Evangelizing in Swaziland

By Alex Gallafent | October 04, 2011 | Swaziland

Listen to many of the songs mentioned in this post on YouTube!

Over the years I’ve developed an unenviable reputation as a serial track-changer. That is, I put on a bit of music for a friend, eagerly await the looks of rapture I assume will surely come over them, and then—either when said looks don’t appear or I think of something better to play—I change the track. Rare is the song or tune allowed to run its course when I’m in this particular mode: perhaps I’m too excited at the prospect of sharing this stuff that I forget it’d often be better simply to let the things play and let my friends listen.

Now you know the sin. Here’s the miraculous redemption, the moment when my bad habit produced a pattern of aural ecstasy: I’m in a car with Sizwe, a Swazi youth organizer based in the administrative center, Manzini. We’re heading out of the city to hunt for interviews, in particular with young people living in countryside homesteads. I want to ask them about religion and HIV/AIDS; the desperate state of Swaziland’s economy; politics; and about their own bleak prospects for employment.

We head south to a nearby township, Matsapha. As usual, the radio’s heaving with Swazi gospel music. We arrive. I talk with an 18-year-old community activist. Good stuff. Back in the car. Now east to the Lubombo region near the border with Mozambique, past Vikisijula towards Siphofaneni.

And then Sizwe mentions in passing that sometimes he drives while listening to a colleague’s iPod. An iPod—I have an iPod, deep in my bag. (I’d taken it out with me for the first time today to keep my brain calm during the morning sardine ride to Manzini aboard a daredevil ‘combi’ van.)

As you, faithful listener PRI’s The World or visitor to theworld.org will know, the ‘what’s on your iPod?’ game is often something of a winner. We’ve had the likes of Angelique Kidjo sharing her favorite tunes on air. And now—blessed be the makers of iPod-to-car radio cables—it’s my turn.

So, before reaching into my bag I venture a question: Sizwe, you like jazz? Jazz is my first love. Sizwe says he’s a huge fan too but hasn’t heard much. And so we begin, kicking off with a selection a little out of left field. (But one that packs a punch. You gotta start well.)

Buddy Rich, Swingin’ New Big Band: ‘Readymix’, ‘Sister Sadie’, ‘Chicago’

That’s gotten the juices flowing. Sizwe is all over this stuff—picking up the riffs lightning fast, singin’ and swingin’ with the stabbing horns of the incomparably tight BR band.

I don’t yet know my audient (as British club owner Ronnie Scott used to say), so another unusual choice follows: John Patitucci, a bass player once reviled for his mid-80s fusion encounters with Chick Corea, but now regarded as one of the top players in jazz. (Incidentally, I learned to play drums playing along to all that fusion stuff; it’s a fluorescent indulgence I still can’t bring myself to forsake.) Patitucci’s turned out a number of great albums down the years, including one that plays off rhythms from Ivory Coast.

John Patitucci, Another World, ‘Ivory Coast, Part II’, ‘The Griot’, ‘Showtime’

I begin to play another track from the album but cut it off soon after. It’s not doing the business for us. Besides, I’ve just asked Sizwe if he’s ever heard of Stevie Wonder. And he hasn’t.

Stevie Wonder, various albums, ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours’, ‘Superstition’, ‘Living For The City’, ‘Golden Lady’, ‘Boogie on Reggae Woman’… (We break for an interview) …‘Sir Duke’, ‘As’, ‘Do I Do’, ‘I Wish’, ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing’

Sizwe is in raptures. He says it usually takes him a while to get to like a new style of music. But this Stevie Wonder?

‘The name is right’, he marvels.

For those of us who love Stevie Wonder and have loved his music for years and years, it’s almost impossible to imagine not knowing these and other songs. And to be there at the moment Stevie works his magic on Sizwe for the first time—it’s a huge thrill.

We’re driving north now, past Mpisi and Luve and Croydon (those romantic British imperials, eh?) on our way to an area called Nkambeni. The Swazi sky is breathing deeply, exhaling a heavy fog across our path.

Quincy Jones, ‘Summer In The City’ Alphonse Mouzon, ‘I’d Rather Be With You’ Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde, ‘Visions of Johanna’

‘This is much better than being in the office,’ whispers Sizwe.

Booker Little, Booker Little And Friend, ‘Forward Flight’ (This one gets cut early—it’s a masterpiece, but it doesn’t roll with the road in the way we’re looking for.) The Rolling Stones, ‘Brown Sugar’ (We break for an interview)

Paul Simon? Heard of him? OK then: Paul Simon, Graceland, ‘Graceland’, ‘You Can Call Me Al’, ‘Homel—I didn’t mean to play this one, but Sizwe’s already singing along. ‘Black Mambazo’, he smiles.

And so the day, which becomes the evening, which becomes the night, continues. We don’t listen in silence—there’s too much to talk about, too much I want to learn from Sizwe. But some music conquers you so completely there’s no space for anything else.

Miles? No? OK then: Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, ‘Freddie Freeloader’, ‘Blue In Green’, ‘All Blues’

The above is an incomplete list. We cycled through Janelle Monae, Stan Getz, The Band, Ray Charles, a touch of Bowie, an encounter with Ella, Mariza and more. And there was one track that, on reflection, fit peculiarly well in Swaziland, a country struggling to emerge from an ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic. Young people here are bombarded with messages from NGOs advocating abstinence.

And so: Jimi Hendrix, ‘Wait Til Tomorrow’ Jimi doesn’t want to wait, and neither do young Swazis in their early twenties. Go figure.

Alex Gallafent is a correspondent for PRI’s The World. He’s currently reporting from Swaziland on a Fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP). He is updating his Tumblr account throughout his travels.

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