Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

"Mannenberg": Notes on the Making of an Icon and Anthem [1]

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

"Mannenberg": Notes on the Making of an Icon and Anthem [1]

Article excerpt

Abstract: Abdullah Ibrahim's [Dollar Brand] composition "Mannenberg" was an instant hit, when it was released on the 1974 album, Mannenberg is Where It's Happening. This paper shows that the song is a product of Ibrahim's efforts to find an authentically South African mode of expression within the jazz tradition, blending South African musical forms--marabi, mbaqanga, and langarm--with American jazz-rock fusion. It quickly became an icon of South African jazz, defining the genre both within the country and overseas. At the same time, the South African coloured community invested the song with their own meaning, transforming it into an an icon of their culture and of themselves. In the 1980s, "Mannenberg" had a second life as an anthem of the struggle against apartheid. Some called it South Africa's "unofficial national anthem." Once again, the song acquired a new meaning, this time through the efforts of musicians, especially Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen, who made it the musical centerpiece of countless anti-apartheid rallies and concerts. As the paper traces this narrative, it is constantly aware of the profound influence of African-American culture and political thought on Ibrahim and the coloured community as a whole.

INTRODUCTION

On a winter's day in 1974, a group of musicians led by Abdullah Ibrahim (or Dollar Brand, as most still knew him) entered a recording studio on Bloem Street, in the heart of Cape Town, and emerged, hours later, having changed South African music, forever. Together, they had created "Mannenberg," a song which quickly became a national and international hit. The album on which it appeared, Mannenberg is Where It's Happening, sold more copies in 1974 and 1975 than any jazz LP recorded in South Africa and reestablished Ibrahim as South Africa's leading jazz musician. [2] But the song was much more than a mere best seller. In the years after its release, "Mannenberg" gained almost universal recognition as "the most iconic of all South African jazz tunes."[3] The release of "Mannenberg" was also the moment when it became clear that a new musical genre had emerged. Known internationally as South African jazz and locally as Cape jazz or the Cape Town sound, it was something towards which Ibrahim had been working for over a decade. "Mannenberg" was not the first and, perhaps, not even the best example of this new style. But the song was the first to bring it to a wide public. Just as significant, however, was "Mannenberg's" second act, which began several years after its release. During the climax of the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s, many South Africans embraced it as "a popular metaphor for all the townships where trouble brewed."[4] Giving voice to the dreams of the dispossessed, it was the sound of freedom or, as many called it, South Africa's "unofficial national anthem."[5]

The idea that "Mannenberg" the best-seller would someday metamorphose into "Mannenberg" the struggle anthem would have surprised anyone who heard it in 1974. Its struggle credentials are by no means obvious. It is a song with few words, a lilting melody, and a gentle, hypnotic groove. There is, seemingly, nothing angry about it, nothing that would inspire people to stand up to the teargas, whips, and bullets of the apartheid state. And, yet, it did just that. The "Friday night song" became an anthem. [6] This transfiguration was, in part, a function of the song's inherent beauty and Ibrahim's association with it. But more importantly, it was the work of Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen, two of the musicians who recorded the tune with Ibrahim on that day in 1974. They made the hit an anthem by placing it at the musical center of countless anti-apartheid rallies, demonstrations, and benefit concerts throughout the 1980s. When Coetzee or Jansen played "Mannenberg," musicians flooded the stage to jam, and evoked a collective response, a kind of politically charged ecstasy, from everyone present. …

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