Struggle & hope
Andy Grant photo Amandla’s 25th anniversary concert will be Sunday, at 2 p.m., at Greenfield’s Second Congregational Church, 16 Court Square (adjacent to the Town Common). The concert will feature songs sung in Zulu, Xhosa, French, Spanish, Vietnamese, Latin and English. Tickets are $10; $5 for seniors and students and free for children under 10. They are available at World Eye Bookshop, 158 Main St., Greenfield and at the door.
Amandla’s members, ages 14 to 82, live all around the Pioneer Valley.
Andy Grant photo
Amandla’s 25th anniversary concert will be Sunday, at 2 p.m., at Greenfield’s Second Congregational Church, 16 Court Square (adjacent to the town common). The concert will feature songs sung in Zulu, Xhosa, French, Spanish, Vietnamese, Latin and English. Tickets are $10; $5 for seniors and students and free for children under 10. They are available at World Eye Bookshop, 158 Main St., Greenfield and at the door.
Poster courtesy of Eveline MacDougall
Amandla traces its origins to an enthusiastic group of singers meeting in Wendell to learn South Africa’s liberation music.
The Walking Ghosts
It all began with a hum.Eveline MacDougall, a 23-year-old carpenter who’d recently moved to the area from a Winchendon communal farm where everyone sang together, was humming to herself one of the South African freedom songs she’d learned there.
MacDougall’s unconscious humming, which came at a Pioneer Valley War Tax Resisters’ gathering that day in late 1987, caught the ear of Rosie Heidekamp, a Wendell woman who recognized it from the childhood years she’d spent in South Africa as a child.
“How do you know that song?” she asked MacDougall.
From that simple, unconscious humming of “Siyahamba” came a hastily-arranged, informal gathering to teach “South African songs of freedom and struggle in Zulu and English” to whoever was willing to show up one Sunday in January 1988. Forty people turned out at the Wendell Community Church for that session (billed on posters as “Seat-of-the-pants community events presents COME SING starring You!!!) Once there, the enthusiastic crowd learned to sing half a dozen songs over a couple of hours from MacDougall, a curly-haired, bespectacled daughter of a classically trained Quebecois vocalist and a Julliard-trained composer-conductor from Plattsburgh, N.Y.
“I couldn’t get rid of them,” remembers MacDougall of that informal session 25 years ago. “They wouldn’t leave. We ended up staying three hours and they kept singing and kept singing and kept singing.”
Two weeks later, it was time for another session. And then another. Amandla was born.
Except, the group was still a nameless “popular local chorus” when it took the stage to open for folksinger Tom Paxton in a June benefit concert in Amherst for Traprock Peace Center. In its infancy, the group had appeared at a war-tax protest and then as an opening act at a Bernardston coffeehouse. So, it could be dubbed a “popular local chorus.”
One of the group’s singers worked for Traprock and had asked MacDougall, “Do you think we could do three or four songs to open for Tom Paxton?” She grabbed the chance and now observes, “That kind of launched us as a chorus, instead of a being a little pickup group.”
In those days, Amandla — which will mark its 25th anniversary concert Sunday, Jan. 27, with a 2 p.m. concert at Greenfield’s Second Congregational Church, which is adjacent to the Town Common —– was a scraggly who’s who of Greenfield’s alternative community, as a series of photos in MacDougall’s scrapbook shows. “Look! We’re all total hippies,” she says, pointing at co-op regulars Lorre Wyatt, Patti Waters, Sally “Sally Alley Muffin Stuffin” Diamond, Lynn Benander, Betsy Evans, Chris Sikes, Andrew Baker, Dan and Laura Botkin and others. “Look how young!”
So, here’s an all-white gaggle of enthusiastic singers harmonizing South Africa’s liberation music, with a couple of genuine African ringers from the University of Massachusetts joining in for the Paxton concert, one of them shouting out “Amandla!” (Zulu for “Power!”) like she was on fire. Some UMass faculty and graduate students exiled from their home country during those apartheid years approached Amandla’s singers appreciatively. But they said, “We should be singing, too,” and formed Barwa, a chorus of black South Africans from the Five Colleges. They taught Amandla some songs, sang along with them, and the two choruses began touring together.’
