Why the fear, the fire and the guns remain

The song "Weeping" by Bright Blue is one of five South African tunes (and some of the albums they're on) that I have on repeat right now.

Photo: United Nations.

For me at least, the song “Weeping,” is up there with Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Mannenberg” as anthems of the South African anti-apartheid struggle. For the last few weeks I can’t stop looping it. “Weeping” was recorded in 1987 by Cape Town group Bright Blue.  Perhaps I was trying to drown out Hollywood’s latest attempt to rewrite South Africa’s recent political history with “Invictus.” The music video was directed by Nic Hofmeyr. The cumulative effect of the drive-by images of the bleak landscapes of Apartheid Cape Town add up to convey that dreary, grey world.  The video was filmed in a few locations on the Cape Flats (in what look like Langa and Manenberg townships and around Athlone power station), the Bo-Kaap (the neighborhood in downtown Cape Town left to stand by apartheid), what seems like Walmer Estate (next to where District Six used to be) as well as briefly in the white suburbs (is that Rondebosch Common?).   One of the highlights of the video and the song is the solo by former Abdullah Ibrahim sideman, Basil Coetzee (at 1:47). So is the sample of  the South African national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel ‘iAfrika.” I was surprised the South African censors at the time didn’t spot the very direct critique of P.W. Botha’s rule in the lyrics:

I knew a man who lived in fear
It was huge, it was angry, it was drawing near
Behind his house, a secret place
Was the shadow of the demon he could never face

He built a wall of steel and flame
And men with guns to keep it tame
Then, standing back, he made it plain
That the nightmare would never ever rise again
But the fear, the fire, and the guns remained  …

And then, one day, the neighbors came
They were curious to know about the smoke and flame
They stood around outside the wall
But, of course, there was nothing to be heard at all

“My friends,” he said, “we’ve reached our goal
The threat is under firm control
As long as peace and order reign
I’ll be damned if I can see a reason to explain
Why the fear and the fire and the guns remain”

It doesn’t matter now
It’s over anyhow
He tells the world that it’s sleepingBut as the night came round
I heard it slowly sound
It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping
It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping …

Second on the list this week, is the song “Lah’lumlenze” off the album “Zabalaza” by Thandiswa Mazwai, once the lead singer of genre bending South African band Bongo Muffin. Thandiswa, by the way, comes from a long line of brilliant South African female vocalists like Abigail Kubeka, who is a contemporary of Miriam Makeba. This clip of Kubeka’s song “Yini Madoda” is from the documentary film “Sophiatown” (2003) directed by Pascale Lamche and Peter Makurube. The video clip contains some brilliant footage of Johannesburg at night.

Then there’s Abdullah Ibrahim’s live rendition of his composition “Cape Town Flower.” This was filmed in 1999 at the Lugano Jazz Festival.

Finally, this last tune is from my connections to Amsterdam. On one of my frequent stopovers there, Julia Hornberger, a friend from my Cape Town days, took me to a jazz bar along one of the grachts where I was introduced to a large, gregarious South African, Sean Bergin. It turns out he had been living and performing in Amsterdam since the mid-1970s when he left South Africa. He had played in bands with his country fellows Miriam Makeba and especially Louis Moholo, among others.  In this video, recorded for a Dutch morning TV show, Bergin and the guitarist Rogério Bicudo play their cover of Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Bombella.”

Further Reading

Carlos Santana is African

In 1971, Carlos Santana went to play in Ghana at a massive independence day concert. More famous African American music stars were also on the bill. Santana stole the show.