Reviews, Stories

‘Sigh, The Beloved Country’: A Lesson in Music and Culture from Bongani Madondo

Bongani Madondo Sabelo Mkhabela Sigh, The Beloved Country
Image by Sabelo Mkhabela

“Cape Town is beautiful. Look at all these people,” says author and critic Bongani Madondo to chuckles from the audience at the Book Lounge in Cape Town, which consists of scholars, journalists, students and lovers of the written word. “It’s sad that outside of this structure everyone has to go back to their own cultures. Cape Town is as fucked as it’s beautiful. It’s quite sad.” Awkward silence.

Madondo is as humorous as he is a skilled writer. Another thing he is, is opinionated. The audience goes silent, marking the beginning of his book reading and conversation with another talented writer, Bongani Kona, whose short story At Your Requiem has been shortlisted for The Caine Prize of African Writing 2016. The host had made fun of the two being namesakes at the start of the event. During the conversation, Madondo dips into various subjects – race, the state of journalism in South Africa, Fees Must Fall. He goes on a tangent at times, and then asks Kona, “What was the question again?”

In the past few years, South Africa has realised that what was being lamented in the Alan Paton classic Cry, The Beloved Country isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Racism is still rife, white people still own the land, black people are still poor, and our liberators have become our oppressors. But ukukhala akusizi, so we sigh as we read one newspaper headline after another about atrocities of our “young democracy”.

It’s sighs of defeat, disgust, anger, and flabbergast. And, in his latest book Sigh, The Beloved Country, Madondo traces his sigh-worthy moments, thoughts and observations in a series of essays written in the customary lyricism that one has grown to expect from the man’s work. He shares his thoughts on race, class, culture, religion and politics through pieces about music, places and people.

Bongani Madondo at the launch of Sigh, The Beloved Country, image by Sabelo Mkhabela

Bongani Madondo at the launch of Sigh, The Beloved Country, image by Sabelo Mkhabela

Spirituality and belief

One theme that’s prevalent in Madondo’s book is religion. Or is it spirituality? Is it belief? “Faith and belief are in me in a very, very deep way,” he says, after Kona asks him about the theme. “[Music journalist and ex-editor of Rolling Stone South Africa] Miles Keylock said, ‘You write about mysticism, like Bob Dylan’s music.’ I call it magic. Faith. It has got nothing to do with being Muslim or Christian or Zen or Krishna. It’s about opening yourself, allowing the possibility of a high power attached to you. And higher power might be your friend, or someone else, or something you read… anything, something that you truly believe. I’m a believer, that’s what I am, I’m a serious believer. But I’m very, very conflicted, it eats me up 24/7.”

Madondo grew up in Hammanskraal, a small town in the Gauteng province, in a home which had a church in the yard. He was Christian by default. However, he questions the faith. In Sigh, The Beloved Country, he questions how God works. In a piece about Marikana (Who Shot Ya? Our Shame… Their Platinum), he delves into the complex intersection of “black magic” and God – how the miners had chosen the former because God had somehow abandoned them. “… these workers,” he writes, “viewed the white man (including black white men like us in the media) and his belief, the white man and his money, the white man and his viciousness, the white man and his religion, with great suspicion. They looked at the white man and his God – the God who stands on the sidewalk and never intervenes when they suffer humiliation, peanut pay packets, violence, no services, no infrastructure – with disgust. And they started to imagine they could counter the ‘ways’ of the white man. ”.

He gives insight to Kona and the audience on his stance. “If you grew up [as a Christian],” he says, “you’re not aware that it’s oppressive, when you are under the jackhammer of religion and Jesus and Genesis. But later you want to escape, but you can’t truly escape it because it’s in you. So now I’m an atheist – or something like that. A terrible person. I drink. I come to the coffee shop, instead of having coffee, I’m having my Hansa.”

Brenda Fassie and Busi Mhlongo

Sigh, The Beloved Country follows Madondo’s I’m Not Your Weekend Special – a collection of personal essays on Brenda Fassie edited by him. The intentionally controverisal bubblegum pop singer has been one of Madondo’s favourite subjects. From his three-part series on the pop idol on the Sunday Times (which made it into his first book Hot Types: Icons, Artists, and God-Figurines), to I’m Not Your Weekend Special. In Sigh, The Beloved Country, Brenda surfaces yet again. Kona asks him about this recurring character.

“Brenda partly made me famous,” he says in his subtly hoarse alto, to chuckles in the room. “I walk around and someone is like, ‘That’s the guy who wrote the Brenda book.’ I’ve been her chronicler, biographer, friend and a whole lot of things.” He pages through his copy, murmuring, “I’m looking for the Brenda chapter,” and after, gives up unsuccessful. It’s probably the Hansa. “I can’t find it. Anyway I’ve memorised it.”

The chapter, bluntly titled So Did You, Like, Bang Brenda?, is the last piece he will ever write on Brenda, and it answers “every question,” he says. “People always ask me, ‘You were so close, so did you bang her?’ No, I didn’t bang Brenda.”

He continues to add that he has written more about the late Busi Mhlongo than Brenda, but most of us don’t notice. “But Busi Mhlongo means so much to me in ways that Brenda could never imagine. I feel like I must do something about her. But maybe nobody cares about Busi – people like pop, people like accessible shit.” Sitting there, I also feel guilty. I’ve only read two of his pieces on the diviner (you probably call her a singer): one in Hot Type, and another in Shook magazine.

Bongani Madondo at the launch of Sigh, The Beloved Country, image by Sabelo Mkhabela

Bongani Madondo at the launch of Sigh, The Beloved Country, image by Sabelo Mkhabela

A great read

Sigh, The Beloved Country is a thick read, but be thankful. You won’t put it down; at least I can’t. I recognise some pieces from the short-lived Rolling Stone South Africa magazine. The pieces on Zahara, HHP and Miriam Makeba were cover stories.

What makes Madondo’s writing special to me is that, while most writers will rely on their subject’s quotes, he will rely on their actions, performance and aura to pen a colourful narrative piece that will ensure you look at the subject different by the end. He writes about his subjects. After reading Have You Seen Yvonne Lately?, I had to scour YouTube and Deezer to listen to her music again, and I picked up bits I had missed in my passive listening of the Queen of Africa Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s songs. It’s the way he describes his subjects – both their strengths and weaknesses. And his imagery and wordplay: the ease in which he uses them to great effects, proves that when you’ve been doing something for years, it becomes second nature.

Putting the book together, he had to travel the country, engage in conversations with strangers, sleep on couches – and all that jazz. He wrote all but one essay on the book. To the Mountain (Looking for Jimmy Baldwin) is a guest essay by Lewis Nkosi, who Madondo looks up to, and about whom he has all sorts of great things to say.

The end result is the opposite of the pain it took to put together. It’s a pristine body of work that straddles diverse subjects and themes from Jub Jub to Miriam Makeba, Kanye West to Julius Malema and more.

Books that dissect contemporary culture in South Africa are few and far between. It’s rare to read a 10-page essay on HHP that’s just about him as an artist. Madondo doesn’t just list facts, he tells a story. He will take you with him to the Free State aboard Jabba’s tour bus, and take you to the club the rapper will be performing in. He will put you inside the minds of the Marikana miners, take you on a flight with Zahara, and make you feel how it was growing up in Hammanskraal.

Sigh, The Beloved Country is available in most good book stores and can be ordered online here.

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