Sweet sounds of freedom

Apartheid ended 10 years ago, but South Africa's music still pulsates with life, love, protest and pain. And Britain is preparing to welcome it, says Jane Cornwell
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A few years ago, sightseeing in the middle of a British tour, the famed South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo strolled into St Paul's Cathedral, looked up at the dome and marvelled at the building's ambience and acoustics. There was only one thing for it: they burst spontaneously into song. "Just talking quietly to each other filled the place with sound," sighs their leader, Joseph Shabalala, 63. "You knew you were in a place of God. We started singing bits of Zulu, Swazi and Xhosa songs. Then, with all the tourists staring at us, we stood in a circle and sang 'Amazing Grace'." After which Shabalala asked the verger if, one day, his group might stage a concert there. "I knew," he says, "that it would be something great."

A few years ago, sightseeing in the middle of a British tour, the famed South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo strolled into St Paul's Cathedral, looked up at the dome and marvelled at the building's ambience and acoustics. There was only one thing for it: they burst spontaneously into song. "Just talking quietly to each other filled the place with sound," sighs their leader, Joseph Shabalala, 63. "You knew you were in a place of God. We started singing bits of Zulu, Swazi and Xhosa songs. Then, with all the tourists staring at us, we stood in a circle and sang 'Amazing Grace'." After which Shabalala asked the verger if, one day, his group might stage a concert there. "I knew," he says, "that it would be something great."

Zulu music's veteran exponents play St Paul's on 24 June under the banner of the City of London Festival. They're headlining the festival's Trading Places strand, whose sole focus - South African music - celebrates the 10th anniversary of freedom in the Rainbow Nation.

The jazz god Hugh Masekela is coming with his songs of liberation, delivered in collaboration with the British-based Jazz Jamaica Allstars and choirs from east London schools. The classically trained diva Sibongile Khumalo, one of her country's most acclaimed artists, will present an innovative repertoire of jazz, gospel, opera and folk. The musical show Gumboots sees voices, bodies and boots used as instruments. The Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble joins the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a programme of Baroque chamber works and township kwela songs. They'll also play Handel's Water Music as it was intended to be given - on a boat on the river.

A number of popular South African names await international discovery. The jazz-roots singer Gloria Bosman - lauded by Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela - has yet to be recognised here: ditto the singer/songwriter Vusi Mahlasela, a Dylan-esque bard christened "The Voice" by his countryfolk and "a national treasure' by the Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer. Then there's the multi-instrumentalist and singer Neo Muyanga, suggested to the festival by Masekela: "Neo is a great entertainer as well as a great musician," he said. And Shiyani Ncobo, who grew up playing maskanda music - the lively neo-traditional music of the Zulu people - on a guitar made from a tin can. Oh, and DJ Oscar "Oskido" Mdlongwa, the maestro of Afro-house beats and producer of some of the biggest kwaito (South Africa's own brand of hip hop) acts in his country. Democracy, so bitterly won, has never sounded so sweet.

Variety is the key. South Africa has the greatest profusion of popular musical styles on the African continent. The Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho people have been singing out their lives for centuries (this is the music that attracted Paul Simon to South Africa before he recorded Graceland), but many styles emerged as a direct result of oppression. Ladysmith Black Mambazo's "tip-toe' iscathimiya music, with its high-kicking, soft-stepping dance, has its origins in miners' hostels in Natal province in the Thirties, with workers at pains not to wake the bosses. The now joyous tradition of gumboot dancing began in the gold mines, when labourers - chained in silence in water up to their knees - communicated by slapping their boots and stomping their feet.

Kwela music, like most modern styles, came out of the townships. ("Kwela", meaning "jump up', was the instruction given to those about to be thrown into police vans during periodic raids.) Areas like Soweto, Sharpeville, District Six and Sophiatown, now infamous, gave rise to urban, pan-tribal genres, mostly inspired by music - jazz, swing, jive - coming in (or back) from America. Black South Africans added an urban spin: kwela, with its penny whistles and one-string bass, became sax jive, or mbaqanga. Marabi soul took off in the Seventies. Bubblegum pop dominated the Eighties (and suffered a blow with the sudden death earlier this month of the superstar Brenda Fassie). Kwaito exploded in the Nineties, and it remains, apart from gospel music, the country's most popular genre.

