Music makes us strong

The Liberation Project’s reinvigorated and new struggle songs aim to create solidarity across borders, but it has slipped up on gender.

When Durban percussionist Dan Chiorboli rediscovered his Italian family’s wartime history as anti-fascist partisans, it sparked the idea for an Italian-South African collaboration on the music of struggle and freedom. When London-based guitarist and producer Phil Manzanera, from the 1970s rock band Roxy Music, heard about it, he suggested, “Why not bring in Cuba, too?” He promptly contacted Juan de Marcos, of Buena Vista Social Club and Afro-Cuban All Stars fame, in Havana. 

Back home, the late Ray Chikapa Phiri loved the idea. Chiorboli calls him the project’s “intellectual father”. Tragically, Phiri died before recording began. But, Phiri argued, “We can’t just make a collection of less-good covers; those old songs have a unique sound of their own and we have to put in something new.”

And so the Liberation Project, which holds its international launch on 3 October in Johannesburg, was born. An initial 10 planned tracks became 20, and then 37. As the world reacted against the damage inflicted by austerity, racism, xenophobia and war, the network of involved artists spread. Including backing ensembles and choirs, Chiorboli reckons more than 140 musicians contributed, from 17 countries across Africa, Europe and Latin America.

“Without modern technology,” says Chiorboli, “we’d never have been able to do it.” It was the technology that facilitated integrating voice clips from other sources, and bouncing digital sound files between England, Cuba and South Africa. Artistic decisions, mixing and mastering were all finalised here.

Mundo con Paz is the kind of track that resulted. Its history stretches back to a New Zealand Womad festival during the 1990s. A group featuring Chiorboli, Phiri, the late Gito Baloi. Kwezi Shange and Concord Nkabinde visited a Maori community, where Phiri sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. On the same tape, Manzanera had Mundo con Paz. “We couldn’t use the rough field recording,” says Chiorboli, “but Ray’s voice had such power that we created a new arrangement to incorporate the clip.”

Sipho Mabuse

For another South African contributor, Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, the project comes at precisely the right time. He believes the need for struggle remains. “Most of what we’ve done since 1994 has been done badly. There’s poverty, corruption, and leaders do not listen. But if we remain fearful, we’ll stay subject to those in power. We have strength in numbers, and in our convictions, and music can remind us and reawaken that.”

Mabuse grew up in what he calls “a strongly Congress [ANC] family … When you’re small, you may not understand all the debates in your house, but it shapes you.” He remembers, during the 1960 anti-pass campaign, “holding my father’s hand, and marching alongside Nelson Mandela, Henry Makgothi, other leaders, in Orlando West. I was just a little impressionable kid, but I’m carrying those memories with me.”

During the Black Consciousness era of the 1970s, as part of music group The Beaters, Mabuse was “already engaging with exiled student leaders over borders”. The group changed its name to Harari as a salute to Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence. By the 1980s, Mabuse was meeting Medu musicians in Botswana, and worked both openly with the exiled ANC Department of Arts and Culture, and as part of the underground struggle.

“Then,” he says, “we understood our responsibilities as artists. Today, the musical narrative is disrupted, too often driven by how much [money] we can get out. I’m not saying we should be starving artists – there must be fair payment – but we should be driven by our sense of purpose, by how our music can contribute to change. But we’ve kept quiet, subdued by the loudness of the toyi-toyi.”

Gendered solidarity

It’s the cross-national solidarity of the Liberation Project that stands out for Mabuse. He has encountered the cruelty of borders. “I met exiles in Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland. And then I could turn around and go home, but for them: ‘We can see our country from here. If only we could come with you…’ When I played in Mozambique, the first thing I had to do was thank them for sacrificing their country so we could be free.” 

Talking with Chiorboli and learning about the Italian anti-fascist struggle, “I thought again: Okay, our struggle wasn’t only about us. Workers, musicians, fighters, we all had a role, and discovering that commonality clarified for us why we wanted to do this.”

Both Chiorboli and Mabuse concede that in one respect the Liberation Project three-CD recording doesn’t fully realise that ideal. Its discourse and its personnel are predominantly male, and only one song, If This Be Treason, dedicated to Helen Joseph, directly acknowledges the role of women in liberation struggles worldwide. “We could and should have done better,” admits Mabuse. 

The project’s live performances and the DVD feature more women performers, including a more prominent role for bassist and vocalist AusTebza Sedumedi. “We realised that aspect far too late in the record’s production process,” says Chiorboli ruefully. Future plans, he says, could see women in the lead, with collaborations being discussed with maloya artist Christine Salem on the people’s songs of the Indian Ocean islands, and with Kerrianne Cox from Australia’s First Nations.

The musical criteria, though, will stay the same. “Though there’s no rigid template, every song has to stand up on its quality as a song, not just on its political credentials,” says Chiorboli. “The lyrics talk about the politics, but the music needs to reach out even to people who may not know that history.”  

For Mabuse, it’s key that the Liberation Project makes an impact in South Africa. “The freedom of our people, and Madiba’s ‘never again’, cut across everything else,” he says. “As artists, we need to engage with the socialist movements in this country … And future generations have to know the role music played in people’s struggles.”

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