Cape Town - Those opening chords and that memorable riff have over the decades permeated our collective subconscious and we all immediately recognise the august yet kindly, serene face of its composer.
With its dulcet refrain, its infectiously melodic bridge and its sonorous tone, it is a song which has defined Cape Town and its tragic history, as well as defining its creator. It is a song which is never strident or overly forceful, yet its message is one of great power, truth and beauty, and one which still resonates today wherever it is played.
It is a song which has the unique power to move grown men and women to tears and make throats dry up with emotion. It is a song with the beguiling ability to uplift, to inspire, to render melancholy and to make happy all at the same time. It is a song imbued with hope, dignity, coloured pride and a belief in the ability of humanity to overcome whatever obstacles and vicissitudes we may encounter on life’s road.
That song is of course Mannenberg, the seminal title track from the eponymous album by the iconic and venerable Cape Town jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly known as Dollar Brand) and this month marks the 40th anniversary of its release.
Recorded against a backdrop of forced removals as the apartheid government evicted coloured families from District Six, the title track (with its subtitle Is Where It’s Happening) was inspired by and named after the township of Manenberg, where many of those who had been displaced were resettled. An instant hit, the song was adopted with alacrity as an anthem of the valiant struggle against apartheid and of the fight for freedom and equality, heroically championing the people’s cause.
Notable for the haunting tenor saxophone solo by Basil Coetzee (who subsequently took the moniker “Mannenberg” as a result), and with Robbie Jansen on alto sax and Monty Weber on drums, the 13-minute title track is passionate, threnodic and ethereally beautiful.
Recorded some two years and three months before I was born, this song was instrumental in my developing a love of jazz as a teenager, not to mention a strong sense of self and also a keen interest in the struggles of the apartheid-era past, which too many of my generation and the wider coloured diaspora sadly seem to be forgetting today.
Although I am normally loath to claim ownership of any music for a particular group of people (since great music clearly transcends the vagaries of race, colour, class or religion), it would be churlish to deny that Mannenberg is the product of, and a definite response to, a very historically specific, oppressive racial milieu (the apartheid regime’s flagrantly evil, de-humanising laws), as well as the articulation of life as experienced by non-whites (especially coloureds) in 1970s South Africa.
Ostensibly an elegy for the forced removal of coloured people to the wastelands of the Cape Flats, the song has also subsequently served as the voice of the poor, the oppressed and the ostracised throughout the world. Thus Mannenberg is both specific and wholly universal in its appeal.
Today, it is still a beloved anthem of hope, resistance and resilience and a celebration of human dignity in the face of brutality and evil, wherever that may be found. We can also hear in those entrancing chords and ebullient Cape jazz rhythms a life-affirming joy and the desire to survive against all odds, no matter what comes our way.
And yet today, despite the plethora of undeniable positives and changes for the better post-apartheid, it is also easy to see why many coloured people tragically feel they are still being marginalised in the new South Africa, let alone in an ever-changing city such as Cape Town. Especially now here in the Mother City, at a time when coloured identity and culture are in many ways under threat like never before, the song acquires an added poignancy, and it therefore behoves us all the more to remember and celebrate Mannenberg, the conditions under which it was created and what it has come to represent.
Nowadays, due to the heinous legacy inflicted on it by apartheid, the township of Manenberg may sadly be synonymous with poverty, crime and gangsterism, but Mannenberg the album towers majestically as a musical monument to both a sublime jazz genius and the intrinsic nobility and grandeur of the human spirit.
On this 40th anniversary of his magnum opus, and in the year in which its composer turns 80, let us humbly salute the man from 7th Street, Kensington, who took his distinctive brand of Cape jazz overseas, and in so doing, told the world of the coloured plight and of the richness, vibrancy and profundity of coloured culture, with a supreme eloquence and rare dignity.
Abdullah Ibrahim, we are grateful for sharing with us your prodigious talent and your soulful, mellifluous and intensely humane music. Mannenberg, as a gloriously invigorating jazz composition, as a trenchant socio-political statement and as a key anthem of the struggle, has immeasurably enriched all our lives. For this, as sons and daughters of Cape Town, the debt of gratitude we owe you is immense and one which should never be forgotten. The spirit of this city, of its people and of its history will always be alive in your music. Even 40 years later, without a doubt Mannenberg is still where it’s happening.
To paraphrase the Victorian poet Tennyson’s immortal lines on the Roman poet Virgil, I offer up the following encomium, in the hope that it is befitting of a true Cape colossus:
“I salute thee, Capetonian,
I that loved thee since my day began; Composer of the stateliest music,
Ever moulded by the mind of mind.”
* Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster.