted, Mandela spent time back in his home village of Qunu, still rich in traditional Xhosa and church music. Even young artists still remember him. For Mandela's 90th birthday in 2008, Cape Town singer Melanie Scholtz, the late jazz saxophonist Robbie Jansen (himself a struggle veteran) and other Cape musicians created Nelson Mandela: Born in the Land of the Sun. Based on a struggle song of the 1980s, the music has become a tribute and expression of gratitude.

Mandela's life and times are now moving into the concert hall, as his achievements become a subject for symphonies, suites and operas. Many composers view Mandela's life and the victories he won as representative of the triumph of the human spirit on an epic scale — a Fidelio for the modern era. The Cape Town Opera company in 2010 created The Mandela Portrait, a three-part tribute featuring traditional Xhosa music adapted by U.K.-born South African Allan Stephenson, 1950s Sophiatown jazz re-imagined by Cape Town University music professor Mike Campbell and a contemporary opera final act by composer Peter Luis van Dijk.

Contemporary composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen has created two Mandela-linked works. This year's Credo is an oratorio, using text based on the 1955 Freedom Charter. It premiered on July 18. Back in 1955, as a banned person, Mandela had to hide himself, comrades and family members in the crowd when the charter, democratic South Africa's founding statement, was proclaimed in Kliptown.

Last year, Ndodana-Breen premiered Winnie, the Opera, the story of the turbulent life of Mandela's second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The early scenes of the opera, such as the one in the clip below, evoke the years when the Mandela family lived on Vilakazi Street in Soweto and were instrumental in community action.

Madiba retired from the presidency in 1999 and formally withdrew from public life in 2004, though he continued to work tirelessly (as his health permitted) for causes close to his heart, and particularly to campaign for the welfare and future of children and young people. Anecdotes and reminiscences from friends and colleagues in those years depict a man who still cared passionately about justice, and who lived simply and honestly in accordance with his principles.

Members of Mkhonto we Sizwe still remember him as their commander-in-chief from the days when it was necessary to resist the bullets of apartheid. Since Mandela has died, across South Africa former MK militants have been singing a song of mourning called "Hamba Kahle Mkhonto" (Go well, MK soldier), an anthem traditionally sung within the movement when a militant dies. This version is that of the Mayibuye Cultural Group, recorded in 1978.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gwen Ansell