/ 29 January 2021

‘Amandla’ review: Blood, tears and music of the struggle

Jonas Gwangwa
The Amandla Cultural Ensemble’s 1982 LP, recorded and published in the Soviet Union, electrified the anti-apartheid movement

Amandla (ANC Cultural Group), Amandla (Melodiya Russian Imp)

Out of the crucible. Warrior army of a new age. Despising gas, batons, bullets. Defying centuries of slavery. Advancing without care on armoured cars. Striking metal with clenched fists. Warrior cry, “Amandla” rising in every throat. 

So begins this, in many ways, extraordinary record. A sonnet reflecting real-life struggle, the blood-chilling yet heartwarming stanza above is intoned over a spiritual blues of trombone dimensions by B Kagaole, with the dignified delivery of a man who knows his cause is just and the solid resilience of one who will never give up his fight.

That fight is the emancipation of South Africa from the obscene tyranny and torment of apartheid. And it’s an interesting fact that this message to us is delivered via Russia with love. Yeah, very interesting. 

Since this LP is probably the first Soviet-pressed vinyl to be reviewed in, at least, Sounds, it would be tempting to dwell on this facet. But to do so would denigrate the important work of the artists involved. 

So, before they reach for their poison pens, let’s pre-empt this mag’s Russophobes and say save it, scumbags.

“Amandla” means several things. It denotes “power” in the Zulu language. Given the repertoire of this outfit, that amounts to “power to the people”. And in this case, to coin Lennon, all one can answer is “Right on!”

Cultural group of the outlawed African National Congress, whose main aim is the liberation of the horn of the Bright Continent from the bloated sickness of the Boers, Amandla the band are graced with musicians and singers who took part in the Soweto uprisings of 1976.

Under threat of imminent long-term detention by the authorities, the artists fled the state of sin. Since then, with the guidance of trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, Amandla have toured the Warsaw Pakt, Cuba, Scandinavia and left-inclined African countries like Tanzania and Mozambique.

What the band offer are strongly emotive songs encompassing the broad sweep of styles that seep with tears and pride out of the township. From raw, jazz-inflected laments to Zulu jive to exquisite a capella flights, the tribal runnings are both affectionate and affecting. 

Translated in Russian and English on the sleeve, the lyrics deal with the brutality of life for black people in South Africa and call for solidarity. They sweat reality, unlike some revolutionary rhetoric. The aroma of cordite and screams of innocents percolate from the verses, both frightening and positive.

This record is proof that politics and music mix well. Indeed for the dispossessed like Amandla, guitars and voices are the most influential weapons for change available short of resorting to (justifiable, perhaps) murder.

America invades us with Cruise; the Soviets with music. Which would you choose? Makes “Duck Rock” seem like the quackery it is. 

To purchase a copy of the book, visit chimurengachronic.co.za/festac-77-book