Something wonderful grew

Joseph Shabalala had a dream. He was to create a male voice choir which would sing with heavenly harmony and bring change to his land and to the world. All of which, for a black man in Apartheid South Africa in 1964, was preposterous. But Shabalala did form his choir, and though it took a long time, he did help bring change to his country, and to the world.

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Black South African miners, c. 1960. Image: South African History Online

The music of the group later called Ladysmith Black Mambazo had its origins in South Africa’s mines. To support their families, many black men had to spend much of the year far from their homes and families, living in single-sex barracks near the mines. Their wives and children were forced to remain in designated “homelands”. Conditions for the miners were appalling: South Africa’s mines are so deep that they are heated by the Earth’s core – temperatures at the face can exceed 40 degrees. Safety gear scarcely existed.

From this hardship and loneliness and exploitation, something wonderful grew. The men, exhausted and far from home, formed choirs, and developed a style of singing which fused the traditions of miners from different regions, along with western church music.

Joseph Shabalala and his choirs (there were different ensembles and names over time) mastered this music, especially the styles known as mbube and isicathamiya. Mbube is a brasher style—the name means “lion” in the Zulu language—while isicathamiya is gentler, more subtle. Both incorporate a call-and-response pattern, with complex shifts in rhythm and extraordinary many-part harmonies.

Shabalala

Joseph Shabalala in 2010. Image: World Music Central.org

Like most people outside Africa, I first heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland. The group, already huge in their native land, toured the world and became symbolic of the struggle against Apartheid. White minority rule came to an end, more peacefully than anyone could have dreamed, in 1993

The journey since has been hard. As I write, South Africa is at a crossroads. The African National Congress, the one-time hero of the liberation struggle, is struggling to reform itself. Since the end of Apartheid, the ANC has continually been in power. As happens when any group stays in power for a long time, greed and corruption and mismanagement have crept in. But every revolution passes through growing pains, disappointment and reversal. Better days will come.

In politics, no one ever achieves harmony in the way Ladysmith Black Mambazo does in music. But such beauty, borne of such hardship, remains inspiring, a symbol of the best in humanity. Just listen!

  • Artist: Ladysmith Black Mambazo
  • Album: Homeless (compilation)
  • Track: A5 “Baleka Mfana” (roughly translated, ‘run away, boy!’)
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Dino Music
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: DIN 084
  • Year: Unknown (compilation late 1980s)

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Five things I did not know about Ella Fitzgerald

Five things I did not know about Ella Fitzgerald

  1. She was born in 1917 in Virginia, but moved with her mother to New York State as a child, part of the Great Migration of African Americans seeking a better life in the northern states.
  2. Her mother died in a car crash in 1932, when Ella was only 15. She fell out with her stepfather and became homeless for a time.
  3. Her first hit was a version of a children’s rhyme “A Tisket A Tasket”, released in 1938
  4. In 1954 she was three days late to a tour of Australia, because she and three other black tour members were not allowed to board their flight from Honolulu to Sydney.
  5. She was active in the Civil Rights movement and refused to perform at segregated venues.

512px-Ella_Fitzgerald_in_September_1947

Something I did know: Ella’s was one of the great singing voices. This is one of her back catalogue. “I’ll Never Be Free” was a minor hit for her in 1950. Singing with Louis Jordan and his fine band, Ella makes it just shine.

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  • Artist: Ella Fitzgerald
  • A side: “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (with Louis Armstrong)
  • B side: “I’ll Never Be Free” (with Louis Jordan)
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Decca
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: Y6302
  • Year: 1950

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Subversive moments

Musical theatre was once one of the glories of western popular music. The best of the Broadway shows created imagined worlds which were self-contained and enduring: the Austria of the Trapp family, the Imperial Court of Siam, the class-ridden London of Eliza Doolittle. The imagined worlds were sentimentalised, true, but fine artistic creations for all that.

I have read many a scathing critique of Broadway musicals, and how they are patronising of other cultures, and how their romanticism masks an underlying patriarchal oppression. Guilty as charged. But the music was good and there were subversive moments, and these shows gave work to thousands of musicians and actors, and brought joy to millions of people.

Musicals are still around, but they are no longer a powerful form of popular culture. And what has filled their place? So called “reality” TV. Survivor. The Biggest Loser. Lord preserve us, The Bachelor. Sexist, patriarchal, patronising? Give me Liesel dancing in the Rotunda any day.

The thing about Broadway musicals: what mattered was the music. The tunes had to be catchy, the songs had to be singable. You wanted the audience to be humming on the way home. It is a measure of the quality of the music that even in 2016, so many of us know these hits of more than half-a-century ago, even if we have never seen a production of the musical itself.

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Which brings me to “Ol’ Man River”. I knew the song, and vaguely expected it to come from a musical, but had no idea which one. I knew that it touched on prickly issues, especially race. I also knew there was a Broadway musical called Show Boat, but had assumed it was flim-flam, paid it no attention. But on Planet Vinyl we don’t assume, we just listen.

Paul Robeson was born in 1898, when slavery in the United States was living memory. His father, Reverend William Robeson, had been born into slavery but had escaped as a teenager. In the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful force in many states, when the complex system of social, legal and economic oppression known as Jim Crow was at its peak, Paul Robeson was at college – one of a tiny number of black students. But he did not keep his head down, did not stay quiet: he was an athlete, a debater, an actor, a singer: handsome, articulate, intelligent, a beacon for his people.

Show Boat, which premiered in 1927, was a brave musical, the work of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, based on a brave novel of the same name, by Edna Ferber. The musical follows the lives of performers, stagehands and dockworkers on a Mississippi River show boat. It has a love story, as musicals must, but its themes include racial prejudice and miscegenation. And it gave a memorable song to a brave man. Show Boat appeared in 1928 in London, and in that production was Paul Robeson playing the (minor) part of Joe, a dock hand, who sings of his life and its misery and of the mighty Mississippi River, and the place in the whole scheme of things of race.

Many other singers have tackled “Ol’ Man River”, and many have had greater vocal range and technical skill. But no one had made the song as real, such a full and convincing howl of protest, as Paul Robeson.

Don’t look up, and don’t look down
Don’t dare make the white boss frown

This song is a wonder.

  • Artist: Paul Robeson
  •  EP Title: Ol’ Man River
  •  Track: A1 “Ol’ Man River”
  •  Format: 7” 45 rpm
  •  Label: Coronet, KEP 042
  •  Manufactured in: Australia
  •  Year: 1957

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs. Mention this code “MSD519” to receive a free 7” disc of your choice (up to the value of $5.00) with any purchase.