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The Songs of South Africa Thrive in Oakland, Calif.


From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. This past weekend at the First Congregational Church in Oakland, California, an unusual choir marked its 20th anniversary. The choir is known as the Vukani Mawethu. These 25 vocalists, a chorus of African Americans, whites, Asians and Latinos, have been singing South African freedom songs since 1986, when apartheid still ruled that country. Yet years after apartheid's collapse, the group still finds reasons to keep this music alive. Lonny Shavelson has this report.


From the pulpit of this Oakland, California church, lawyer Fania Davis takes an audience of 300 back to South Africa, 1953. She tells the story of anti-apartheid activist James Madhlope Phillips, revered for his singing of freedom songs.

Ms. FANIA DAVIS (Vukani Mawethu Choir): In 1953, James was again arrested, together with Nelson Mandela, having been accused of inciting the people to sing.

SHAVELSON: Phillips escaped South Africa and traveled throughout Europe, training choirs to sing freedom songs. Fania Davis was in Germany 20 years ago when she heard the pulsating rhythms of a chorus and stepped into a church.

Ms. DAVIS: German voices were singing songs of freedom in Zulu, Xhosa, Flanna(ph), with such power and such beauty. It was pleasantly disorienting.

SHAVELSON: The leader of that German choir was Phillips himself. Davis invited him to Oakland to lead a single performance of freedom songs. Twenty years later the choir that formed for that one performance sings on as Vukani Mawethu.

(Soundbite of choir singing)

Ms. ANDREA JOYCE TURNER (Musical Director, Vukani Mawethu): I'm Andrea Joyce Turner. I'm the musical director for Vukani Mawethu. When I think of the South African music I think of the harmony and I think of the gospel music here and the civil rights songs. The similarities are uncanny, the feeling that they evoke.

(Soundbite of choir singing)

Ms. TURNER: Zin Zanni Na(ph) basically says that my skin is black, what have I done to deserve to be oppressed? What is my crime? And you just think of about all of the young people who have died because of the fighting, apartheid. And you think about it now, all of the kids being killed or killing each other, in Oakland, all over the U.S. And the picture became, What is my crime, what have I done, and why are killing? We're killing off generations.

(Soundbite of choir singing)

Ms. TURNER: We sing in Xhosa, Sethu and Zulu. We try to continue that legacy that has been passed on to us. We have found out in the last 20 years that we continue to be relevant. Vukani Mawethu means people arise, get up, get out, make some kind of change, help one another. That's exactly what we've been doing for the last 20 years.

(Soundbite of choir singing)

SHAVELSON: For NPR News at the First Congregational Church in Oakland, California, I'm Lonny Shavelson.

(Soundbite of choir singing) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lonny Shavelson