Eyvonne Williams


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Prelude to Mandela


Prelude to Mandela

My journey to meet Nelson Mandela was first kindled unknowingly when I met Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu.  Both were recording artists exiled from their South African home and living in Pasadena.  They hired me as one of a few studio singers to perform on their new album to be released in Africa and Europe.  That was the first amazing musical journey across the ocean to  Africa.  Caiphus led the procession in perfect rhythm.  We learned each song phonetically and he demonstrated each syllable with body language that danced, physicalizing the emotional concept for the song.   Captured by the sight, sound, and rhythm, we transcended time and distance merging our voices into the tempo and feel the music demanded; so strange yet so familiar.  It was like rediscovering the lost memory of a soulful home.  We captured a glimpse of this memory and performed each song like native Africans.  However, I recognized a need to embark upon another journey that would not only memorialize this glimpse, but would change my life forever.  It would consummate with a handshake.

For years I had prayed for the destruction of apartheid, the release of polictical prisoners, and the establishment of a government for black South Africans that would rule with equality and dignity.  In my hotel room in Sydney, Australia (Bee Gees 1989 concert tour) I felt a surge in the atmosphere like a blast that was audible only to my senses. This shift was both global and personal.  I turned on the television to a stunning news story of the Berlin Wall being dismantled.  With wide-eye astonishment I watched people breaking down the wall right in the place where I stood posing for pictures with the Bee Gees band only seven days prior.

Before my eyes and ears could adjust, another stunning  news story immediately followed... to the tune, ‘Post traumatic stress causes murder and suicide among white policemen and white members of the South African Army …’  It was reported by a member of the Democratic Coalition of South Africa that one man, after shooting his wife and children, turned the gun upon himself.  He survived long enough to confess to authoritiers muttering the reason for his actions, “Because of those eyes, those eyes.”

Those eyes of innocent men, women, and children haunted these men and penetrated their conscience into the depths of what was left of their humanity.  Having to follow orders that pronounced the verdict of death and giving no value or worth to those they killed, declared the worthlessness of their own lives.  Statistics of these familicides grew by leaps and bounds among the Afrikaner. These statistics testified that the many years of perpetrating such violence became the receipe for self-destruction.

Saddened by this horrific news I resolved to pray not only against the evil, but to to pray for the people entrenched within it and possessed by it; not only to break down the strongholds of power, but to build up all the people for healing.  The entire country of South African blacks, colors, and whites needed our intercessary prayers.  Prosaic words burst from my spirit…

“Do spirits cry?  On the bridge of signs, those eyes, those eyes haunting for surrender, Still cries the tears called remember, Little boys, little girls, held in the arms of an uncaring world, Thrown by the wayside, tossed away but cannot be hidden." © 1989


            Then a song lyric sprung forth…

"Home by eight to rest from my labor, the day is late, my army work is done; Use my gun or be titled a traitor, so I live to kill another mother’s son.  Those Eyes, reaching out and haunting me, Those Eyes, constantly reminding me, Those Eyes, tunneling right through my door, Life’s a gift I can’t ignore... those eyes.

Fall asleep, escape in the darkness, While I keep the innocent laying low, But they cry, burning holes in my conscience, Humanity dies and the legacy becomes... those eyes, Reaching out and haunting me, Those Eyes, constantly reminding me, Those Eyes, tunneling right through my door, Life’s a gift I can’t ignore... those eyes.  Humanity lives and dies in those eyes." © 1989

After the song poured out of me, I sat quietly in my room thinking about Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu still in exile.  Caiphus had requested that I write a song for Letta and drilled the idea of being transplanted to South Africa to inspire the music & lyrics.  He did not lose patience with me for he understood the perceptions of African Americans influenced by our own recent history.  My first attempt to write for Caiphus spawned a polite response to an embarassing superficial tune.  I had not yet understood the struggle.  Subsequent songs I submitted reflected some ethos toward their daily brutal reality but no prize.   There was some strength of joy in the msuic, but very little depth.  How could a modern post civil rights woman capture the nuances of South African life in an emotion of words and melody?  Sure, being a descendent of slaves gave me genetic memory, but my blood was thin from time, distance, and mixtures of all those who invaded my ancestor’s bed.  Caiphus made  it clear that I needed to dig deeper, open myself  to the heart of the people, and become vulnerable to their pain.  Though my skin is shrouded in color, I needed to create a musical saga that resonated from inside the skin of my South African brothers and sisters.

