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“Mannenberg”: Notes on the Making of an Icon and Anthem

by John Edwin Mason


Abdullah Ibrahim’s [Dollar Brand] composition “Mannenberg” was an instant hit, when it was released on the 1974 album, Mannenberg is Where It’s Happening. This paper shows that the song is a product of Ibrahim’s efforts to find an authentically South African mode of expression within the jazz tradition, blending South African musical forms — marabi,mbaqanga, and langarm–with American jazz-rock fusion. It quickly became an icon of South African jazz, defining the genre both within the country and overseas. At the same time, the South African coloured community invested the song with their own meaning, transforming it into an an icon of their culture and of themselves.  In the 1980s, “Mannenberg” had a second life as an anthem of the struggle against apartheid. Some called it South Africa’s “unofficial national anthem.” Once again, the song acquired a new meaning, this time through the efforts of musicians, especially Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen, who made it the musical centerpiece of countless anti-apartheid rallies and concerts. As the paper traces this narrative, it is constantly aware of the profound influence of African-American culture and political thought on Ibrahim and the coloured community as a whole.

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John Edwin Mason teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia. He is the author ofSocial Death and Resurrection: Slavery and Emancipation in South Africa (2003) and many articles and reviews on South African history, jazz, and popular culture. He is pursuing two multi-year documentary photography projects, one on drag racing in the American South and the other on the New Year Carnival in Cape Town. He is also an active freelance musician and a member of the French horn section of the Lynchburg (Virginia) Symphony Orchestra.