In this installment of “Best of The Beat,” we offer a fascinating narrative by our itinerant writer/scholar, Ron Sakolsky, who spent six months in 1998 post-apartheid South Africa as a resident professor at the University of Natal in Durban, and three weeks in Harare, Zimbabwe.
It’s a great read, entertainingly told: The story of a sojourn in Southern Africa, a place full of contradictions and problems but also of great hope and possibility
Nelson Mandela had been president for four years and South Africa was still adjusting to its hard-won freedom. Ron encounters a Who’s Who of the popular bands of that era, and finds himself totally immersed in the music and politics of the time. The story presents a moment in history as his experiences ranged from delightful to disappointing, and at times offered unexpected serendipity.
He observes some devaluing of local customs and traditional music in favor of Western influences: in particular the direction of South African jazz away from the political role it played in the liberation struggle, and rues its evolution toward Americanized “smooth jazz. He also sees parallels in the newly popular kwaito music that takes its sound from American hip-hop. He’s also dismayed when the “Gift of the Nation” concert in honor of Mandela’s 80th birthday preferred American acts to local and West African artists. On the bright side, a Soweto festival, “Tribute to the South African Music Heroes” featuring a massive all-star lineup, more than made up for the disappointment.
Along the way he visits the Hugh Tracy International Library of African Music in search of the origins of a Pete Seeger song, “Abiyoyo,” and attends an iscathamiya competition where he encounters Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
In Harare, he also takes the measure of a country in chaos, involved in a war in Congo, and devastated by inflation and scarcities, but also has opportunities to see Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi play live, attends a 24-hour Zimbabwean Musicians Day concert, and discovers a Zim-Congo rumba style popularized by Simon Chimbetu.
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