I reminisced back to Letta’s recording session when Caiphus would insist, “You have to follow me, stop thinking about how you are singing, and stop counting the meter, you’re trying too hard.  Just let the rhythms take you there, relax and flow in the center of the beat, don’t push it... relax.”  Then he would proceed to infuse the nuances of rhythm and power into our thoughts as he sung with precision the vibe he wanted us to capture.  His shoulders would hutch up and down and head would bob as he sung in a nasal but soulful voice.  Then I heard the call of the river, the laughter in the village, children clapping their hands as they sauntered in and out of the drummers’ rhythm.  I saw the bounce and flow of the women as their hips rolled back and forth under colorful prints.  Down the village streets with baskets of goods proudly balanced on their heads, they were like synchronized dancers without partners.

His eyes twinkled with a YES when we fell in sync with his direction. I felt the pulse in the pit of my stomach taking me on a ride.  “Whoa!! That is sooo right in the pocket,” the singers exclaimed. “Oh yeah, we got it now.” Of course he knew we would get it, it was in our memory and we were professionals.  But I was amazed at actually being on the other side of the ocean immersed in the music while performing it.   Yes, we had made it there and back again.  At the end of the recording session when we listened to what we had created in that transcendent space, it was hard to believe, very much like a dream. The relocation was complete, and so was the return.  What we heard was amazing.

“The people of South Africa need to know that our brothers and sisters in America can meet us where we live, truly understand and empathize with us,” he said to me.  “We are the same you and I.  And we need you to see from our eyes.  You can do this as an artist, you can write this song for me.”   Our connection to life is the same, the government and the governed were both chained, imprisoned by primitive laws of the untamed.   And thus I wrote the song So Primitive

"They don't go home 'til the coast is clear, never safe over here in these tin-can towns; They hide and seek in a game with fear, as armies crush their homes to the ground.

Oh-Oh-Oh-- So pri-mi-tive is the tower of power in South Africa; Oh-Oh-Oh-- Gotta break apartheid to live, for the freedom of the people in South Africa.

Families have died both black and white, the rule of a few creates a new holocaust; Locked in, locked out, they’re all jailed from life, Pretoria’s exiles can’t be lost.

We’ve got to discover… the shortest route to freedom for the innocent; We’ve got to recover… true dignity from the powers that reign.

We can’t be free ‘til our brothers are free, he and I are flesh and blood, one the same; All the men who are leaders and all the people who follow, fall prey to the laws of the untamed.

Oh-Oh-Oh-- So primitive, Is the nation of prisoners in South Africa; Oh-Oh-Oh-- Gotta find a way to forgive, for the healing of the people in South Africa."  ©1990

Caiphus was truly pleased with the final product and later reported to me after the album was released that it stood as an anthem, beloved by many South Africans who thought I was a native sister of their land.  The visual image of the Berlin wall breaking down was the picture I held in my mind as I continued to pray for, protest about, and contribute to the liberation of South Africa, until the day I met Nelson Mandela face to face.

In 1990 at a celebrity dinner honoring him after his release from prison, I stood on a platform with an ensemble of professional singers to perform the African National Anthem.  I looked over the room of dignitaries and wondered if my songs and prayers actually effected the outcome of this grand moment in history.  I thought ‘what possible difference could my sole tiny voice, on the other side of the planet have made on changing the world.’ Though proud and honored to be a part of the celebration, this thought continued to linger over me.  At the end of the song we remained on the platform as Nelson Mandela approached the podium.  He smiled at us then turned to the audience and spoke briefly. 

After a few moving comments he slowly turned around and walked toward the front row of the ensemble where I was situated to his left.  He moved directly toward me, stopped in front of me, and extended his hand.  I lifted mine and clasped his.  In this emotionally charged moment he looked deeply into my eyes as he shook my hand and said emphatically, “Thank you, thank you very much.”  Now I thought he would also shake hands with those around me as a general gesture of courtesy, but he did not.  To my surprise he turned and walked quickly off the platform to his seat.  I believe he was thanking all of us for our musical contribution, but I also understood that he was the instrument of God whispering something quite personal yet unversal to me.  The warmth of Mandela’s touch traveled up my arm to my heart where I received this message, ‘Nothing and no one is insignificant.  All supplications are heard and they make a big difference, no matter how small or distant.’

Sanctions, protests, politics, songs, and prayers worked together to form a formidable opposition against evil, but I learned that nothing held greater power than the transcendent songs, distant prayers, and seemingly small acts of kindness resonating from the human spirit. 

Rest in peace Madiba, you were one of a kind.  Your humility and dignity will be missed. 

November 30, 2013

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