I took myself out on an artist date to the International Black Music History Exhibition….
Which is a perfect solo date because it is designed for an “individual” experience, the individual panels and headphones make the journey yours an yours alone. So I went and spent a short time (three hours) with musical greats such as Mariam Makeba, Nina Simone, Hugh Masekela, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Cesaria Evora, Billie Holliday and many others….
There were some people I missed and looked for in the exhibition that I couldn’t find such as Brenda Fassie and Angelique Kidjo among-st others, but then one would need to sit down with the curators of the show and interview them on how they decided on the artists profiled in the Black Music History Hall of fame. We all have our favourites. I’m sure music lovers in the country’s that the exhibition has already traveled to such as Senegal, will miss a few of their Musical greats too. For what they were able to put together – it is a lovely refresher course on the history of black struggle through music. Go see how the black struggle is not separate from music making. How “struggle” has shaped our African/Black music, a reminder of where we come from and really it’s not so long ago, it’s really not so long ago that Mariam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbuli and many others were “persona non gratas ” in this country. I got chills thinking and reflecting at the current political situation in the country: reality check: it could so easily so easily…….
I stared long and hard at Mariam Makeba in her Prime performing, this beautiful African Queen – a tune without words, just fast rhythmic breaths which echoes the – hoes- hoes – of the toi-toi, and the ching-chang of chains binding slaves together as they were being thrown one after the other across the Atlantic, a universal chant. We shall overcome!. Transfixed I felt immediately nostalgic for a time and place I was never a part of – I lamented at how we missed out on some of our greatest gifts ? Staying in the present I wondered why we haven’t even bothered to get video footage of the “exiled” musicians, of their performances at different concerts around the world, learn more about the countries and cultures, traditions and struggles in the countries they called home for so many years, right here on our own continent. To hear and feel what the world was “on” about.
I was first introduced to Mama Africa in the early 90’s by her calming Welela lala ma wela wela wela wela mama song.. ohhmmmmmmm– ohmmm, her small but rhythmic movements, her calls to a power, an invisible sourced of energy, still fills me with glee to this day. She mesmerized even in her old age.
I’m older now. But in my early 20’s I was really angry at older black folk (returned exiles, and internal activists) folk who assumed that we (young people) should “know” people, information and events that were hidden from us in the 80’s both by the system and by the hands of those entrusted with our care. Information that was dangerous even to overhear – or glance at, you could be rapidly- eye-balling your way to prison, just for being curious or talking too much. My parents who were not “active” in politics went out of their way to “protect” us, to hide the reality of our precarious existence, to give us some kind of a “normal” life, a “chance” at a life. Even though we would get tear-gassed as we made our way to school in the morning in Meadowlands, or told to get out of class and go home in Orlando West and given flyers saying “Sofa-sonke” ( we will all die) as letters to our parents. Or told to shut up about it when we got home, when we asked “mama, what do they mean when they say we’re all going to die?’ – It was no joke, nor childs’ play – it was as real as today’s Marikana. When our childhood dreams would be rudely interrupted by heavily armed white soldiers in uniform, barging in to “look” for someone, do you know him, he is your uncle… he was involved in some bad thing or the other, to watch as your mama sat crying and pleading with army soldiers not to take him away, please, rather give him a few lashes here on the kitchen table where we can see him, and sit through it and watch as he winced and cried from the pain….which forced his chocolate-brown skin to make way for velvet blood jumping out of his veins. Whether he had committed said crime or not it did not matter…
In the chaos of Mellow-Yellows, and police-raids, and protests, the necklacing of impimpis..” Usthupha” go inside — what do you want to see?”. We were told defiantly that we still had a future, that we would grow up to be people, loved and respected as the characters we saw on Television, mostly Brenda Fassie and Some American Actors . But it was mostly a white world…
I used to argue with them and say yes, you’re right I don’t know I have my own reality, which was created in part by you and mostly by the system of oppression… the veil of silence is over now though let’s talk… you won’t be arrested now or banned if you speak your mind, you won’t risk death…. tell us those stories, your experience, what have you learnt?
Now I just go on the net. There’s information one can gather on your own. Having come back from a world so far away from my life here in our rainbow nation I have had a small window of understanding, of how hard it must have been to leave, to be alone, ” like an outsider” to search for your identity in another… and then to find that however distant, they know about you, your struggle, they’ve heard of Nelson Mandela, of Mariam Makeba, of Lucky Dube who sang loud, hard and passionately about your oppression, who touched their hearts…. solidarity, in Kenya, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Senegal, Uganda, Ghana, Mali, Ethiopia, ect. Africa knows who I am. So to come back and here, and hear we (us) South Africans, tell our fellow brothers and sisters to go back home, to their home countries, where they belong… is beyond heart breaking for me… it’s almost an A front to my very existence.
Miriam Makeba – carried our struggles with her wherever she went, our voices of pain, of struggle of hope, echoed in her being wherever she found a mic…. she prepared a way… paved the way, pathways, trails from which we could be accepted, drink from, from, rest for a while, made to feel at home….
We owe it to them, to treat our fellow Africans, black brothers and sister’s from across the continent (the world) with respect, with Love. Siyabonga, Asante, Jaarejeff.
I watched the panels and saw a common thread that punctuates the struggles of our Black Musicians, from East, West, North, South, Central and Southern Africa, the American Islands, Latin American the diaspora, where ever black people are: a common voice, a song, a sound refuses to be silenced, even in the loneliness of Fame. These people gave – literally gave up their lives – for that dream – your upliftment – the freedom of black ( all ) people’s of the world, a message that said you are not alone, you are worthy.
We are one. One Love. We share the Same Struggle. For REAL.
“I could kill Somebody” said Nina Simone standing upright like a soldier from her gleaming grand-piano, which she could play possible better than any other concert pianist of her generation, but was forced to sing – because that’s what Black People do – some said she can’t sing – she did – the power with which she banged those black and white keys on the piano, you could swear it was a weapon, and R-five – her life-line, her defence against incessant attacks, because she was black, she was a woman, she was proud, and she would not take NO for answer. ” I’m only happy when I sing” said Mariam Makeba, Nina’s sister.
Oh can’t you see? what it is to Love, to love so deeply that you lose yourself in service of that ever elusive dream. That one day… your sisters and brothers, will know what it is , really is to be, “Black and Proud” to be “young gifted and black” . It it is something beyond my understanding.
My mother cried tears when I told her, callously even, that my grand mama’s house which she built had been vandalized destroyed – because the person she chose to give it to – to continue our name – didn’t care. ” Oh no… oh mamani” she said her eyes growing distant ” We used to dream about that house, in those years when had no right or even a vague hope that we could own a home, we built it on train trips to clean, white people’s homes, we would design it, put all our favourite things, that’s what go us through our tough lives, our darkest days … and now she barely lived in that house.. oh and now now someone just comes, and destroys her dream, years and year of saving, of pushing through, believing when even everything around us said no..that yes we can”
It’s so universal.
“Do not destroy this country” cried Don Matterra recently. Do not destroy what little freedoms we have been able to gain in the last 18 years…. do not bulldoze people’s castles however small…
Even as we celebrate the luxuries of our freedom (let’s take time to look back and examine again and again… what it took, from individuals known and unknown to us throughout the world…. who were prepared to die , really some had no choice, in order for you and me to one day walk freely into a Black Music History Exhibition…..
lest we forget…..
The International Black Music History Museum is on at the Museum Africa in New-own Johannesburg until December 12. Opens Tuesday to Monday. 0900- 17:00. Free on Sundays. R40 on other days.