Nelson Mandela passed away yesterday at the age of 95. (As The Onion so amusingly and poignantly put it: "Nelson Mandela Becomes First Politician To Be Missed.") He was a South African revolutionary who spent decades behind bars. He was finally freed in 1990, in part due to international attention to his plight. He brought an end to apartheid when he became South Africa's first black president in 1994, only three years after being released from prison.
In the 1980s, awareness of apartheid outside South Africa was rising, and the music world was responsible for much of the attention it received outside of Africa. Peter Gabriel's "Biko" became an anthem of the Free South Africa movement. Shortly after the super-group records "We Are the World" and "Do They Know It's Christmas?" turned the worlds eyes to starvation on the continent, Steve Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band joined with record producer Arthur Baker (Afrika Bambaataa, New Order), gathered a collection of superstars called Artists United Against Apartheid, and released a record called Sun City in 1985. Artists like Paul Simon collaborated with South African musicians. Stevie Wonder release "It's Wrong." The Specials released (personal favorite), "Nelson Mandela."
But yesterday, when I heard news of Mandela's passing, the first song that jumped to mind was by a South African trumpet player named Hugh Masekela. And although Masekela had a hit song of his own that explicitly called for Mandela's release—1987's "Bring Him Back Home (Mandela)"—that wasn't the song that first popped into my head, either.
The song's exuberant, sunny optimism helps it to feel like a theme song for the moment, an appropriate celebration of a figure whose long life had an undeniably positive impact on world events.
Instead, I thought of Masekela's club hit "Don't Go Lose It Baby," from his 1984 album Techno-Bush. (Although most versions around the web are the longer, superior, 7:35-long "Stretch Mix," targeted at dancefloors.) The record is closely identified with legendary DJ Larry Levan, who used to spin it at the Paradise Garage in the 1980s. (It's included on a compilation of Levan standards called Garage Classics Vol. 2., and Masekela ended up performing the song at the Garage in the middle of the decade.)
"Don't Go Lose It Baby" takes a stop-start electro bassline—which doesn't sound too far from what Jam & Lewis were producing for artists like Thelma Houston, Janet Jackson, and the SOS Band around that time, just at a faster tempo—and melds it with Masekela's catchy brass melody, a hooky sing-song chorus, and even a semi-ridiculous now-very-dated-sounding rap verse. If I were to hazard a guess as to why the song appealed to Levan and other DJs in the mid '80s, I'd say it was because it understood a core value of dance music that came from disco: crafting a groove so undeniable that repetition became a strength. It rewarded the dancer, honing in on a particular feeling and drawing it out.
Lyricswise, "Don't Go Lose It Baby," with its awkwardly worded title (an editor: "How about just calling it 'Win, Baby'?") is strangely negative. It is a finger-wag intended to inspire. I don't know if that's a lost-in-translation moment, or if in South Africa, it's normal to inspire by telling someone what not to do. (Relentless positivity is, maybe, a very American thing.) But the song's exuberant, sunny optimism made it feel like a theme song for the moment, an appropriate celebration of a figure whose long life had an undeniably positive impact on world events.
But the reason it felt so apropos is deeper than that.
American appreciation of "world music" is often about exoticism—fascination with stereotypes of "the other," etc. But it would be odd to imagine that this is what people would find intriguing about Masekela's music, particularly in this instance, where his of-the-moment production and English language lyrics suggest more of a modern, international-soup of influences.
If anything, the reason I thought immediately of "Don't Go Lose It Baby" upon hearing of Mandela's passing was because of an exoticism of the past. I was only a young child in the 1980s and early 1990s, but it was an era of massive changes in world history: apartheid was crumbling, the Soviet Union breaking apart. It even had an impact on TV, which is where you actually got an idea of what was really going on in the world: at the '92 Olympics, you saw the "Unified Team," a conglomeration of newly-independent states of the former U.S.S.R.
And these changes impacted my perception of the era's aesthetics: an open, worldly, technologically-oriented nervous optimism. These were the days of lasers in the jungle, of the boy in the bubble. It was the sites and sounds of the new 24-hour-news cycle, the sense that the world was changing, moving so fast. It was a sense that information was instantaneous, that the Cold War was over, that history was speeding up. By 1994, apartheid had been toppled, and South Africa had a new president.