Miriam Makeba
Miriam Makeba
Image: Gallo Images Sunday Times

Across human history, the discovery of love for boys and girls, has invariably also been about the discovery of the lore and languages of courtship. To find yourself struck by the sweet pangs and burning bolts for the beloved, is to also learn the terror that something has to be done. Love demands a declaration!

Men and women have composed songs and built monuments, danced and dressed in glorious colours to say this simple thing: Hey, I am smitten, will you stay and be my love?

Think of Hugh Masekala’s anthemic tune, Marketplace. It is easily the most glorious orchestration of that act South Africans call uku-Shela/ Go shela (To propose love). 

Masekela’s rhythmic overture and intro with its ebullient trumpetry set a scintillating scene made effusive and magical by the imagery of his libretto. He encounters a beauty at the marketplace. I see her floating lazily /Through the market like a butterfly, oh yeah / I won’t forget the day the sun came shining in A smile that leaves a spell when she goes to look into my eyes / She’s turning me on with fever .. . Suddenly I’m walking right beside her, really turning her on / When I tell her I’m going wherever / She’ll be going when she leaves the market.

Masekela reminds us to celebrate the innocence and beauty by which love is announced, campaigned and consummated.

SA is a noisy republic with a strong art history of struggles for political rights. However, the tale of art is often told with a neglect of the tender side of our story. The freedom fighter archetype of our great artists, and the allure of the profundity of politics obscures the many glorious spectacles of tenderness in our poetry, painting and musical performances.

As we celebrate romance this week, we may do well to rediscover our favourites beyond their images as lionised heroes and heroines. 

Hugh Masekela
Hugh Masekela
Image: Brett Rubin

Consider the music of Miriam Makeba and how it rings with a reminder that our grand matriarch too was somebody’s sweetheart and babe. In 1977, Mama Africa gave a historic live performance at Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, France. Her repertoire included an inspired take of her favourite Tanzanian ballad, Malaika (Arabic and Swahili for Angel). The song is a declaration of love for a beloved. It speaks of the obstacles that hinder love’s fuller expression. 

Malaika, nakupenda Malaika /Nami nifanyeje, kijana mwenzio, Nashindwa na mali sina, we / Ningekuoa Malaika / Kidege, hukuwaza kidege…” (Angel, I love you angel / and I, what should I do, young friend /  I am defeated by the bride price that I don’t have /  I would marry you, angel /  Little bird, I think of you little bird )

The performance is marked by what is arguably the most vulnerable personal moment of Makeba’s life on stage. It is brief. It is unmistakably life affirming. It’s a declaration of love for her then husband, Stokely Carmichael, aka Kwame Toure. 

Having successfully delivered a beautiful rendition of the song, she closes with an unexpected adlib. To be sure, it’s a scream! As the song comes to a close, she loses her guarded composure and calls out: Stokely! Yes, I love you my angle!  The words cut themself out of her being to let him, and everyone in attendance know that she loves him dearly.

The pair had met after Harry Belafonte invited Carmichael to one of Makeba’s concerts; they met again in Guinea Conakry six years later. Their love and marriage in 1968 meant that Makeba would lose much of her support among Americans. Her visa was revoked and she was forced to leave the US because of Carmichael’s black militant politics. Makeba’s performance of Malaika as an ode to her love for her husband, turns the song into one of the most visceral emblems of love against all odds.

It is possible that there is no song that points to SA’s belief in the tenacity of tenderness, or the power of poetry than Mackay Davashe’s Lakothon’ilanga. The song is a well loved jazz standard that has been covered by myriad song stylists over the years. 

The libretto paints a terrible picture of a committed love in a terrible time : “The sun will set, I will think of you / The moon will rise from across the ocean / I will go looking for you/ in people’s houses/ in the streets / in hospitals/ in prison / Until I have found you.” 

This is a story of loved ones who left and didn’t return because they were arrested by the oppressive apartheid state, or in hospital because of violence and crime. It points to the tenacity of committed love and tenderness against sociopolitical odds. 

Ayanda Mabulu, The Kiss, 2022 - 2023
Ayanda Mabulu, The Kiss, 2022 - 2023
Image: Supplied

The Kiss

Romance and its declaration is also a process of pursuance. The lover dreams and pursues a moment of completion and perfection best symbolised by a kiss. Art history is littered with examples of the kiss as a glorious symbol of love’s triumph.

Few works in art history capture it more iconically than French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s 1882 marble, The Kiss. The work sees two nude lovers huddled in an embrace. Rodin was echoed in contemporary SA art by Tracey Rose in 2001. In another instance, Austrian painter Guztav Klimt painted his own, The Kiss (1907-1908), which was echoed in 2023 by Ayanda Mabulu.

Rose revisited Rodin’s The Kiss to comment on race, racism and romance in SA. The country had been reeling from decades of apartheid love laws that forbade loving across racial lines. Mabulu gives us a spectacle of urban black display of affection in a time of conspicuous opulence. The colour gold and red stilettos flood the moment of tenderness with all the shiny things that we buy to show love in our stage of late capitalism.

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