Today I’m sitting down writing these letters with Louis Armstrong the African-American Jazz Musician serenading me with his version of “You go to my head” in the background. His soothing trumpeting and delicate piano notes on which he lays his zesty voice is calming to my shot nerves. I need him you see, because I have been in over my head, trying to compartmentalized my life into neat little boxes, to sort out the papers and stories which have been piling up. I have been restraining myself, refusing to let myself go and allow my feelings to spill like water all over the keyboard smudging the lines of stories stenciled with ink on paper. I need to know what I’m doing.
Naturally it’s been hard to ignore the news of David Bowie’s passing (69), last week. This British pop, music,art, film and fashion icon of the 60, 70s, 80s and 90s seems to have shaped a lot of people’s lives and by extension mine. I was never part of his fan base and was quite frankly surprised to discover that he enjoyed a massive cult like following from every sector of society. His repertoire is impressive. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I didn’t know of David Bowie, I knew of him and heard his endless list of songs sung word for word by an ex of mine who had a near fanatical adoration for him. I now realize that he emulated Bowie in every single way. Everything he did from the ways he dressed or more aptly how he curated the clothes he put on his body, to the way he approached and spoke about art, culture, politics, fashion creativity and life in general – including his androgynous nature, were all inspired in the main by the Bow.
But I realize this, of course, only in hindsight. David never meant anything to me, I had no cultural references to him. I never thought of him as an icon or followed his acting, singing or performance art career or played his music. The only song I know of his, is the more mainstream “Let’s dance”, simply because that’s the one song my ex and I enjoyed dancing to together. Tellingly, Bowie confessed to the Interview Magazine in 1995 that he had come to loath the success of this track in particular “I went mainstream in a major way with the song “Let’s Dance.” I pandered to that in my next few albums, and what I found I had done was put a box around myself. It was very hard for people to see me as anything other than the person in the suit who did “Let’s Dance,” and it was driving me mad—because it took all my passion for experimenting away. [David Bowie, Double Trouble!!, September 1995]”. Ironically I ended up feeling the same way about our relationship, too, toward the end, essentially boxed in.
So when stories and news of David Bowie started flooding my timeline, I thought of him and how he must be feeling. I thought of how we loved to dance together and how he was quite possibly the only person who could dance with me. I thought of our life together, the moments that we shared, which at the time felt as if they were going to last forever but now seem like a flicker of light in an attic full of memories. I danced once again in my mind with him enjoying his raspy laughter and seemingly endless energy and enthusiasm for life. In some far-fetched way, I grieved. I cared about David Bowie’s death only because I once loved someone who adored him. There were times, private moments when he would sing along with David Bowie with such passion I wished he could love me like that too. Or that I understood the sheer significance DB in his life. Nevertheless we shared a story together dancing to David Bowie and those were always, happy times.
It is incredible to observe how ingrained David Bowie’s lifestyle had become in so many people’s lives, from multiple generations and how his influence in their world left no stone un-turned in art, fashion, photography, music, films etc. He was in fact, a movement, a revolution continuously evolving and re-inventing itself in one single human body. I did not know when I first met my ex, that I was in actual fact meeting them as a variation of DB, and not really as they truly are themselves, because who are we if we’re not copies of each other to some extent? Even Bowies’ own style was “inspired” or copied from a colourful neighbour he once saw walking down the street when he was younger.
A sobering conversation about politics with my father brought on a rather insightful conversation about how culture is transferred, primarily though language and of course through music. My father relayed to us a story of his life in a remote part of Mozambique where he had to learn to speak Portuguese pretty fast in order for him to do his work efficiently. That’s when, he said, he saw the power of language, and how it can open doors and break down even the toughest walls. To clarify his point he used a long forgotten South African example of someone who was able to dismantle certain prejudices through music in a very tangible way. And this of course was not a minor achievement in Apartheid South Africa where in some areas it was illegal to speak African languages.
