JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—Trumpeter Hugh Masekela strides purposefully through South Africa's Apartheid Museum, breezing past exhibits on the elaborate racial classification system that relegated black people to the fringes of society, past photographs of bodies of unarmed demonstrators cut down by police, past film clips of the joyous crowds that greeted Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990.
Masekela and many other artists not only lived this very recent history, they set it to music, along with the millions of South Africans who toppled apartheid. Out on the streets, shouts became chants, chants became songs, and songs became powerful anthems.
documentary opening in Los Angeles on Friday, the songs themselves are historical documents, narrating the profound social transformation that led to the demise of white rule and the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. "Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony," which is being released by Artisan, explores the power of the music that helped galvanize and give voice to the people who pushed this history forward. In this saga, songs were the newspaper of the illiterate, the lament of the powerless and the battle cry of a disenfranchised majority that would eventually triumph through peaceful means.
"I don't think we could have had a revolution in this country without songs. It was a real backbone of the resistance," said Masekela, whose own composition, "Bring Him Back Home," is on the documentary's soundtrack. The film impressed viewers at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award and the Freedom of Expression Award.
The spirit of musical resistance arose naturally, Masekela said, from a world in which the passages of life -- birth, death, weddings, funerals, the harvesting of crops -- are marked by song. The songs can be ceremonial, like the traditional praise-singer who heralded Mandela's arrival at a recent black-tie dinner. Or they can be an agent of social forces, like the "struggle music" Masekela first heard as a child, in the black Alexandra Township of Johannesburg. There, his neighbors composed songs about the hated apartheid laws imposed in 1948, when he was 9 years old; about the pass system that controlled black people; and about the forced removals of entire communities to barren reservations far from the hubs of white privilege.
When Masekela was a young musician, police would stop his band members on the way home from gigs, detain them and humiliate them by demanding that the musicians play for the snickering officers.
"We grew up with the struggle music," Masekela said. "It was always there, from the time I was a little kid. You would have thousands of people singing the same song at a rally, and you didn't know how they learned it. They never rehearsed it. They just knew it."
An American connection
If the roots of this tradition of musical protest are in South Africa, the idea for the documentary began in New York with Lee Hirsch, a young filmmaker. Hirsch became interested in the anti-apartheid movement while still a teenager, when he went to meetings where exiled black South Africans sang the "freedom songs."
"The more I learned, the more passionate I became about what was happening in South Africa," he said.
Hirsch, who has attended Hampshire College and the New York Film Academy, made his first trip to South Africa at 20. He stayed at the home of a Zulu family whose son was a respected anti-apartheid freedom fighter and who was Hirsch's entree into a world of rallies and underground meetings.
"I remember the first time I was in a stadium surrounded by 30,000 people singing," he said. "I committed to capture that spirit and give it to an audience." Hirsch ended up staying in South Africa for five years, for what would become a nine-year project.
When Hirsch first approached his executive producer, Los Angeles-based Sherry Simpson -- a producer of the 1997 Peabody Award-winning "Blue Note: A History of Modern Jazz" for the Bravo Network -- she considered herself a producer of music videos, not documentaries. But in the 1980s, as an intern to Congressman Mickey Leland, then chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, she had focused on South African legislative issues, and "I was inspired," she said.
Calling the film "Amandla!" (a Xhosa word for "power" that some translate roughly as "power to the people"), they began the search for the resistance songs, folk music that had been passed from person to person as an expression of a collective experience marked by countless individual tragedies.
There are the early protest songs defying Hendrik Verwoerd, the creator of the hated apartheid legal system, who survived an assassination attempt in 1960, shortly after police shot down 69 people who were protesting the pass system in the famous Sharpeville Massacre. Verwoerd was stabbed to death by a parliamentary page in 1966.
There are the songs of sorrow about the forced removal of black communities to a barren, windswept plain known rather euphemistically as "Meadowlands."
"You'll hear the white people say, 'Let's go to Meadowlands.' We will move night and day and go to Meadowlands," the chorus sings satirically, with a bitter, forced gaiety, accompanied by footage of bulldozers crushing the homes and gardens of established communities, and trucks moving the people to bleak one-room homes. There is footage of a woman standing alone in the hot sun at a bus stop, unable to board a whites-only bus, her little girl staring with longing and incomprehension at the white passengers riding comfortably by.
'I fought my battle singing'
Along the way, viewers meet some of South Africa's most interesting entertainers. There is Vuyisile Mini, the jaunty singer-songwriter and political activist who was killed by authorities in Pretoria Central Prison in 1964.
There is Grammy Award-winning singer Miriam Makeba, who spent the first six months of her life in a jail cell with her mother under apartheid, and who later would be banned from the country for 30 years, not even allowed to return for her mother's funeral. Makeba testified on the abuses of apartheid at the United Nations General Assembly in 1964 and 1975. After a long period of exile she returned, like many such musicians, after Mandela was released from prison, and she is now a revered local matriarch nicknamed "Mama Africa."
"I am a woman who has been around the world singing my struggle," Makeba, now in South Africa, said. "Some fought in the field. I fought my battle singing."
The defiant force of music impressed rock star Dave Matthews, who witnessed apartheid-era abuses during the part of his life he spent in South Africa, and he volunteered to produce the soundtrack for the film.
" 'Amandla!' is an incredibly beautiful story of how something as peaceful as music can be a powerful weapon," he said in a statement. "You might not bet on the people that were only using their voices as weapons. But they were victorious."
Part of what impressed him, Matthews said, was the music's emotional force and passion.
"The music of South Africa sticks out because it was such a profound group effort -- when these people would sing, the power of those songs would move you physically" -- even, he said, if you can't understand the words. "Music is something everyone can share. Music is a way to have a voice for everyone."
And if the film chronicles South Africa's moments of injustice, tragedy and crushing defeat, it also recalls the unity and sense of collective purpose that made the triumph of the anti-apartheid movement such an exciting moment to live.
Now, said Sifiso Ntuli, one of the activists profiled in the film, South Africans are waging the next battle -- to create jobs, alleviate poverty, combat the AIDS crisis and build a new multicultural nation from the tumultuous history chronicled in "Amandla!"
That is a far subtler and less dramatic struggle than the one Ntuli lived through as a university activist. He remembers standing with a crowd in 1980, meeting in a church in Soweto that was surrounded by police lobbing tear gas into the windows to try to disperse the gathering.
"They had guns, but all we had were stones in our voices," Ntuli said. "So we sang, to build our spirit, to build courage. I couldn't sing to save my life. But I would sing to save my country."