The City of London Festival, then, can only hope to scratch the surface. "We could have gone on and on," admits the festival director, Kathryn McDowell. "But we decided to focus on artists we could present really well. Ladysmith Black Mambazo have a huge audience here and a long relationship with the festival. They were perfect for our major venue, St Paul's." Ladysmith will also feature at a special South African church service the following Sunday, where they'll add their purring harmonies to Mozart's Coronation mass and hymns from the South African church - a legacy of the Protestant missionaries who developed the choir tradition in the 19th century.

Many South African artists, including Gloria Bosman and Sibongile Khumalo, started singing in mission-school choirs or church, and the largest recording industry on the continent was there when they went professional. South Africa made its first commercial recordings in 1912: the South African music pioneer Eric Gallo set up its first recording studio in the Thirties. Today, the major South African record companies are BMG, Gallo, CCP/EMI, Teal and Tusk.

The largely white-owned industry often failed to give black artists their due, but music fuelled the resistance nonetheless. Former exiles, including Masekela, Miriam "Mama Africa' Makeba (coincidentally performing at the Royal Festival Hall next Tuesday) and the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim played a central role in the struggle against apartheid. (They all, with Khumalo and Mahlasela, feature in the director Lee Hirsch's prize-winning documentary film Amandla!, screened as part of the festival.) The music in the townships mourned - and celebrated.

"Township music is about the evil of what was done to us," says Masekela, the author of hits such as "Grazing in the Grass" and the Mandela-inspired "Bring Him Back Home". "But it's also about the resilience of our people." South Africans need to remain vigilant, he insists. Ten years after the electoral triumph of the ANC, "we sort of don't know how to translate what freedom is. We still need time to recover its sweetness. Billions were spent on keeping us separate and lowering our self-esteem. The effects of that will stay with us for a long time."

His country is all too aware that the world is watching, he adds. "We have to build an environment of strength and security were people can protect as well as enjoy themselves. But it's hard. All the solidarity groups and all the non-governmental organisations that supported us have left and said, 'You're free now. Good luck. We have to go.'"

So has the music of South Africa lost its fire? Sibongile Khumalo doesn't think so. "I think it is true that artists are mirrors of society," she says. "Our music has just changed its focus." Launched into the spotlight after winning the Standard Bank young artist award at the Grahamstown Festival in 1993, the mezzo-soprano and ethnomusicologist - who holds degrees from two South African universities - Khumalo has since worked across a range of genres.

Indeed, the ease with which her powerful voice tackles everything from jazz to classical (she achieved fame in concert with the South African Symphony Orchestra) and opera (she sang in Handel's Messiah under Sir Yehudi Menuhin) has seen Khumalo hailed as an emblem of the new South Africa. (During the Commonwealth celebrations in 2002, she famously treated Buckingham Palace, and the Queen, to a sudden and exultant Zulu ululation.)

"Sibongile's mix of styles is very attractive to audiences," McDowell says. "Her versatility, and the celebratory nature of her music, fit in with what is happening in South Africa right now. She has this incredible magic on stage, too, which is something you don't get to see very often. Wherever she plays, she collects these armies of passionately adoring fans. She's also trailblazing a path for a lot of younger artists."

Khumalo echoes Masekela when she says that, post-1994: "We'd put our crosses next to that famous face on the election ballot and assumed that things would be okay, but they weren't. Stories still needed to be told. We still had to be vigilant about the effect of apartheid on our lives, our culture." It was quickly apparent that other scourges - HIV and Aids, the abuse of women and children, poverty - had to be addressed. "We realised that there was a whole lot more to write about, sing about, talk about, make art about, other than apartheid.

"But the current climate of cultural and artistic expression is thrilling. I think people are really feeling a greater freedom to do what they want to do. There's a big wave of traditional musicians making very traditional music, for example. There's also a constant cross-pollination of styles. And jazz! There has been a huge resurgence in South African jazz in the last * * 10 years. Young performers are showing a lot of interest. Not just singers, but instrumentalists as well."

