Arts, Culture & Media

Apartheid-era songs have a special resonance in South Africa today

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Robben Island Singers, (from left): Thembinkosi Sithole, Grant Shezi, and Muntu Nxumalo.

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robbenislandsingers.com

Redi Thlabi, a host at South Africa's Talk Radio 702, opened up the phone lines for about four hours Tuesday so people could call in and share their thoughts and memories of Madiba — Nelson Mandela.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

I asked her about a sub-genre of African music: Nelson Mandela songs. There have been so many songs written and played in the last few days about Nelson Mandela. I wanted to know what she wanted to hear musically and hadn't heard yet.

"We have celebrated Nelson Mandela in song and we have used this music to comfort ourselves," she said. "And typical of South Africans, we just break out in spontaneous singing. And I think we've focused a lot on recorded music about Nelson Mandela. I would have liked to hear more spontaneity, for people to be given a chance to laud him and celebrate him in the way that they did. It often happened that way when Nelson Mandela was in a room, people would break spontaneously into song. I would have loved to have seen more of that during this period.

"Nelson Mandela loved music, he loved to dance," Thlabi recalled. "There's a quote of his, a very profound quote, where he says 'music kept me alive, music gave me strength.'"

Music like the soundtrack to 'Amandla: A Revolution in Four Part Harmony'. Amandla is a 2002 documentary on the role music played in the anti-apartheid struggle. 

The remarkable trio, the Robben Island Singers, served time with Mandela at the same prison. Now, as free men, they perform the songs they wrote behind bars. 

In the song 'Yzinga', for example, the men compare the steely determination they gained in prison to a shoe. The back of a loafer, they sing, is as hard as concrete. 

When it came out, one reviewer remarked, "it's a song sung for no other reason than to get through the day."