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February 19, 2003

The Sounds and Rhythms That Helped Bring Down Apartheid


From "The Marseillaise" to "We Shall Overcome," there has probably never been a revolution that did not use songs to give voice to its aspirations or rally the morale of its adherents. As the South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim remarks in "Amandla!," a documentary directed by Lee Hirsch that opens in Manhattan today, the toppling of apartheid may be a special case, the first revolution ever to be conducted "in four-part harmony." Mr. Ibrahim's observation, which supplies this restless, moving film with its subtitle, points to the central role that music — in the streets, on records, in prison and in exile — played in black South Africa's long struggle for liberation from white domination.

Threading together interviews and archival clips with a percolating soundtrack, Mr. Hirsch makes the case that musical expression was central to the project of self-determination. Every chapter in the often brutal, ultimately triumphant saga that stretches from 1948 (the year the right-wing National Party came to power and began to institute its infamous policy of racial separation) to 1994 (the year of Nelson Mandela's victory in the first election open to all of the country's citizens) is accompanied by songs of defiance, mourning, pride and despair. "Amandla" is the Xhosa word for power, and the film certainly lives up to its name.

Mr. Hirsch and Sherry Simpson, the executive producer, who are both American, have spent much of the past decade interviewing activists and musicians and combing the South African broadcast archives for historical material. The film they have put together is dense with sound and information, but it moves with a swift, lilting rhythm that is of a piece with the musical heritage it explores.

The end of apartheid was stirring and in retrospect seems to have been inevitable, but "Amandla!" reminds us just how harsh and tenacious the system was, in part by interviewing some of its enforcers as well as its victims. Soon after the elections of 1948, the National Party enacted a series of cruel and humiliating laws that codified and deepened the racial injustice that already existed in the country. In response the African National Congress initiated a campaign of nonviolent resistance, which was met with government repression culminating in the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. The early 60's were a period of ferocious oppression during which many activists were jailed, killed or driven into exile.

Among the exiled were Mr. Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, all of whom became internationally prominent musicians, and who speak poignantly here of the pain of being uprooted from their homes and families. In the course of their careers they served as ambassadors for the anti-apartheid cause.

"Amandla!," though, does not ignore less widely known musicians and militants. Some, like Thandi Modise and Lindiwe Zulu, were part of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, also known as MK), the armed wing of the A.N.C. (Ms. Modise is now a member of Parliament, while Ms. Zulu works in the Foreign Affairs Department.) After the bannings and jailings of the 1960's and 70's and the police massacre of Soweto schoolchildren in 1976, the MK's tactics gained support, and the music of the era reflected this defiance.

If there is anything missing from "Amandla!" it is attention to the nonpolitical aspects of the music itself: what folk and popular traditions fed it, how it was disseminated through the country, how it intersected with other forms of cultural expression. That would have been a different kind of film, and Mr. Hirsch has wisely allowed the music to speak for itself. Sometimes, as with the spirituals of American slavery, it speaks in code, a subterfuge made easier by white ignorance of African languages. So a popular tune from the 50's sounds like an upbeat, lighthearted dance number, even as the words, referring to the Nationalist prime minister who was apartheid's chief architect, warn, "Watch out Verwoerd, the black man's going to get you."

The sprightliness of that song's music and the anger of its lyrics capture as well as anything the spirit of black South African resistance. And this spirit — resilient, at times bitter, finally unstoppable — shows up in different forms at different moments.

During the demonstrations of the 1980's, young people did a high-stepping dance, accompanied by chanting, called "Toyi Toyi," that terrified the country's heavily armed police. (This we learn in a candid interview, long after the fact, with the former head of riot control.) Other songs address the basic indignities that apartheid inflicted on individuals: workers taken by train to mines far from their homes, domestic servants exploited by their employers, schoolchildren denied instruction in their own language.

"Amandla!" begins with the exhumation, in post-apartheid South Africa, of the remains of Vuyisile Mini, a composer and activist who was hanged in 1964 and buried in a pauper's grave. At the end he is reinterred as a national hero at a state funeral, and the film, fittingly, is partly dedicated to his memory.

"Amandla!" is rated PG-13 for scenes of rioting and police brutality and discussions of torture.

A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony

Directed by Lee Hirsch; in English, Xhosa and Zulu, with English subtitles; directors of photography, Clive Sacke, Ivan Leathers and Brand Jordaan; edited by Johanna Demetrakas; produced by Mr. Hirsch and Sherry Simpson; released by Artisan Entertainment. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Sixth Avenue, South Village. Running time: 103 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

WITH: Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Miriam Makeba, Vusi Mahlasela, Sibongile Khumalo, Sophie Mgcina, Dolly Rathebe, Sifiso Ntuli, Duma Ka Ndlovu, Sibusiso Nxumalo, Thandi Modise and Lindiwe Zulu.

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