Making the ‘magic’ music for Uprize!

Indie label Mushroom Hour combined the soul jazz of Chicago with what jazz musicians were doing in Mzansi to create the soundtrack for Sifiso Khanyile’s documentary on the 1976 uprising.

“For me, the 1976 [uprising] was very two-dimensional. I felt like the heroes of the 1976 struggle were not celebrated enough,” says Sifiso Khanyile, who directed the perspective-shifting documentary film Uprize! in 2016. 

Produced by Zinc Pictures as part of a grant by the National Film and Video Foundation, the story aims to uncover the untold and less heard stories of 16 June 1976, and the days that followed, including the lead up to the uprising.

Uprize! is an engaging story, filled with breathtaking moments and jaw-dropping revelations. What ties it all together though, elevating it beyond just a good watch, is the music.

Collaborative process

Khanyile initially aimed to interpolate the songs that defined that era, but it quickly became apparent that doing so would be an impossible task because of budgetary constraints.

“I knew what Mushroom Hour were doing and I went up to them to say, “Hey cats, I don’t have that much money. I would like for you guys to help me out. This is how much I’ve got and this is what I’m trying to do. Is there anything that you’ve got?”

Andrew Curnow and Nhlanhla Mngadi of the music label Mushroom Hour suggested getting musicians together to record what Khanyile calls “a sonic response to the emotional landscape of the film”. There wasn’t much time to finish the film, so he would ship over interviews and archive footage as it came in. “It’s not like they were scoring a film that’s already put together, that has a narrative arc and everything,” he says. 

When thinking of how to approach the project, the Mushroom Hour crew dug into their experience gained from jam sessions. “It didn’t feel like an unachievable task, so we decided to do it,” says Curnow. 

“We came up with a dream list and it pretty much panned out. So it was then about just locking down the musicians, calling them up, getting them to confirm and [to] sign contracts. We set up a studio in my [Yeoville] flat at the time. There was a nice living area in my lounge. We had a piano put in there and put up mics, and got everyone to come around,” he adds.

From Chicago to Mzansi

The two had a sound in mind that they wanted to capture, which was the spiritual/soul jazz that was coming out of the Chicago scene, as well as what the likes of jazz musician Ndikho Xaba – who died on 11 June at the age of 85 – were doing in Mzansi. 

“As a way to try and lead people musically, we would play certain songs from the vinyls that we had. When the musicians arrived, or in between recording tracks, we would put on another vinyl, play it for them, let them listen and see what they think,” says Curnow. 

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The other approach was to play the footage Khanyile was sending. 

“What we tried to do was to give [the jam session] more structure, so that we would be able to extricate more tunes that we could use thematically. The film in itself was not about the day June 16. It was about the events – particularly culturally, from theatre to literature to music – that led to that day, the kinds of influences that the student leaders at the time were embedded in,” says Mngadi. 

“For me, what stood out [was] how we were able to structure the recording process. It’s all about mastering energy, and being able to bend and move along to what [the musicians] were receiving.”

The musicians involved in the recording were percussionist and former member of Kwani Experience Gontse Makhene; songwriter, producer and vocalist Nonku Phiri; bassist, composer and member of the Shabaka and the Ancestors outfit Ariel Zamonsky; and critically acclaimed composer, visual artist and multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Jiyane.

“It was a fascinating process. I don’t think any of us were prepared for how emotional it was gonna be. It was a very hard, humbling and intense process,” says Curnow. “People have a perception of Nonku as being an electronic musician, and the jazz musicians are very intense about being musicians, technically good and stuff. The way her and Malcolm synched together to make the music was really special.”

Phiri recalls: “One assumes that jazz cats are always serious. But we all became one family, which is really amazing because everybody’s skill sets merged in a way that would not have worked out without all of us in there. The standout [for me was] the second day, or the last day, where the footage that was closest to the 1976 uprising was showcased to us, and that was quite touching. 

“We were asked to create a piece that was a tribute to [Langa-based pupil Xolile Mosi, who was one of the first to be killed by the police when the protests spread to other parts of the country]. That was definitely goosebump-inducing. It took us all a couple of hours to come back after that recording. 

“Just in general, finding out a whole lot more about ’76 over and beyond what we do know, and being able to get first-hand accounts of everything else that you hear about from family members in [brief] ways, because everybody has a different kind of experience.”

A film in motion

“I’m eternally grateful, because the film is still travelling. We had two screenings in New York this year. And [in] both screenings, one of the main things asked about was the music,” says Khanyile. 

“Dealing with archives can be emotionally draining. It was our intention to use archival imagery that didn’t speak of our defeat. No images of dead bodies on the ground. When we [see] the students, [they should be] running towards the camera, rather than running away from the camera. We had seen enough images of black people dying in documentaries about apartheid. My objective was, yo, if I can show us in the best light possible, I’m going to do that,” he adds. 

The music presented to Khanyile matched the emotional journey he’d been on while sifting through the archives and sitting in on interviews. “It was really well placed for me. There was no analysing. I was presented with magic.

“I haven’t gone back to thinking about the music separately from the film. For me, the music is such an integral part of what the film is trying to say emotionally.”

Most of the music that emerged from the three-day recording session did not end up in Uprize!. Plans are under way to release it on 16 June 2020. 

For now, Khanyile is working on his next film. The working title is A New Country. “It looks at how South Africa engineered its national identity in 1994 and questions whether or not we can do it again,” he says.

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