Sunday, 27 April 2014

Anthems of Democracy

Johannesburg Theatre is putting on four showings of this production, timed to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of our first democratic elections which took place on April 27th 1994. Diana and I were invited to the first show on Thursday night and we were bowled over. It was simply superb and brought back many memories of that eventful day.

We milled about with the folks from Power FM beforehand and sipped a glass of wine while looking at the photos taken in the run-up to the elections twenty years ago, on display courtesy of The Star. The violence at that time was horrendous - I heard Ray Hartley from Times Media on radio this week saying between 1990 when Mandela was released from jail and the elections 14 years later, 14 000 people met violent deaths in the wars between the ANC, Inkatha, the security forces and others. Shots of Zulu impis lining up to attack train passengers sent a shiver down my spine.

We were anticipating a trip down memory lane, and a full dose of politicking thrown in, but mercifully we were spared any electioneering bar a thinly veiled warning by narrator Gcina Mhlope to for us think carefully before casting our vote. While waiting for the show to begin we sat and watched a montage of photos on the big screen taken in the last months before the fall of apartheid, which set the scene well. Then the lights went down and the Soweto Gospel Choir launched into full song, as only they can do.

The show featured some of South Africa's premier singers and musician, all of whom had a story to tell about their involvement in the struggle for democracy. To prevent it going on all night each had to choose two songs. All were moving. Bright Blue played Weeping, released in 1987 and hitting the charts at number 1 at the time the State of Emergency was making us fearful for the future. The lyrics are still a haunting reminder of what we lived through. The band were at the forefront of the End Conscription Campaign and had to disband for a couple of years as the lead members were in the army.

Jennifer Ferguson burst onto stage and her renditions of two songs dedicated to women were full of passion, her mass of auburn hair flowing onto the piano keys adding pathos to her performance. Victor Masondo, Mzwakhe Mbuli, Themba Mkhize and Sipho Hotstix Mabuse showed us what incredible talent and depth the South African music industry can boast, with instrumentals, trombone and trumpet solos that brought a frog to my throat. In particular Sipho's iconic Burnout got the audience rocking and rolling.

Yvonne Chaka Chaka, one of the country's great music ambassadors, had a powerful stage presence as she recalled her growing up in Soweto and joining the struggle before launching into song. Then came the top billing, Joan Armatrading, who for some extraordinary reason was also restricted to two songs. Now in her sixties, she reproduced Love and Affection and another hit without trying to dress it up or change her interpretation from the 1976 original - I hate cover versions!

The show ended with Vicky Sampson singing African Dream, an appropriate finale, which got us all on our feet again clapping and dancing. I spotted Welcome Msomi and his wife Gugu a few rows down and we waved hello - they were clearly enjoying themselves. Welcome is one of South Africa's foremost producers and worked a lot with Adele Lucas, Diana's late mother, in the 1980s and 90s. They were the first producers of Macufe, the annual music festival staged in Bloemfontein, in the early 2000s.

I must also mention Adele's inspired creation, the Get Ahead Shebeen, which ran in Rosebank, Johannesburg at the time of the elections in 1994. It was the first time African township shebeen culture was introduced to the suburbs, where South Africans of all colours came together and shared our wonderful musical traditions. The Get Ahead Foundation was run by Adele's friend, Dr Nthato Motlana, who apart from being Nelson Mandela's private physician was a noted philanthropist, social activist and later businessman. The Shebeen gave us a taste of what was to come after the election as the colours of the rainbow nation began to mix.

Anthems of Democracy brought those heady days back brilliantly and we left with a feeling of elation in our hearts. Immediately upon arriving home Diana rummaged through our collection of LPs and brought out Joan Armatrading's Walking under Ladders. We sipped on a whiskey and played The Weakness in Me over and over again.

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