If musicians of the calibre of Khumalo have been slow to break out, this has much to do with the support they now enjoy in South Africa. "South Africa went through a phase of, 'If it's from outside, it's better,'" Khumalo says. "But then the South African public revalidated its artists. Take the North Sea Jazz Festival in Cape Town: its audience now gives the South African performers more of a reception than the visiting musicians. With that kind of support from your home crowd, perhaps there isn't such a pressing need to prove yourself elsewhere."

Try telling that to the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble. The group was born out of a charitable project founded by the British viola player Rosemary Nalden (also a founder member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) in the early Nineties, in which hundreds of professional UK musicians took part in simultaneous "busks' to raise money for young musicians in the townships. Corporate sponsors and individual donors followed suit, and the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble was created in 1997 with members drawn from underprivileged local communities. The project has 70 members, 25 of whom are in the ensemble. It has performed for presidents and royalty, worked with the conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner and members of the English Baroque Soloists, released three bestselling CDs and toured the world.

Nalden attributes the ensemble's meteoric rise to three factors: motivation, talent and teaching. "These youngsters are highly motivated," she says. "Things are getting better, with more sports and cultural organisations and projects being established, but there really isn't a lot for kids to do in the townships. In some parts of South Africa, you can't talk about culture to a youngster who has lost both parents to Aids and is trying to find food for his or her family. But in the urban areas it's improved enormously, even if there still aren't many after-school facilities. I've had eight-year-olds coming to the door asking if they can learn the violin." (Nalden and her team work out of a small school in Diepkloof, Soweto.)

"Musicality has a strong presence among the African community," she continues. "It's just a fact of life. The missionary history of South Africa also means that there are connections with classical choral music; the church played a large part in giving people somewhere to express sadness and frustration with the apartheid system. In that sense, composers like Handel are very well known. You can play a bit of Handel and someone will walk into the room and respond very quickly."

Nalden's teaching methods involve the use of the whole body, an approach she says works remarkably well. "These children are very flexible. They're not at all embarrassed to be seen moving around with their instruments, which means that they connect in a much more spontaneous way." There have been criticisms, of course. A local newspaper printed an article querying the merits of township children learning the music of European imperialists. "I challenged the writer to come and visit and see the joy and motivation in these kids, who play European music in a way that expresses who they are. And the inspiration is mutual: this isn't about big white people coming and patting the heads of little black children. There's no question that European musicians who work with them go away with renewed energy for the music."

Indeed, Nalden (appointed MBE in 2002) goes as far to say that Buskaid stands for everything South African democracy is about. "Buskaid is the truest representation of what should be happening here. That youngsters should be free to go anywhere, express themselves any way they like and have access to the sort of educational and cultural facilities that should have been available but weren't." The project also demonstrates what is possible with the proper ingredients. "If you get the right financial support and put that money to first-class use, you get the energy right," she says. "We get loads of kids just coming to sit and watch. Now they love classical music as much as something like kwaito."

Ah yes, kwaito. A genre that, according to Hugh Masekela, is changing South Africa's music industry. "Kwaito came up like rap here," he says. "It was something the white establishment didn't know anything about. The kids taught themselves the technology and as a result, they became players in the South African economy. Now there are a lot of small independent African record companies."

The major labels will try to buy these up, he adds. "But I believe that, in 10 years' time, the recording industry in this country will be basically a black industry. What the content will be is another question, but hopefully social consciousness will be a big thing. I don't think that arts and music can survive without addressing the problems that exist socially."

Joseph Shabalala insists that Ladysmith Black Mambazo - wrongly considered "typical" South African music by many Westerners - helped to break down apartheid by bringing the music of South Africa to the world. So did artists such as Hugh Masekela, for whom the fight will never be over. "Apartheid has been smashed politically, if not economically," he says, "but hopefully our role is always to sing out for freedom and justice. The best of our music has always built on our roots and taken them forward into radical, exciting new forms, from marabi to mbaqanga, from bubblegum to kwaito. And long may that continue."

The City of London Festival will demonstrate how a recovering country can still produce sophisticated talent to the highest international standards. It will also underline South African music's amazing variety. "I guess it is inevitable that people want a sound to identify with South Africa, in the way reggae defines Jamaica or samba defines Brazil," says Sibongile Khumalo. "But I think it would be a pity if something becomes typical and the rest disappears. What makes South African music so interesting is its range."

City of London Festival: 1 June to 25 August, various venues (0845 120 7502; www.colf.org)