For many years many black South Africans despised Shangaan speaking people. They referred to them as MakwereKwere, foreigners, people who did not belong. In fact during the 60s, 70, and 80s comparing someone to a Shangaan was considered the ultimate insult among black South Africans living in Johannesburg Townships in particular. Back then being a Shangaan was frowned upon, it was the lowest you could be as a human being. This discrimination and hate stemmed, according to some social anecdotes, from the Shangaan people’s inability to adjust to township life. The men never brought their wives to live with them in the city, they never bought any furniture, anything of value or comfort such a bed or a humble bench to sit on because they considered their stay in the city of gold to be temporary. They always spoke of returning home. The Zulu’s, Sotho’s Xhosa’s and others who had already acclimatized to township life could not understand the Shangaan people and their threadbare, nomad-like way of life, let alone their language. They were for the most part considered to be dirty people or people who didn’t care for personal hygiene. With time Shangaan people began to assimilate to township life, brought their wives to live with them, they soon started families and their children attended local schools just like everyone else, but the stigma remained.
Until Paul Ndlovu, of course, known as the Shangaan Disco King came to the scene with a song that single-handedly changed all if not most of the negative perceptions people held against Shangaan people and made the Shangaan way of life enviable to most. His most important contribution however, was not his dress sense which was quite dapper, nor his dance moves which everyone tried to emulate, nor in fact the traditional (tutu/motsheka) dresses worn by his back-up female singers. His most important contribution was singing in his language, Shangaan, which made people want to learn more about the language and its people. Suddenly the hit song “hita famba moyeni Katanga” changed people’s perceptions of Shangaan people. Shangaan people were no longer dirty and despicable, they were people who travelled to Giyane or their hometowns in planes, something which was unheard of for most black people at the time. Paul Ndlovu became a household name and his song became the soundtrack of people’s birthday parties, stockvels, wedding celebrations or Shebeen get-togethers’. Understanding the Shangaan language became a plus, a positive addition to the township lexicon. But as quickly as he rose to fame his light dimmed just as fast. He was killed in a car accident but rumours surrounding his life and death sold newspapers and magazines for month’s even years after he was buried.
Today one cannot find a more prouder nation than the Shangaan and with them the Venda and Tsonga people who take pride in speaking their languages without demeaning other people. They have also since found their own music awards for musicians who promote their culture through language. Of course Shangaan people were not aliens who landed from far away planets as many believed. They are in fact descendents of the Zulu nation and are named after Soshagana, a Zulu Warrior, who was sent by the Zulu King, Shaka to conquer the Tsonga people in area of present-day Mozambique. Soshangana found a fertile place inhabited by scattered communities of peace-loving people, and decided to make it his home rather than return to Shaka.
With all this in mind I started to imagine what South African airwaves would sound like today, had the late-former-President Nelson Mandela elected to speak in his mother tongue exclusively during public speeches as a rule upon his release from prison in 1990 and throughout his tenure as President. And this not because he could not speak English or Afrikaans, but because that would have sent a signal to all black people in South ( Africa) including our former oppressors and colonizers that our languages matter – to us the people who speak them, that our culture, our way of life and ways of thinking are just as valid. Other people would have been forced to learn our languages in the same way we were forced in the past to learn theirs. We would not be insulted for failing to pronounce English words. Engela Merkel does not address Germany or the world in English, neither does Francois Holland, the Chinese president, or any number of statesmen who lead non-English speaking countries and that’s not because they can’t understand English. It’s because they understand the power of language as a primary tool to transfer culture and to change people’s way of thinking and points of reference. They know who they are speaking to.
Sadly there’s nothing online featuring interviews with Paul Ndlovu although I’m sure there are many in the analogue archives of the SABC, Bona and Drum magazine including the Sowetan newspaper. And so, with respect to the dearly departed, perhaps David Bowie should have the last word. “You know you can’t put down anybody. You can just try to understand. The emphasis shouldn’t be on revolution, it should be on communication.”[David Bowie Tells All and More to Patrick Salvo, March 1973].