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“This music expresses the basic human desire for freedom in a way so visceral and bold that no one will find it easy to resist.”

It’s an irony of history that in dire political circumstances, people resort to music, and the creative spark that results is the silver lining on the dark cloud of oppression. Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony: The Soundtrack samples a half-century of South Africa’s powerfully uplifting freedom songs, music that literally changed the world.

When Lee Hirsch set out to direct Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony — the film about the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa — he didn’t focus on politicians, activists, or martyrs, but rather on music, specifically on the freedom songs that fueled this unstoppable popular movement. The resulting film, produced by Sherry Simpson, traces the lives of songs through meetings, rallies, guerilla camps, funerals, church services, marches, and demonstrations during the dark decades of apartheid, and through the memories of those who survived the struggle. The film includes songs recorded and performed by leading artists including Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Vusi Mahlasela. Amandla! both the film and the soundtrack, vividly demonstrates that freedom songs were first and foremost peoples’ songs.

The role these songs played in bringing about peaceful change in South Africa is perhaps the most compelling musical saga of the 20th century. The accolades for the film came instantly — Amandla! won the Audience Award and the Freedom of Expression Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. And when offered, Dave Matthews’ ATO Records jumped at the opportunity to produce and release the soundtrack.

But turning four decades of music in the film into a coherent album was no simple feat. Matthews’ partner at ATO, Chris Tetzeli says, “We worked on the soundtrack for six months choosing from; the amazing array of studio renditions, winnowing down all the choral pieces, the chants, the freedom songs, and Lee and Sherry’s field recordings. We wanted a record that people would love to listen to, and that would also be an authentic representation of the music of South Africa during the struggle, and the importance that it had in the revolution.”

Beloved South African artist Hugh Masekela’s “Stimela” dramatizes the plight of workers forced into the pain of long separation from their family, and his “Bring Him Back Home” is perhaps the most rousing anthem of the Free Nelson Mandela movement. We hear a honey-voiced, young Miriam Makeba leading a swinging, roots jazz ensemble in jaunty number called “Nants Indonmaya.” Later, we hear her again as a wizened musical matriarch, Mama Africa, singing a soulful refrain from “Bahleli Bonkwe,” clicks and all. Among the album’s emotional choral works is a lush, acapella rendition of the immortal anthem “Nkosi Sikeleli Africa” sung by the Diepkloof Community Choir of Soweto, and also a live recording of a cast of thousands singing as one at the rally that followed Mandela’s election as president in 1994.

To hear politician-turned-activist-singer Vusi Mahlasela’s soaring, horn-like voice and deeply soulful lyrics on “When You Come Back,” or Mbongeni Ngemi’s jazz-tinged anthem, “Lizobuya,” with a choir of voices rising behind his raspy musical oratory, is to feel the spirit rising within you. You quickly understand how black South Africans were able to communicate the inevitability of their victory so convincingly that white rulers abandoned their fight without resorting to war.

Mahlasela is widely featured in the film – one scene from 1994 follows him as he votes for the first time ever – and he contributes three songs to the soundtrack. As it turns out, one of his biggest fans is fellow South African Dave Matthews. Known as ‘The Voice’ in South Africa, Vusi is featured on the title track of Dave Matthews Band’s 2001 release ‘Everyday’. From the moment Matthews created ATO Records, he was keen to release Mahlasela’s music in the United States. Vusi’s US debut is currently schedule for a Spring 2003 release on ATO. The admiration for Vusi and the respect for the film are shared by all at ATO. “This documentary is a marvel,” says Matthews, “an extraordinary achievement. Not one person should miss this film. Not one.”

Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony will be released to theatres by Artisan February 17, 2003, and will air on HBO in the spring. Amandla! The Soundtrack will be released on February 4, 2003. This music expresses the basic human desire for freedom in a way so visceral and bold that no one will find it easy to resist.

– Banning Eyre

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