Artists celebrate the life of a living legend.
First published in Cape Times 16 July
‘The 1960 Holden station wagon had no starter and needed a few pints of oil to get going, yet it was our only option. Passed the hat around to fill the tank with juice. Held our breath that Sampie’s father won’t find out that we had taken the vehicle – again’. Akbar Khan recalls one of many anti-apartheid rallies of 1985. It was a time when black political leaders and peaceful protesters were thrown into jail where they often ‘disappeared’. Angry students took to the streets and the fear in the air was tangible. It was also a time, Akbar says, when a lot of artists were writing love songs and many people were in denial about what was happening in South Africa.
On the night in question a group of musicians and friends were on their way to perform protests songs. Akbar recalls how the back of the Holden hung low,’fully loaded with drums and amplifiers’. “We used all the back roads and tried not to look suspicious,” he recalls. “The police and soldiers had gathered around and did not like what was happening. The loudhailer blared to life. We slowly decoded the message, ‘You have 3 minutes to disperse!’. All hell broke loose. We scrambled to disconnect the sound equipment as the seconds drained away. Teargas in the air. The starter does not work. We need a push! Hands join in from everywhere and the old Holden gains momentum. Teargas piping through the air. We split the pack and make it through the gates.”
Akbar and his revolutionary buddies wrote a song called Nelson in 1977 that was in direct defiance against the security police at the time. Randolph Hartzenberg, an art teacher at Alexander Sinton in Athlone, wrote the lyrics and Akbar the music. Akbar recalls Randolph as the teacher with the long hair, “the teacher you don’t have to call sir.” ‘Just call me Randy’. “I was very influenced by him,” says Akbar. “He took us to the revolutionary films and taught us about Crosby, Stills and Nash. Randolph called me up the one day after Winnie Mandela was banned to the Orange Free State and said, ‘Can you see what is happening on the ground? We have to write a song about this’. And so Nelson, the song, was conceived. The song captured the zeitgeist of apartheid South Africa with is police brutality on the one hand and masses of persecuted people on the other. The musicians involved became the voice of the subjugated masses.
The song originally sung by Akbar’s band Cold Bones was then adopted by the band called Raakwys which hailed from the Oaklands High School in Athlone. The band became a popular feature at rallies thereafter and was driven around by Akbar who was the band’s main inspiration.
Today a new version of the song has been recorded just in time for Madiba who turns 92 on Sunday. This version of the song features Melanie Scholtz and South African jazz saxophonist legend Robbie Jansen who sadly passed away on 7 June after a long battle with emphysema. The song is described as an acoustic rendition that showcases new musical arrangements featuring strings and sax. Akbar says he wanted to re-record the song as he wanted to bring it into a whole new generation and what better way than by using a young contemporary and popular artist such as Melanie Scholtz.
Melanie, who graduated cum laude from UCT’s Opera school in 2001, rapidly established a reputation as an excellent Jazz singer having played at clubs during her studies. “After Aki asked me to be the main vocalist for the song I listened over and over to the original recording of 1977,” Melanie recalls. “I was only born in 1979 so I really needed to get a feeling for the times that inspired this song so I could be true to it. Melanie says the new version has many more elements to it than the original. There are bits with Madiba’s voice over on it and Amanda Tiffin’s direction of a choir.
“It is more of a celebratory piece in recognition of Nelson Mandela’s life,” says Melanie. “It’s such an honour to have been chosen to do this song and to add my voice to something so important. Aki really trusted me to bring this song to life.” On the loss of Robbie Jansen Melanie says. “I worked with Robbie on more than one occasion. He had an incredible presence and he was very humble. He used his saxophone to tell his stories. Robbie was already on a support machine for his emphysema yet it did not stop him from performing. He wanted to do more, sing more. He was always so happy to extend himself into the music. Right now I am just trying to digest that he is no longer around. We so often don’t make the connections that you want to make in this life but I am honoured to have had the opportunity to work with him.”
It is a big year for Melanie who released her second album Connected in February and her third album Living Standards in April. She also won the Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz Awards. Melanie says Connected is very much about the celebration of life and death and us being very connected to nature. “Whereas Living Standards highlights some new South African standards by Carlo Mombelli and Buddy Wells and it has allowed me to explore the world of song interpretation and lyric writing.”
Melanie and Robbie’s new version of Nelson may be downloaded from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWesc6_Fyk8.
Robbie Jansen’s memorial service is taking place this Saturday at the His People Church in Cape Town