‘Leave us alone’ won’t wash today

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TWO South Africans were mourned copiously recently. One of them, Albertina Sisulu, was a political activist of the first order. She was the wife of Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela’s mentor in the formative years of the struggle against apartheid.

The second was probably as famous as the former: Joseph Moghotsi was the last surviving member of the Manhattan Brothers, undoubtedly one of the trail-blazing singing quartets of South Africa, if not of Africa.

He followed his three illustrious colleagues to probably the Great Recording Studio In The Sky — Ronnie Sehume, Rufus Khoza and Nathan “Dambuza” Mdledle.

I choose to write of this because, as a former singer and an admirer of the group, I am among many Africans who owe a lot to these four fabulous men.

With Miriam Makeba, they made a memorable appearance at the Recreation (now Mai Musodzi) Hall more than 50 years ago in Harare township.

We had all been fascinated by their recordings which sold well in the then Southern Rhodesia. They, I have always suspected, had tried to equal the singing style forged by the African-American singing quartet, the Mills Brothers — who were biological brothers.

In Harare Township, where I grew up, a group which tried to sing like the Mills Brothers — singing their recorded music on stage in the same Recreation Hall — was known as the Black Evening Follies, led by Moses “Fancy” Mpahlo.

The Manhattan Brothers, however, being nearer home, were our immediate inspiration. The four of us and Faith Dauti, known as the Milton Brothers, were blood relatives too.

Our greatest moment was a combined show with the City Quads, featuring the great soloist Sonny Sondo. 

The Manhattan Brothers reached their peak with two great songs. The first was a Zulu version of an American classic, Irving Berlin’s Marie.

The second was Lovely Lies, a translation into English of one of their greatest songs in Zulu with Miriam Makeba, Lakhutshoni Ilanga.

These two songs round off the first of their “greatest hits”, brought out by their long-time recording company, Gallo, after 1994. It’s fascinating to hear them sing traditional “Negro spirituals” in their original form.

But in re-recoding Ilanga in English, they were indicating they had come of age: they were part of the Ilanga in English, they were part of the international scene now.

The world would hear them and hear them sing in English, the nearest to an international language that we have.

They could easily have argued that they were South Africans and would remain so, even in their music.

In a way, they too could have declared “Leave Us Alone” — to do their thing the way they had always done it.

But they had to conform to achieve international acceptance.  

Miriam Makeba herself did an album in the United States. A song that almost became her signature tune, Where Did The Little Flea Go? was among the songs.

It is so full of wicked humour it has become a favourite with many of her fans.

In many ways, there is a parallel of this in politics: the idea that the world is One Village must be encapsulated in the concept of the United Nations. Today, no one nation can proclaim that it can do whatever it wants and nobody can stop it.  

“Leave us alone” has been the declaration of many nations which have fallen foul of the concepts which brought the UN into being.

All sovereign states may be answerable only to themselves and their people.

But there comes a time when the world would be committing a cardinal political sin if it stood idly as one nation butchered its own people — only because they opposed one or all of its policies.

The analogy with a singing group may be tenuous, but it bears close examination. Belonging to a community of nations must entail an adherence to the principles that underpin that community.

For this reason, a number of nations have had sanctions applied against them by the UN.

The Commonwealth has suspended members, among them Pakistan because they insisted on being “left alone” to do as they pleased.

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