Dancing to our struggles

Gospel stars like Rebecca Malope and Lundi face stiff competition this Easter. Unlike in previous years when workers listened to gospel music as they travelled to their far-flung homes for the long-weekend, this Easter, workers will dance to songs about their tribulations.The music is in a Cosatu/Gallo album that pays tribute to South African workers. Recorded live at the union federation’s eighth national congress in September 2003, Solidarity Forever brings together the cream of South Africa’s music industry.

Lending their vocal cords to the project are musicians like Jonas Gwangwa, Letta Mbuli, Busi Mhlongo, Vusi Mahlasela and Jabu Khanyile. Under Hugh Masekela and Khaya Mahlangu’s musical directorship, the album features a 13-piece band. Adding their voices are 100 South African Democratic Teacher Union (Sadtu) and Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) choristers.

“The CD’s release honours artists who over the years have written lyrics on workers’ suffering and evoke dreams of a better life”, said Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi at the album’s launch in December.

Steeped in the country’s popular music traditions, the lyrics in the songs refer to how diseases such as retrenchment, unemployment and HIV/Aids are feeding like locusts on the nation’s social fibre. Despite dealing with serious issues, the music in the album is joyous and danceable. Being the bedrock of South Africa’s exploitative and racialised capitalism, conditions that face miners feature prominently in the album. Three songs in Solidarity Forever talk about the migrant-labour system and the brutality meted out to miners.

Masekela dedicates his famous Stimela song to “those who lose their lives digging and drilling for billions and billions worth of dollars and riches that never ever get to hover anywhere around their dinner tables”.The Nkosi sikelel’ i-Afrika riff that Bra Hugh adds to the song, pulls this standard piece out of the belly of the earth and makes it a bright new lamp post. The rendition given to the tune makes Stimela no longer a sorrowful lament but a victory song.

Opening with jazz pianist Hotep Galeta’s prophetic Sibuyele District Six, the CD takes listeners on a journey through South Africa’s varied musical styles. It has maskandi artists like Phuzukhemisi and Ihash’ elimhlophe galloping through the tracks.

With assistance from Popcru and Sadtu choristers, Sibongile Khumalo gives the centuries-old trade union hymn Solidarity a youthful and up-tempo treatment. With a distinctive reggae-like bass line, the song assumes a gospel-feel without the singer’s operatic voice being drowned. Also enjoyable is the track sung across all sectors during wage negotiations — Sisebenze embonini kanzima! Sisebenzel’ imali encane! Presenting Themba Mkhize’s Mayihlome, Khumalo invites the 2 500 conference delegates to sing along. The audience’s voices, claps, whistles and stomping feet create an atmosphere of intlombe (when traditional healers chase away a spell). Even Cosatu’s churchy founding song has an added mbaqanga inflection with a growling Mahlathini-like voice going through the melody line — I-Cosatu sonyuka nayo.

Although previously recorded, songs in the album have a freshness about them. As workers dance their way this Easter, Solidarity Forever will confirm what Chicco Twala says in the album – “the workers’ struggle continues even if factory machines stop”.

———-Get a copy of the CD from your nearest music store. ———–