Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony

Volume 13, Issue 3  | 
Published 04/04/2017

Duration: 1 hour 38 minutes
Reviewer: Mwongela Kamencu

Discussions on the success of contemporary Kenyan music usually involve comparisons with music industries of other African countries that are viewed to be more dominant internationally and continentally. These discussions rarely consider the musical histories of these countries which could have served as a springboard for their contemporary music. The film Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony provides the history of South African music – which from time to time has echoed throughout the continent – during the apartheid era.  At this time, music and struggle were all but synonymous terms; the film shows how these two elements interacted.

Amandla is a Zulu and Xhosa word that means ‘power’. The term ‘four-part harmony’ refers to music written for four voices or for some other musical medium – four musical instruments or a single keyboard instrument, for example where various musical parts can give a different note for each chord of the music.  In naming the film, the phrase has probably been used metaphorically; it symbolises the different ways – not necessarily four in number - in which different people used music in their collective struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The fall of the apartheid regime was a product of this combined and collective effort.

The film begins with the exhumation of the remains of Vuyisile Mini, a versatile anti-apartheid activist, who was hanged in 1964 for 17 counts of sabotage and the murder of a police informer.  A poet as well as a talented composer of ‘freedom’ songs, Mini is presented in the film as an archetypal activist for his commitment to the liberation cause as well as the medium he was known for using in this cause – music.

The film then walks the viewer through different phases of apartheid – from the forced exodus of Africans from Sophiatown to the Meadowlands, to the Sharpeville Massacre, to the enforcement of the policy of the use Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools which resulted in the Soweto Massacre, to the eventual resurgence of the military wing of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe, in the late seventies to the eighties. This series of events provides a lens through which the music of those times is analysed. Through sharing their insights and histories in the film, artists and activists who were involved in the struggle against apartheid situate the music in context. To some song was a means of mourning comrades in the struggle, to others it was a means of expressing their bitterness towards the repressive regime, to some convicted freedom fighters it was a means of building morale before they faced a hangman while others used the songs to communicate their affection to their partners.

Whereas it portrays post-Apartheid South Africa as a Utopia of sorts, Amandla A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony succeeds in using song as a means of understanding the rainbow nation’s dark past. The film does not just mechanically present a record of the past but provides accompanying moods and emotions that came with this past. In this sense, the film succeeds in ‘humanising’ history.

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