“Those were amazing years,” remembers MacDougall, recalling one 1989 or 1990 concert with Barwa at a maximum-security prison in Dannemora, N.Y. “We weren’t totally prepared for what it would be like. We were told, ‘Don’t step off the stage. Don’t touch the prisoners. Don’t go past that line.’”
Looking out on a sea of black faces among the prisoners, his mind going back to his own time as a political prisoner in South Africa’s prisons, one of Barwa’s members broke down crying and stepped off the stage as the combined choir sang its second song, “Siyahamba.” The guards immediately lifted their rifles, a few voices stopped singing, and then the song stopped entirely as the lone Barwa member walked down the aisle past the prisoners, to the gymnasium’s back wall, where he sobbed.
“No one in the room is breathing and we’re all wondering what happens next?” recalls MacDougall. “Time just stopped.
“But then something extraordinary happened. The prisoners — these ‘hardened men’ — began to call to the sobbing man in soft voices. ‘C’mon back, bro ... it’s OK, bro. C’mon back.’ Nearly 200 men, murmuring in tones so soothing it could’ve been a lullaby. They weren’t allowed to stand, but they lifted themselves off their chairs just this much,” she says, demonstrating. “They coaxed him back to the stage in rhythm, clapping. ‘C’mon back, bro.’ His shirt was soaked with tears and as his foot hit the first step to the stage, the guards put down their rifles in unison. The men erupted into cheers and we started the song over: ‘Siahamba — We are marching in the light of God.’”
“You couldn’t make this stuff up.”
The phone rang in the Greenfield apartment of MacDougall, who’d been working as a co-op cashier and giving piano lessons to make ends meet.
She picked up the receiver that day in June 1990 and heard the voice of a concert organizer. Nelson Mandela — the anti-apartheid leader who’d been released that February after 27 years as a prisoner in South Africa — was coming to Boston as part of an American tour and Peter Paul and Mary were somehow stuck in Europe and had to cancel at the last minute.
“Could your group take their place in the concert lineup on the Esplanade, between Jackson Browne and Paul Simon?”
An estimated 250,000 to 275,000 people were on hand for the six-hour, outdoor extravaganza that June 24, as the man The Boston Globe called “the living legend of the international campaign to end South African apartheid” waved to ecstatic, jubilant admirers who could hardly believe he was really there in front of them.
At this spectacular event, with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Tracy Chapman, Michelle Shocked and other musical acts there to pay tribute, Amandla’s leader had a sense of panic.
“There he was and he had gotten into a limo, with Ted Kennedy and Danny Glover. And I thought, ‘He’s leaving!’” recalls MacDougall, who watched from backstage, where Amandla was still waiting to sing. “I thought, ‘I don’t want him to leave yet!’ And I called out “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” to chorus members and they snapped to attention.”
Seizing the moment once again, MacDougall led her singers in an impromptu singing of the Xhosa pan-African national anthem.
“And the limo stops, the door flies open and Nelson Mandela ejects himself, comes over and stands in the middle of us. He stood with us and he put his fist in the air and closed his eyes and sung every word with us. And then he shook our hands.”
MacDougall, for whom meeting Mandela when she was just 25 “was probably one of the top five biggest things in my life,” recalls a similar moment at a University of Massachusetts-Amherst concert before 2,000 people gathered to honor Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The chorus was supposed to be singing for the South African religious leader, but when the chorus broke into “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” Tutu rose to his feet, walked on stage “and stood with us,” the chorus leader recalls. “He told us, ‘I can’t sit in the audience when you sing this. I’m standing with you.’ That shows the difference between performance music and music of the people, music of their struggles. And it’s just been so much fun.”
A musical blessing
Natalia Gutsa, a 20-year-old Zimbabwean student at Greenfield Community College, was “looking for a sense of belonging in the community,” after spending her first year living with her brother’s in-laws in southern Vermont last year and then moving to Greenfield.
