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The music that fought racist apartheid

Review by Craig Johnson | May 16, 2003 | Page 9

DOCUMENTARY: Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, directed by Lee Hirsch.

SOUTH AFRICAN jazz musician Hugh Masakela recounts in Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony that jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie once told him, "I'd like to be part of your revolution, because the people always seem to be dancing and singing." After seeing the film, who can blame him?

Amandla!--the Xhosa word for "power"--documents the South African people's struggle against apartheid--told through the movement's music. As the racist apartheid regime forced Africans into townships and industrial centers, people sang about leaving their homes, the horror of the coal mines and the degradation of working as domestic servants.

Sophie Mgcina performs "Madam, Please," the song of a maid angrily addressing her boss: "Madam please/Before you laugh at your servant's English/Try to speak to him in his Zulu language/Madam please/Before you complain your servant stinks/Try washing your clothes in a Soweto sink."

The music not only exposed apartheid's injustice, but posed an alternative. Musicians like Vuyisile Mini--the executed union organizer who's considered the father of freedom songs--performed music for a militant struggle against the regime.

"Watch Out Verwoerd" warned South Africa's prime minister that "the Black people are coming," and Mgcina recalls that "the whites looked at us singing and thought, 'Oh, how nice' but really we were saying, 'We're gonna kill you, we're gonna shoot you, better watch what you say, better watch what you do.'"

After the 1976 Soweto massacre, the movement gained more militancy, and songs were charged with imagery of an armed struggle for liberation. The toyi-toyi, a military march dance and song style became commonplace in massive street demonstrations. As one activist puts it, "The toyi-toyi was our weapon. We did not have the technology of warfare, the tear gas and tanks, but we had this weapon."

Amandla! neither lets the music merely serve as a soundtrack to its story nor allows the history of the South African struggle to wallpaper an exploration of the songs, but manages to show how each fed one another. It will inspire anyone who wants to fight for a better world.

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