Makeba, the trumpeter Hugh Masekela and the younger township pop stars Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Brenda Fassie were throwing a reception to promote next Saturday's Viva South Africa concert. The mood was cheerful, as you might expect, with Makeba revelling in the novel experience of being a VIP in an embassy which had been off-limits for 30 years. Asked whether she felt she'd made the right decision choosing exile, she replied, 'Well, I didn't exactly choose it. I left for the Venice Film Festival in 1955 and wasn't allowed back in because of public statements I made against apartheid.' She hasn't ruled out, she joked, demanding back with interest the lost cash deposit blacks were obliged to pay against travel permits in those days.
Masekela, her former husband, cautioned against undue euphoria. 'The way the media goes on, people think it's the end of the movie and we're all going off riding into the sunset singing . . . but there is so much to repair, hundreds of thousands of houses to build. Maybe they should sell this place,' he added, glancing around at the gilded bas-relief carving in the embassy's basement cinema, 'That would build a good few homes.'
But for all the publicity they gave to the anti-apartheid cause, Makeba and her fellow musicians were never simply, or even primarily, political artistes. 'People fall in love in South Africa, too, you know - we sang about that more than apartheid.'
This is doubly true of the new generation of artistes, whose careers began when the moral high ground was almost won, and to whom a pro-ANC stance was taken as read. 'My songs are about 10 per cent political,' said Fassie, a diminutive, crew-cut Cape Towner whose judicious mix of soul, hip-hop, techno and township jive has made her one of the country's biggest stars. Chaka Chaka nodded in agreement, but recalled that in the Eighties, when Makeba's records were still listened to clandestinely, she had to disguise her ANC references.
Now, at one bound, Chaka Chaka, Fassie and Makeba, are at the very centre of the arts establishment of South Africa. All three are close friends of Winnie Mandela, deputy arts minister in that intriguing new entity, South Africa's Ministry of Culture.
The Ministry has a lot to do. South African music, says Makeba, has been swamped by American values; an observation borne out by the oeuvre of Fassie and Chaka Chaka, even if the latter's hits do include mbaqanga-influenced stompers like 'Umqombothi', an ode to African home-brewed beer, as well as American-accented bubble-gum pieces like 'I'm In Love with a DJ.' Not for nothing has Pepsi-Cola chosen Chaka Chaka as a vehicle for penetrating the African market.
However, Mrs Mandela needn't go as far as Sekou Toure, the former president of Guinea, whose Sixties diktat had his country's musicians switch abruptly from French pop covers to 'ethnic' music. A new spirit of inter-community discovery is already sweeping through the liberal white community, which missed out on mbaqanga the first time round. And it is thanks partly to international interest that the Soul Brothers, South Africa's biggest selling recording artistes (and top of the Viva South Africa bill), are finally in the spotlight at home.
'Viva South Africa' is at Highbury Fields, N5, on Saturday. Booking: 071-344 4444
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