August 1 1998
Nelson Mandela Celebrates
His 80th Birthday
Mega-concerts are notoriously difficult to organise, and easy to criticise. However, if Gift to the Nation is a post-apartheid milestone in entertainment culture, it is sad and embarrassing that our president's 80th-birthday celebration marginalised South African music, and ultimately disrespected its audience. Surely not the organisers' intent, certainly the result.
Without clear direction and context, it was inevitable South African artists would remain sidelined at the Gift to the Nation concerts, that the media, advertising industry and other players would be seduced by the prospects of association with big- name foreign acts. But that few of our own acts would even make it on stage is beyond contemplation, and a setback to our (and our president's) struggle to rebuild our national identity. We heralded America's renaissance in Africa, rather than our own.
It should be noted that had this been any other commercial show, the line-up would arguably have fallen foul of local-content policies - ironically, some of the most tangible (and empowering) entertainment- industry guidelines to have been enacted during Nelson Mandela's presidency. And had it been anything but a "Mandela" event, most of the Americans would have walked off in frustration, rather than perform!
Global love and respect for our president ensured that the world's finest entertainers wanted in on the bill, deeming it an honour and privilege to celebrate Madiba's 80th with our nation, and assist the charities which he champions. And therein lies the problem: with the Mandela name the key to access the world's best, promoters knew few boundaries. The shows, quite simply, became too big for their own good.
Using the SABC's Tuesday night concert broadcast as a yardstick, kwaito groups TKZ and Skeem were the sole South African content. Since they perform with backing tapes rather than a full band, they offer an easy "filler" while instrumental bands set up equipment. In a show dogged with delays, local groups such as Ringo Madlingozi, Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Tsepo Tshola were some of those advertised who ended up being guillotined.
While the broadcast offered a compacted two-hour edit of the Johannesburg show, the live experience for audience, artists and organisers was punctuated by tedious 30- minute band changeovers, rather than the snappy (ex-library?) fireworks displays which enhanced the TV show.
The problem, however, was not so much technical as organisational. Staging 18 acts ideally requires more than one stage, or that the stage be subdivided into zones with drapes. In this manner, substantial preparations continue out of audience sight.
The shows were crewed by top production staff - individuals with worldwide showbiz experience, who regularly stage international stadium events in this country (witness, for example, last year's Two Nations Concert in Johannesburg Stadium). There were, however, clearly some communication bottlenecks within the complex framework of committees, promoters and deadlines. The warning signs were there for any professional to note, but "this one was for Mandela", and everybody wanted a piece.
Sadly, the shows' deficiencies were not limited to the actual performances, but extended to the absence of any real concept, message or briefing to the artists.
The musicians, spurred by Mandela passion, ended up as alienated labour in a show which could easily have been a straight commercial promotion. Continuity announcers did little more than announce artists' names, seldom briefing, contextualising, or giving any intelligent input to help put a stamp on this potentially historic event. Hanging out with the stars backstage was preferable.
Understand the frustration of Ringo Madlingozi or Yvonne Chaka Chaka when, after four hours of waiting at Durban, they realised they would never make it on stage.
Witness the hurt of Salif Keita or Ismael Lo when front-page press splashed shots of the Americans with Mandela, and reported that "all artists were invited to President Mandela's Houghton Home" for a thank you and photo call on Sunday. The Africans were neither invited to any reception, nor received so much as a thank-you letter under their hotel door after the show, before heading back home.
Hopefully the Gift to the Nation concerts raised substantial funds for the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and the Millennium Fund, as was its primary intent. Everybody worked slavishly hard to those ends.
The added value of a cultural affirmation for the nation was never a stated part of the birthday campaign. Somehow, it would have been nice to have heard our own songs at the party. But who ever said the struggle was over?
Steve Gordon is a partner in Making Music Productions, which provided the services of Ismael Lo and Salif Keita at the Gift to the Nation concerts
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