Tuesday, June 18, 2013

30 Day Song Challenge (The Sequel), Day 18: A Song That Makes You Think of a Place You've Never Been

I've never been to Africa, which is particularly embarrassing in my case since I have a Doctoral Minor in African Studies and a large part of my dissertation involved the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Not having been to Africa is far and away the greatest regret I have in my life, one that will be reconciled some day soon I hope. 

Though, to be honest, I fear that if I go, I might never come back.

I've spent so many countless hours, days, weeks, months and years studying African history, interviewing African intellectuals, reading African literature, parsing African politics and culture, absorbing African music, learning and teaching African philosophy, that-- despite the fact we've never met in person-- I strangely feel as if I have a deep and abiding relationship with many parts of that Continent.  Everyone has their imagined home-away-from-home, I suppose.  For some it's Paris, for others it's Rio de Jeneiro, and I'd even bet for some it's Memphis.  For me, it's Cape Town.   One of these days, someday soon I hope, I'll at long last find myself atop Table Mountain and I am confident, that day, a lifelong thirst will be finally quenched. 

And so, the song I choose as the one that makes me think of a place I've never been is "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika (God Bless Africa)."  It's the national anthem of Tanzania, Zambia and part of the national anthem of South Africa.  It was originally composed as a hymn, and was taken up again as a part of the pan-African liberation movements in the mid- to late-20th century. It is also an absolutely moving, stunningly beautiful and truly awe-inspiring song.  

Thirteen years ago, I had the good fortune to attend the ceremony and dinner at which Nelson Mandela received the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum here in Memphis.  I got to meet and chat with Madiba that night, an honor and a privilege I will never forget.  At one point during the evening, a choir who had traveled to Memphis with the South African delegation sang "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika."  It was the first time I had ever heard it and I remember thinking that there was nothing I wanted more than to go to whatever place was the source of that sound.  I began graduate school the next year and I knew the day that I walked in the door what the subject of my dissertation would be.  And that's exactly what it was.

Here's the renowned South African a cappela group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo (who you may or may not know from their collaboration with Paul Simon), performing the song:



In South Africa, the different verses of the song are frequently sung in the nation's several languages: Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English.  What a beautiful testament to what makes a nation.

One final note: if you've never seen the amazing film Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, which documents the role that music played in South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle, you should stop whatever you're doing right now and go watch it.  There is really nothing else in the world like human voices raised in solidarity and in song. 

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Nostalgic?  Check out my entry on Day 18 of the 2011 version of the 30 Day Song Challenge.

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