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The Amandla Poets Make It Just So

Amandla Poets
Donald B Johnson

Reggae Meets Township: The Amandla Poets crisscross the Atlantic for musical influences.

African group seduces with dance music; instructs with unity

By Nicky Baxter

'WE DON'T WANT to be like the Nike commercial. You know, the one that says, 'Just do it?' We don't believe that," declares Dumile Sadiqa Vokwana. "You've got to make it so. You have to act." For Vokwana, the difference transcends matters of semantics.

Unlike the solipsistic thrust implied by the Nike commercial, the Azanian/South African musician and co-leader of the Amandla Poets has very specific objectives: to draw audiences into the Poets' sphere of influence with seductive music and then to slip them a shot of social consciousness--which, presumably, will lead to social action.

Of course, the Amandla Poets (Amandla is Xhosa for "power") are not the first to attempt this socio-musical ploy, nor are they likely to be the last. But where would the world be without a little idealism?

In any case, "Make it so" (Makube Njalo) represents more than a catchy phrase. It does double duty as the translated title of the Amandla Poets' debut album and as one of the first songs Vokwana and ensemble frontwoman Eloise Burrell wrote together. Finally, it is an extract from the African National Anthem.

Although they grew up worlds apart, Vokwana and Burrell seemed destined to collaborate. Hailing from a small township a field holler from Cape Town, Vokwana has witnessed social struggle firsthand and come to view music as a potential ally in the war to win minds. Burrell, a native of Texas, has been engaged in activism since her college days.

Only synchronicity could explain the fact that while Vokwana rocked to the rhythms of R&B and bebop, his future partner was mapping out strategies to the recordings of Azanian musicians/exiles like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela.

Explains Burrell, "The community that I lived and worked in was involved in a lot of revolutionary movements. I worked with organizations like the Black Panther Party ... and at universities trying to get African American studies programs started, and in that particular community, what we were listening to was South African music."

ATTEMPTING TO classify the Amandla Poets' music presents almost insurmountable problems. Though somewhat awkward, the group's self-designation, "[S]outh African Mbaqanga reggae," comes closest to capturing its eclectic palette (Mbaqanga translates roughly as "township jive").

As popularized by Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, the streetwise idiom of Mbaqanga has become a viable transatlantic export, while the band's reggae roots can be traced back to Africa rather than Jamaica. Stir in some R&B grit and soul, and the resulting sound communicates successfully in a myriad of musical tongues.

Make It So is as catchy as anything you're likely to hear on the radio, even if hard-core political types dismiss its message of unity and equality as so much naiveté. Still, in an age in which many people consider liberalism an epithet, it's hard to fault a band that pays homage to Rosa Parks and Leonard Peltier, among other activists, for their contributions to social progress.

On "DV's Gospel," Vokwana does precisely that, first in his native Xhosa, then in English. An incantatory ritual-cum-song, "Gospel" wraps Eastern poetry in a funky Mbaqanga-in-jazzland beat. "Barnstormin,' " a fond tribute to the old black baseball leagues, is immaculately executed a capella in the style of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Fittingly, perhaps, the Amandla Poets even "bust" a rhyme in rap mode on "Burnin' Up."

In performance, the ensemble puts on quite a show, garbed in colorful traditional Azanian gear, whirling, whooping and jamming like a guerrilla-theater troupe with extraordinary musical skills. Given their fiercely held convictions, Vokwana and Burrell's objective to win new converts by "hitting" them with music may be a pipe dream, but it offers a fine high while it lasts.

The Amandla Poets perform Friday­Saturday (Oct. 25­26) at 9:30pm at Waves, 50 University Ave., Los Gatos. Tickets are $5. (408/395-8600)

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From the October 24-30, 1996 issue of Metro

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