Singing new freedom songs

The ANC still can’t tell the difference between “treasonable” and “tacky”. But some school ­students have far shrewder ideas about how their image was used in the bank’s controversial TV spot.

“The ideas are okay,” says 17-year-old Thandeka Mnguni. “But they have tried to make it look like June 16 because of the way she [narrator Kelly Baloyi] is dressed, and the room. What you see on the media sometimes lies to you.”

Mnguni belongs to a group with a particular interest in topics like these: young choristers who’ve been working with the Keleketla Library (based in Johannesburg’s historic Drill Hall) to develop “new freedom songs”. On Saturday February 16, Keleketla staged a concert with local stars including Louis Mhlanga and Paul Hanmer alongside community musicians and international DJs to celebrate five years of its Call and Response project: diverse activities designed to spotlight, explore and expand what knowledge, archive and history mean for its inner-city community. Last year the project, steered by Rangoato Hlatshane, co-director of programme development for Keleketla, assembled a choir of pupils, mainly from the nearby Freedom Community College.

The choir’s conductor is violinist Teboho Semela, who walked upstairs and found the singers last October while they were still untangling their logistics. She was passing the Drill Hall and “the harmonies and chords I heard were incredible and the drumming accompanying that was nothing short of amazing. I just had to put a face to the beings capable of creating such magic.” Semela is no stranger to conscious lyrics; she’s the sister of rapper and producer Ben Sharpa. The drums she heard came from Simphiwe Tshabalala, part of the Mma Tseleng Ensemble, which accompanies the songs.

For this first phase of what the library wants to turn into a long-term project, the choir worked on ­rethinking the sound of its existing repertoire: some traditional, religious and inspirational songs, and two songs directly relating to struggle — the migrant labour-themed Mafeking, and Senzenina.

The band found Senzenina daunting, says guitarist Zweli Mthembu: “The sombreness — eish! How do we reinterpret that without taking that feeling away? Our first attempts stripped the soul out of the song. But then Teboho came up with a violin line that gave us an emotion everybody could relate to.”

Senzenina was transformative for the singers too. “I never did care for history,” says chorister Lerato. “But then I went back and studied how it all happened. It really changed me. Now I’m one of the librarians at school and my friends say: ‘You? Reading history?’”

That wasn’t the only growth. “Those voice exercises!” The singers sound a chorus of comments. “Finding enough breath.” “Singing the same thing over and over every day.” “We annoyed our parents — I was even practising in the shower!” Semela — trained by Buskaid’s Rosemary Nalden — admits she has a somewhat relentless approach towards rehearsal, “but witnessing these kids grow, their transformation in thought processes; understanding themselves and how to relate to others was the most rewarding aspect”.

“Music can also heal,” says Tshabalala. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a failure. We had so many years of trauma and were never given time to heal, and that has worsened many of the problems of this thing we call freedom.”

After the February 16 concert, Keleketla embarked on fundraising and planning for the next phase, in which young musicians can create an original repertoire of new freedom songs.

“I would take people’s experience around me to make new songs,” says 17-year-old Pamela Ndou. “Women and child abuse; children kept out of school to look after the house.”

 “Unemployment,” says Mthembu. “Lack of education, crime, poverty. We can’t just sit here and complain. Working on compositions is a way to make a change.”

Change has already started for the youngsters involved. “I did not know my talent was for singing” comes a contribution from the back of the room. “This has helped me to find my talent and show it to the world. For once, I’ve got something succeeding in my life.”

On Sunday February 24 Keleketla holds a Skaftien (fundraiser lunch, micro-grant workshop and concert) at Makhwapheni, the Stevenson Gallery’s new Johannesburg platform at 62 Juta Street, Braamfontein, from 2pm to 10pm. Guest chef is Mongi Raj Khumalo. Artists are the Mma Tseleng Ensemble plus DJs. Details at

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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