Thursday, October 15, 2009

Politics of Music

I watched the BBC's How A Choir Works programme last night which finished up with a piece on the power of massed groups singing. It focused on the use of Nkosi Sikeleli Africa by the ANC in its struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa with shots from various rallies in the 70s and 80s. It brought back to my mind standing outside the Mansion House in the mid 80s with my fist in the air, humming along since I didn't know the words. I don't remember what the exact event was - could have been Dunnes Stores workers or maybe a visit by Archbishop Tutu - but that feeling of unity and purpose brought about by thousands singing together has always stuck with me.

Of course music has been used for political purposes by all sides in disputes and debates. In Ireland we've had the Orange Order bands taking on Sean South from Garryowen. Songs like the Red Flag and The Internationale have been mainstays of the socialist movement for over a hundred years. The music of Orff and Wagner was used to great effect by the Nazi regime in building up national pride in Germany in the 1930s. The music of Mendelssohn had been very popular in Germany during the 20s and early 30s but was phased out of general circulation due to his Jewish ancestry.

Most people's exposue to political music is limited to national anthems being performed before or after sporting events. My personal favorites are the more martial tunes such as La Marseillaise,Fratelli d'Italia and our own Amhran na bhFiann. Compare these to the fairly lacklustre Advance Australia Fair or O Canada and it is easy to see why the former are always sung with more gusto at football matches.

Finally, to bring it back to where we started, the current anthem of South Africa is a tribute to a nation rebuilding itself. It uses lyrics from five different languages, tunes from both Nikosi Sikeleli and Die Stem and is unique in national anthems in that it doesn't finish in the same key as it started. Talk about making a bold statement for your country.

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