My Pop Life #117 : Mdlwembe : Zola

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Mdlwembe   :   Zola

February 2006 I made my first trip to Cape Town, South Africa having been cast by old buddy and casting director Jeremy Zimmerman in “The Flood” a massive ITV mini-series about the Thames Barrier being unable to hold back a tidal surge which swamps central London.  Almost all of the show was shot in Cape Town (for London) with only the final week in Greenwich, looking down onto Christopher Wren’s Royal Naval College from the hilltop.  It was the end of a long journey.

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Mount Nelson Hotel, 2006 – me and Eamonn Walker

I was placed in the Mount Nelson Hotel on Orange Street under Table Mountain  (even if I keep on running I’ll never get to Orange St).  It was rather grand and disgustingly white supremacist even in 2006.  The only black guest there was my brother-from-another-mother  Eamonn Walker, (see My Pop Life #104) doing a US TV medical show,  can’t remember which one.  It was a lovely co-incidence and we hung out, ate food, and I got to meet his producers.  Eamonn had already spent previous time in Cape Town making a cheetah film and he knew the ropes.  The number of times black staff with white gloves had approached him with a quizzical “can I help you?” and received a pretty curt “No” in response.  The old black and white photographs on the wall, the air of rotten filthy greedy entitled robbery hanging around the whole place.  Outside at the open air pool an old white man shouted at a black pool attendant : “Nurse!  Towel!”.  I wanted to kick his face in.  Meanwhile on set, Cape Town was pretty funky, lovely architecture around Long St and environs, and even some black people on the crew.  This was a mere 12 years after the first democratic elections in South Africa by the way.  I had some days off coming up – I asked one of the younger fellas what I should do. “Go round the Cape, see the baboons” he suggested.

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The next day I hired a car and Eamonn and I drove south, saw penguins, baboons, zebra and spectacular geographical sights.  The view from the top of Table Mountain is second-to-none.  I spent some time with my screen daughter Jade Davidson and her mum in the Botanical Gardens.  And yet I needed more.  More than the tourist destinations.  The proper South Africa.  I’d been in the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London for years, I didn’t want to fuck about in some cobwebbed timewarp of colonial bigotry in the heart of Cape Town.   I wanted to go to the township – visible from the airport road, a huge sprawling city of tin and wire called Khayelitsha.  When I mentioned this to the same young white fella at work next day his answer shocked me.  “Those people in the townships man – they’re rich. they organise bus tours, they’re making money off their poverty”.  He was 19 years old.  His parents were clearly Boers, Afrikaaners from the country drenched in racism, struggling with the new reality.  The medic, Kerryn Pitt, got wind of my desires, and offered to drive me out there on Sunday – a mutual day off.

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Kerryn picked me up from the hotel and we drove for 45 minutes and on the way out of the city she gave me the background.  She was running a school in Khayelitsha and many of the kids who attended were orphans, specifically AIDS orphans.   Kerryn encourage the locals (who had nothing as I would shortly see) to take these kids in and offer them shelter, and the school would give them 3 meals a day and wash their clothes.

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The highway was now an asphalt corridor between two cities – corrugated iron shacks linked by endless wiring to the odd lamp-post.  Dirt poor.  We turned off and drove into the township.  Everything was one-storey, made of wood, tin, corrugated iron, bits and pieces.  All of the inhabitants were black.  There were shops, hairdressers, cafes, bars, stalls, no road markings, lorries and some buses which were minivans full of people.  Kids with bare feet staring at us.  Nothing I had been told about this type of settlement could prepare me for being there.  It is quite simply overwhelming.  First – it is huge.   Over a million people living in shacks.   Most with no running water, no flushing toilet, no sink or shower.  No electricity.  We finally reached the project and parked, then walked past some rudimental dwellings to the project.  It was one building, like a school, with some washing machines and a kitchen.  Pretty basic, but it was a local hub of care for the kids who were everywhere.  I was introduced to the staff and shown around.  Kerryn explained that they were trying to persuade an old chap to move so that they could build a hospital on his land – an AIDS hospital that would also teach and practice Bush Medicine, using the knowledge of the sangoma (a healer, always a woman), and pass on her methods to the next generation.

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Kerryn had originally chosen to start this project because her grandmother had asked her to – Kerryn is white, but her grandmother was black.  Maybe she was her old nanny?  (“Nurse!”)   Feeling slightly out of my depth but impressed with the energy of the place we travelled back to the white privileged world of the Mount Nelson.  Just a few doors down was a cinema.  They were showing a new South African film called Tsotsi, so I decided to go and see it that evening, despite warnings “not to go out after dark in case of crime”…

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scene from Tsotsi (SA 2006)

Tsotsi opens in a township just like the one I had been in.  Soweto.  (SOuth WEst TOwnship just outside Johannesburg).  The young boy is at the window and he turns round.  His face is a scowl, dark and angry, and the beat of Mdlwembe starts to pump and the lyrics to snarl.  The song that opens the film is by a young township musician called Zola – real name Bonginkosi Dlamini, from the part of Soweto known as Zola.  Despite the temptations of drink and drugs, crime and simply struggling to earn a living, Zola became a beacon of hope for the new country, expressing the rage felt by the still-ignored township-dwellers years after apartheid was abolished.  The film Tsotsi is hugely powerful and won an Oscar the following year for best foreign film – the storyline from an Athol Fugard novel, the acting, including Zola as a’bad guy’, the directing by Gavin Hood and the soundtrack featuring the finest kwaito tunes of the new century are all first class.

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Zola himself read Steve Biko and his ideas of Black Consciousness when he was growing up, and placed those thoughts into his music.  Sadly I can’t find any translations of the lyrics to Mdlwembe online, except that the word itself translates as delinquent, so if anyone out there knows what this song is saying I’d be grateful.  But when you listen to it, it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to understand where this song comes from and what it is expressing.   South African music is exciting rhythmically, always has been, and here the influence of hip-hop on the home-grown kwaito beat is truly thriling.  Zola eventually got his own TV show on Channel 5 in South Africa and released a new LP last year, 2014, called Intakathusa.

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But this tune, from his debut album Umdlwembe in 2000, is quite simply a peak moment in music for me.  A cry of rage, full of potency, lyrics of fury directed at the new black Government, to wake up and heed the needs of the people.   It’s brilliantly produced but still sounds rough round the edges, there’s piano, guitar, a shuffle, a surging feel to the music, and the spitting Zola achieves is magnificent even without knowing what he’s saying.  There was an election while I was in Cape Town, the ANC were out in force, no longer a banned terrorist organisation, but now The Government, defending their record in an election campaign.  Cape Town, not an ANC stronghold, was still covered in their black green and gold posters, as well as those of the opposition.  The Government won, again.

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