June has come to be known as Youth Month because Youth Day falls right in the middle of this month. As tradition dictates, images of the June 16, 1976, Uprisings flood the media. We are reminded of the sacrifice that ordinary young people made, paying with their lives for the education of a people against an oppressive system. Yet, there was another player in the tragic tale is often forgotten. A presence that was so ubiquitous as to be the very air that people breathed, as invisible and just as vital to life itself. When you watch any of the many documentaries that deal with ’76, as throngs of students face off with gangs of police before you hear the crackling of guns and school uniforms falling in clouds of dust, you will hear, without fail, one thing; singing.
To the ill-informed, it would seem disingenuous to bring a song to a gunfight. But to make this assumption would fail to grasp the umbilical relationship between music and the human spirit.
When the film musical Sarafina was released in 1992, it was seemingly the romanticizing of the beauty and barbarism of the youth movement. Oh, it was romantic and beautiful and barbaric and, we fell in love. But we didn’t fall in love with the gleaming whiteness of Leleti Khumalo’s smile or the fiery death of Mbongeni Ngema’s greasy character. We fell in love with ourselves, with our lives and with our death. But Sarafina’s biggest achievement was not box office sales, it was how it showed to the world that song was at the very center of each and every moment of life. The world caught a taste of what we called Struggle Songs – Ingoma Zom’Zabalazo. An oxymoronic existence that defies logic by putting the concept of a human suffering with the celebratory cadence of music. But in its context, it was mesmerizing to witness. The film was like a shining mirror in which were saw our beautiful reflection. But the mirror was cracked. We only saw glimpses of our better selves under a system that sought to widen the cracks. But, every shard of broken glass had a song in it and perhaps tracking back to how these songs came about and why, as Fela Kuti aptly put it, music is the weapon.
Today jazz music seems to most young people as a slow, gentle and straight up boring music that is for ‘old people’s’ music. But, there was a time when jazz was new, as new as the ricocheting kick drums of trap music joints today. There was a time when jazz was quite militant. And, there was a time when these ‘old people’ were young.
In the 1800’s when American ships docked in Cape Town for commerce or war, they often had onboard African American slaves. Part of the reason they were on the ships was for entertainment. Sometimes, these slaves, dressed in minters outfits, would give impromptu musical performances of what was called Dixieland music for the locals. These slaves were known as ‘Coons’ or ‘Niggers’. These performances, along with their colourful outfits, as witnessed by native Cape Townians at the time, would spark a music flame that would later come to be called Marabi and Mqanga. This flame would spark a fire that spread throughout the country.
Because radios were not as common at the time, the only way to listen to music was through live performances. This music then found a home in dance halls in townships everywhere. Places like Sophiatown and Marabastad were on fire with these vibes.
Then the forced removals of the Group Areas Act came and nearly obliterated the music along with people’s homes and their spirits. It was around 1959 when a group of young musicians would put together the most groundbreaking band of the time. Hugh Masekela, who was only 20yrs old at the time, together with Dollar Brand – later to be known as Abdullah Ibrahim, Kippie Moeketsi, Jonas Gwangwa, Johnny Gertze, and Early Mabuza together came to be called ‘The Jazz Epistles’. The band was a short-lived affair that delved into bebop music, a precursor to jazz.
Back then; jazz was as ‘underground’ as ‘conscious/underground rap’ was in the ’90s and just as militant and defiant but filled with far more purpose and agency. The introduction of radio and the gramophone only added to the inferno. That ‘technology’ allowed people to travel the world and see far off lands, albeit from the confines of a local shebeen. Through music, people were affirmed in their belief that Apartheid was just not normal. But the police were about that crackdown life and many places that housed jazz bands and had shows were closed down. Many jazz musicians such as Bra Hugh and Mam’ Mariam Makeba went into exile and music was put in chains. So, people resorted to the only they had, their voices.
A people were pained, a people were grieving. Talking would not help either. Who would you talk to? What would you say to them? What would they do about your situation? But the pain needed to be let out. ‘Senzeni na? Senzeni na?’ This song is a heart wrenching, two worded haunting that echoed one question, what have we done (to do deserve this oppression). It was a simple question, asked over and over and over again…never to be answered.
But, a people were also angry, a people had had enough. When the students stood face to face with a police armed with heavy weapons, they themselves, a David fisting only a few stones it seemed a foregone conclusion. But, they were armed with a weapon that was more powerful than any military arsenal; their lives. How do you defeat someone who’s willing to die? There they stood, hundreds of them, facing certain death, and what did they do? They sang, ‘MAKULIWE!’ – let us fight. There are members of the then riot police who have admitted that even seasoned officers packing a ton of heat felt a mortal chill run their spines as those songs rose with the dust. It was intimidating because in that moment, you were not facing a group a delinquent youth. You were facing the embodiment of a spirit of a people, united in a song into one voice, solid and unshaken. A voice so loud that it was heard on the other side of the earth, asking for one thing; Freedom!
What is music, if not freedom?
Photographer: Jeff Rikhotso