Nelson Mandela’s calypso legacy

South African freedom fighter was heralded by region’s kaisonians and bards

By Geoffrey Dunn
By Special to the Express

Perhaps no other political figure in recent world history has been as celebrated by such a multitude of musical compositions as was former South African president and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who died last week at the age of 95.

Both his spirit and his legacy have been triumphed across the globe in a multitude of musical genres, from Gil Scott-Heron’s “Johannesberg” to Youssou N’Dour’s “Nelson Mandela,” from U2’s “Ordinary Love” to Tupac Shakur’s “Just a Breath of Freedom (4 Nelson Mandela).” The list is virtually endless—and spans nearly a half-century. There has even been an opera written in his honour entitled “Cape Town Trilogy.”

In the Caribbean, Mandela’s political struggle has been chronicled in dozens of calypsoes, most famously by Sparrow’s “Isolate South Africa” and “I Owe No Apology.” The Mighty Duke’s 1985 kaiso “How Many More Must Die?” condemned “human lives [being] blown away, mothers and fathers crying,” with the passionate chorus, “how many more must die, Mr Reagan, before you set South Africa free?”

Mandela visited Trinidad and Tobago for two fete-filled days in April of 2004, featuring a grand tribute at the Queen’s Park Oval, with performances by Singing Sandra, Machel Montano and Denyse Plummer. As the Express reported earlier this week, then 10-year-old Junior Calypso Monarch Sheynnene Hazell performed “Long Walk to Freedom,” a calypso written in Mandela’s honour by retired Rosary Boys’ RC Primary School teacher, Larry Harewood.

Mandela’s links to world music are as significant as they are extensive. A promising boxer in his youth, Mandela grew up listening to the indigenous music of his region, along with colonial Christian spirituals. He later was a fan of South African jazz, in which genre some of the earliest songs protesting the inequalities and brutalities of apartheid were composed.

In the aftermath of Mandela’s work with the militant arm of the African National Congress and his being jailed by the South African government, international musical protests helped to keep Mandela’s imprisonment—and the oppressive nature of the apartheid system—in the political consciousness of peoples around the world.

An exiled South African trumpeter, Hugh Masekela and his wife, future grammy award-winning singer Miriam Makeba (also a South African exile), recorded and performed early protest songs in solidarity with Mandela’s imprisonment and the South African freedom movement. Makeba also recorded a song with Harry Belafonte entitled “Mabayeke” (“Give Us Our Land”), while Masekela later recorded the hit “Bring Him Back Home,” calling for Mandela’s release from prison.

In Trinidad and Tobago, Mandela’s plight was powerfully chronicled by the Mighty Sparrow. His 1985 anthem (released for the 1986 Carnival season), “Isolate South Africa,” was a radical, anti-colonial expression of Pan-African unity:

Hold Peter Botha
Try him for murder
All the murder squad
And the lynching mob
Is what Peter Botha ordered
Ah say invade South Africa

Sparrow noted that apartheid was “upheld by Britain” and “condoned by [then US President Ronald] Reagan,” and characterised apartheid as “an abomination…brutalisation….and subjugation.”

“Free Nelson Mandela,” Sparrow demanded. “Set him free…Let freedom ring.” His telling line, “I would rather have an ‘ism’ than the apartheid system” was a direct condemnation of the United States’ tepid sanctions against South Africa.

In 1991, Sparrow came to Mandela’s defence when the South African leader refused to kowtow to white American newsman Ted Koppel for standing by Mandela’s global political allies Muammar Gadaffi, Fidel Castro and Yasir Arrafat—all of whom condemned the venalities of apartheid long before the US government ever did. “I turned to them out of necessity,” Sparrow intoned, speaking in the voice of Mandela, “so I do not apologise.”

I’ve been tortured and suffered immensely
They isolate me, incarcerate me
Still in spite of their barbarous cruelty
I will never apologise for my identity

Denyse Plummer’s 1991 social commentary “Welcome Home, Mr Mandela” strongly declared that “apartheid has no place in society.” The calypso historian George Maharaj, author of the two-volume The Roots of Calypso, recently identified more than a dozen Mandela calypsoes and soca tunes, including those by Calypso Val, Marva, Shirlane Hendrickson, GB, Jayson (Canada), Boyie Mitchell, Composer, Bobo, Manchild, Keithroy “De Bear” Mason (Antigua) and Alexander D Great (UK).

Many calypsos from the region, of course, condemned South African apartheid without specifically making reference to Mandela, including Chalkdust’s “They Ent See African” and “Theme for African Liberation.”
The Guyana-born Eddie Grant sang his powerful anti-apartheid song, “Gimme Hope Jo’anna” at Mandela’s 90th birthday celebration at Hyde Park, London, in 2008. The recording, formally banned in South Africa when it was released in the mid-1980s, nevertheless became an underground anthem throughout the embattled country, and, eventually, throughout the world:

I wanna know if you’re blind Jo’anna
If you wanna hear the sound of drums
Can’t you see that the tide is turning
Oh don’t make me wait till the morning come.

A few more mornings came and went, but by 1994, the tide had turned forever, with the African National Congress, led by Mandela, winning the national elections and finally putting an end to formal apartheid in the Republic of South Africa. Since then, the Mandela soundtrack continues to be written in calypso.

Award-winning author and filmmaker Geoffrey Dunn is the writer and co-producer of Calypso Dreams.
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