A health-sciences student who wants to pursue a medical career, Gutsa turned to Google to see if there was a community chorus here.
“Up popped ‘Amandla Chorus,’” says Gutsa whose native language is Shona, but who knows the Zulu word “Amandla” from growing up in the years just after South African apartheid. “At that time, it wasn’t strange. But now looking back on it, it was really strange” to find a chorus like that right here in Greenfield.
Gutsa, who was used to singing in Shona and English as part of church choirs and school choruses in Zimbabwe, was immediately drawn to the Greenfield chorus.
“What really intrigued me, what was different from other choruses, was what they had to offer: its diversity, the songs they sang. They said they were doing songs from South Africa. That makes me feel like I do have a sense of belonging here. It just hits back home. As soon as I found this chorus and started singing with them, I was just feeling like, ‘You’re home. They’re your family.’ I wasn’t feeling alone anymore.”
At Amandla’s 25th anniversary concert, which will feature songs sung in Zulu, Xhosa, French, Spanish, Vietnamese, Latin and English, Gutsa will be featured in the South African song “Senzenina,” which she sang first in Zimbabwe.
“What have we done?” asks the song, repeatedly, plaintively. “What is our crime? Our only sin is we are black.”
“In our countries, our conditions will always be the same,” Gutsa says. “The words and languages differ. In South Africa, it’s very similar; we’ve all gone through similar incidents of liberation war struggles.”
Then, thinking back to when she first saw “Amandla” in her Google search, she says, “I actually see it as a blessing. I feel like it was something that was supposed to happen.”
Next week’s concert, with performances also by Song Squad, a sort of Amandla Auxiliary for “kids” 3 to 85, will feature the return of some former chorus members.
It will also include an appearance by members of the head injury unit at Holyoke Rehabilitation Center, where Amandla has performed. The anniversary concert is a benefit to raise money for new music program MacDougall is helping to start there.
“None of this is anything I really sought out,” says MacDougall, after explaining that the Holyoke Rehabilitation connection was another example of how serendipity and community create possibilities. “Whatever’s happened has just been one thing linked to another.”
Amandla, which has sung through the years at the Clearwater Festival, at Lincoln Center, with folk legend Pete Seeger and gospel singer Jane Sapp, at commemorations of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Soweto uprisings, and in response to the desecration of Temple Israel and incidents of domestic violence in Greenfield, has come a long, long way from its roots.
“We became aware in Amandla that there were issues at home we needed to look at,” says MacDougall. The chorus has been called to sing at a labor rally with Cesar Chavez in Springfield, at strikes of organized workers and at International Human Rights Day observances.
Its members, ages 14 to 82, live all around the Pioneer Valley. Some have been part of the chorus for almost as long as Amandla has been around.
“Amandla feeds me emotionally,” says Greenfield psychologist Joan Featherman, who helped found the New England Learning Center for Women in Transition and is in her 21st year of singing with the chorus. “For me in particular, it’s a healing kind of experience. I always leave rehearsals much more energized than I before I came. It enlivens my spirit.”
She explains, “The music combines a narrative of human struggle with a kind of hope. It’s very powerful and the historical context is very powerful. Music has a way of getting into your heart, for singers as well as the hearts of people who listen. But this particular music really has that power for me because a lot of it is about political struggle and the idea that you can change the world. One of the avenues for doing that is through music.”
MacDougall provides “a rare and precious leadership,” says Featherman. “She’s our guide and puts a tremendous amount of time and energy and thoughtfulness into choosing repertoire and writing music and nurturing the group. I think that’s rare in a chorus. In Amandla, it’s about building community through the music.”
Adds MacDougall, “And it’s just been so much fun.”
Amandla’s 25th anniversary concert will be Sunday, at 2 p.m., at Greenfield’s Second Congregational Church, which is adjacent to the Town Common. Tickets are $10; $5 for seniors and students and free for children under 10. They are available at World Eye Bookshop, 158 Main St., Greenfield and at the door.
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To see the chorus on YouTube:
Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder more than 30 years. He can be reached at
email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.