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US Choir Sings Freedom Songs of South Africa

  • Lonny Shavelson

Vukani Mawethu is not your typical choir. These 25 part-time vocalists, a chorus of African Americans, whites, Asians and Latinos based in Northern California, have been singing South African freedom songs since 1986, when the intense segregation of apartheid still ruled South Africa. They sang out for the freedom of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid. Five years later, in 1991, Mandela was freed, apartheid fell, and Vukani Mawethu happily thought the need for their songs was over. But they found many reasons to keep singing South African freedom songs here in the United States.

From the pulpit in this Oakland, California church, lawyer Fania Davis takes an audience of 300 back to South Africa, 1953, with the story of anti-apartheid activist James Madhlope Phillips. “In 1953,” she tells them, “James was again arrested, together with Nelson Mandela, having been accused of inciting the people to sing.” Phillips escaped South Africa and traveled throughout Europe, training choirs to sing his country's freedom songs.

Fania Davis was in Germany 20 years ago when she heard the pulsating rhythms of a chorus, and stepped into a church to find its source. “German voices were singing songs of freedom in Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, with such power and such beauty. It was pleasantly disorienting.”

The director of that German choir was James Madhlope Phillips himself. Davis invited him to come to Oakland to lead a single performance of freedom songs. Twenty years later, the choir that formed for that one performance, sings on, as Vukani Mawethu.

Andrea Joyce Turner, the choir's musical director, finds many parallels between the music of South Africa and America. “When I think of South African music, I think of the harmonies, and I think of the gospel music here, and the civil rights songs. And the similarities are uncanny, the feeling that they evoke.” And, she says, the lyrics of the songs are as relevant today as they were a half-century ago under apartheid.

She points to Senzenina as an example. “[The lyrics] basically say, 'My skin is black, what have I done to deserve to be oppressed? What is my crime?' And you just think of all of the young people who have died because of the fighting of apartheid. And you think about it now, all of the kids being killed or killing each other, in Oakland, all over the U.S. and the picture became, what is my crime, what have I done, why are we killing? We're killing off generations!”

The choir sings in Xhosa, Xhetu and Zulu. Turner says they try to continue the legacy that has been passed on to them. “We have found out in the last 20 years that we continue to be relevant. Vukani Mawethu means People Arise - get up, get out, make some kind of change, help one another. That's exactly what we've been doing for the last 20 years.”

Vukani Mawethu continues to perform at AIDS rallies, homeless shelters, prisons and concert halls worldwide. They're planning a trip to sing in South Africa.

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