December 12, 2013

Playlist to Celebrate and Honor Nelson Mandela

By Michael Zwiebach

Here, SFCV celebrates the life of Nelson Mandela through the many songs that were written for him and about him. There are dozens from which to choose, and many of them became rallying signals in the fight against the apartheid regime of South Africa. When the regime fell, and Mandela became the new republic’s first president, all of his big birthdays (most recently, his 95th, last August) were celebrated with concerts. Our playlist mixes some of the retrospectives on his life, with the famous songs of the 1980s protesting his 27-year imprisonment.

  1. "Asimbonanga" by Jimmy Clegg and Savuka, from Third World Child (1987).
    South African Jimmy Clegg formed South Africa’s first integrated rock band in 1974. His collaborations with black musicians irritated the apartheid government. This song has a Zulu language title and chorus: “Where is Mandela? Have you seen him?” It refers to the fact that it was illegal to perform songs or even to speak publicly about Mandela while he was in prison. At a birthday concert after his release, Mandela famously came on stage with Clegg for this song.
  2. “Bring Him Back Home” by Hugh Masekela, from Grazing in the Grass: The Best of Hugh Masekela.
    Famous flugelhorn player Hugh Masekela, one of the major figures in “township jazz,” recalls that in 1985, Mandela sent him a birthday card, which had to be smuggled out of his prison. “Here’s a guy who's been in jail for 20 years, but he’s writing to me giving me encouragement." Masekela later performed the song as part of Paul Simon’s Graceland tour, and it had a tremendous impact.
  3. “Nelson Mandela” by Sipho Mabuse, from The Best of Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse (1994)
    After Mandela’s release from prison, the African National Congress asked Mabuse to write a song for Mandela’s campaign for president. This song begins with Mandela’s speech at his 1963 trial, one of the most famous speeches of the 20th century.
  4. “Mandela” by Salif Keita from Folon (1995)
    This song by the Afro-pop singer/songwriter Salif Keita celebrates Mandela in a slightly different key. Keita, a descendent of a royal family of Mali, is an albino who, for that reason, was ostracized by his family. Keita’s celebration of Mandela’s inclusive political vision is therefore intimately personal.
  5. “Lascia la spina” (G.F. Handel), from Il trionfo di tempo e di disinganno (The Triumph of Time and Truth). Cecilia Bartoli, soprano, from the album Live in Italy.
    Our excuse for adding this beautiful meditation on love (aside from it being beautiful) is that Mandela loved Handel’s music (and Tchaikovsky’s) and liked to watch the sun set with their music in the background. He organized Christmas concerts among the inmates while in jail. The lyrics for this sensuous song run “Leave the thorn, gather the rose/ You go searching for your pain./ Gray frost by hidden hand/ Will come when your heart least expects it.” Listen to it at sunset.
  6. “Let Us Break Bread Together” (traditional), Paul Robeson, bass. From the album The Collector’s Paul Robeson.
    Mandela was a great admirer of Robeson, one of America’s most popular singers (and actors) in the 1940s and ‘50s. Robeson was an activist in the anti-segregation Civil Rights movement, and his renditions of spirituals became anthems for human dignity and liberty. 
  7. “Brand New Day” by Van Morrison. Performed by Miriam Makeba on Keep Me in Mind.
    Miriam Makeba, from the same generation of artists as Masekela, with whom she often collaborated, was exiled by the apartheid government for her musical-political activism. She sang many great protest songs, but this song of hope encapsulates where Mandela left us. There is still plenty of work to be done on behalf of Mandela’s ideals, as President Obama reminded us in his funeral oration, but the struggles are inspired by Mandela’s improbable triumph.
  8. “Thank You, Madiba” by Hugh Masekela on Notes of Life
    A short and sweet farewell

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.