Workers United for Independence!

Workers United for Independence!

Image by Egui_

Daniel Nelson

A delightful exhibition of Stolen Moments: Namibian Music History Untoldoriginated with the discovery of a pop record in a public broadcaster’s collection “which raised questions but not much information”.

Consequent research, surveys and newspaper publicity resulted in public interest and response and, in time, to the current display at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In the words of ethnomusicologist Angela Impey, the exhibition “chronicles the story of popular music from the ‘50s-‘80s … when Namibia was under South African apartheid rule and when music making in the townships and farms was one of the few ways that people were able to escape and protest the extreme political repression.”

Censorship was tight: “… the white-owned record companies colluded with state-controlled broadcasting corporations to produce music that was seemingly frivolous and apolitical. However, musicians always found ways to tuck into the musical sensibility and shrewdly inflected lyrics some form of political commentary. When, for instance, in 1988, the wildly popular mbaqangaor “bubblegum” artist, Yvonne Chaka-Chaka sang “I cry for freedom”, receiving wide airplay across the region for her apparently politically innocuous message about women’s emancipation, her audiences knew all too well that the song was a cry for liberation for all.

“Similarly, though perhaps more subtly, when Zimbabwean sungura/reggae artist, John Chibadura, well-loved in the 1980s amongst then South West Africans and Mozambicans, sang “Zuva Rekufa Kwangu” (The day of my death), his political message resonated in its evocation to land, ancestors and senses of belonging.”

The small exhibition is a treasure: black and white photos of dancing couples, flares, record covers, memorabilia, audiotapes of musicians and listeners, interview transcripts, linocuts, and an entrancing  film from a ‘Dance Me This’ get-together in the National Theatre in Windhoek  in 2016 that a newspaper reported as an “emotional reunion with many people who have not seen one  another for decades shedding a tear of joy or two for re-encountering lost and forgotten comrades or to simply listen to music that is so rarely played today”. 

A studio was set up next to the dance floor to enable dancers who were not camera-shy to show their skills. A film of their moves and dance styles is featured in the exhibition: a lovely touch, because ultimately this exhibition is about joy, not oppression.

“There are many reasons why you’ve never heard this music before,” curator Aino Moongo has written. “It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. 

“And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you.”


·     Stolen Moments - Namibian Music History Untoldis at. The Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies, Thornhaugh Street, WC1. until 21 September. Info: 7637 2388/ https://www.soas.ac.uk/gallery/stolen-moments/

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