POP / That man Mandela, man can he swing: Nobody sings 'Free Nelson Mandela' any more, but plenty sing about freedom and Nelson Mandela. With the South African elections nearing, the ANC and its musical sympathisers are in full cry. Philip Sweeney reports

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The Independent Online
At an election rally in Johannesburg at the weekend, a newspaper report noted, Nelson Mandela left the stadium shaking his shoulders and moving his hips to a catchy little number entitled 'Sekunjalo,' Sotho language for 'Now Is the Time', the English chorus of which - 'Vo-vo-vo-vote] ANC] ANC]' - risks being mistaken by the average disco habitue of a certain age as propaganda for the YMCA. Recorded by the township pop singer and guitarist Condry Ziqubu, 'Sekunjalo' is one of a dozen items on an album of that name representing the ANC's best shot at harnessing music to its political cause. Also of generating some extra revenue: as of next week, the record will be on sale in the UK (see Andy Gill's review opposite), all royalties going to the ANC.

The South African election is the latest in a series of case studies of African music adapting to democracy. No major public event on the continent passes without music, but until recently free multi-party elections didn't feature. With praise- singing for powerful patrons a traditional musician's function, high illiteracy making oral means an important channel of communication, and protest music relatively muted, the results have been variable. In nearby Angola last year, Lisbon-based musicians flocked back to vote, and perform, for their chosen leaders. The ruling Marxist MPLA party marshal led light-skinned young dance stars like Paolo Flores, singing of sun, girls and partying to dispel the sense of war and crisis. Many older artists such as Sam Mangwana and Bonga supported Jonas Savimbi's Unita in protest at the stagnation and corruption. Bonga's song 'Zeki Tumba' poked fun at a fictional figure widely assumed to be President Dos Santos, while his 'Calcas Novas' - 'New Trousers' - supported Jonas Savimbi, to no avail as it turned out.

In Mandela, the ANC has one of the most internationally visible political figures - he was virtually an obligatory reference for left-wing pop and rock stars (Special AKA, Peter Gabriel) in Britain throughout the 1980s. Furthermore, the ANC's musical initiative began with the advantage that most of South Africa's popular entertainers are sympathisers. Indeed, some are relatives. Brenda Fassie, one of the country's top township pop starlets, is a niece of Nelson Mandela, although curiously she doesn't feature on the Sekunjalo album.

Last autumn, influenced by recent American Voter Awareness campaigns such as Rock the Vote, the party's Department of Information decided to use music in their Voter Education programme. Thus a number of songs enjoin listeners to vote in general, to take their long-awaited opportunity to choose freedom, stop the fighting etc. A cassette was produced, with the ANC paying artists' and studio fees, which didn't initially go well. 'Even the non-partisan songs weren't getting radio airplay,' Dawn Zain, the ANC's international fund raising co-ordinator told me. 'We decided, since the project had cost us a lot of money, to try to get some of it back by international sales, so we went to an international star, Hugh Masekela, and asked him to revamp the record.'

The trumpeter agreed, wrote and recorded a song (the rather wooden 'Come On Everybody') in a week and reproduced several of the other tracks. The results still aren't a commercial success at home - bad marketing by the record company, alleges Dawn Zain - but the songs are proving very handy for ANC rallies.

The British release came about partly through the encouragement of Island Records' founder Chris Blackwell, who met Mandela in the Bahamas, liked the music and encouraged the Mango label's South African-born A&R manager Jumbo Vanrenen, to take Sekunjalo on.

Most of the songs are heavily Americanised - South African music has always looked to the USA more than that of any other African country - and slogan-ridden. The title track, one of the best, has all the power and authenticity of a tampon commercial. Low points come courtesy of the two white female contributors, Jennifer Ferguson, a sentimental folksy actress of Scottish / Afrikaans descent, who is also standing as an MP next Monday, and PJ Powers, a sort of South African Bonnie Raitt, who 'cares' according to her PR handout, which also lists among recent successes inviting 80 Miss World contestants at a 'charity dinner in aid of Operation Hunger' to join her on stage for a 'spontaneous impromptu performance' of her magnum opus 'Sing Children Sing', which 'most of the Miss World contestants really loved'.

If the occasional track - Babsy Mlangeni's 'Phansi Ngodlame', for instance - has a tougher township edge, the overall feel to Sekunjalo is slick, Americanised and vacuous. This is neither at odds with South African pop in general, which has lately been exactly that, or presumably the ANC's desired image, which must be increasingly urbane and urban.

Andy Kershaw remarked to me: 'The trouble is, Chief Buthelezi's boys have all the best tunes.' While no one has yet reported Inkatha Party election songs, it is true that the raw accordion-based dance music of migrant Zulu workers, Inkatha's typical supporters, was a vital forerunner of the wonderful m'baqanga jive music of the Sixties and Seventies. For a brief period in the late Seventies, when Inkatha's leader was still within the ANC fold, m'baqanga stars like the Soul Brothers and Mahlathini featured pro-Buthelezi songs in their acts. In a curious socio-economic twist, Boeremusiek - oompah bands led by the same accordions introduced in the 19th century to the black workers - retain the affection of the Afrikaner rednecks drawn to the extreme right-wing white parties.

Musically, Nelson Mandela's destiny has been to act as a beacon at the homogenous international end of the spectrum. The appearance of a Mandela tribute in a repertoire often marked the elevation of an artist's sights from a local to an international market. This matter is probably not uppermost in the mind of the Black President as his niece Brenda Fassie has already christened him in song. Nor should it be.

(Photograph omitted)