The Robben Island Singers are a group of three ex-political prisoners from South Africa. They tell stories from life in the townships, joining the armed struggle to free their country, and their time in prison on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was serving a life sentence. One of the things that sustained them in prison was singing. The songs they sang, mostly traditional folk songs, took on new meanings through the context of the struggle. This album includes some of those stories and songs.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s Grant Shezi, Muntu Nxumalo and Thembinkosi Sithole were incarcerated for taking up arms to end Apartheid. They served 10, 13 and 9 years in prison on Robben Island, the infamous apartheid era prison. Like thousands of young men and women, they joined Umkhonto weSizwe, or MK, the armed wing of the African National Congress - a banned organization under apartheid (now the governing party of South Africa). Individually each man was captured, chained, tortured, tried for treason and terrorism and sent in the bottom of a ship to an island prison.
They would soon meet older prisoners who taught them how to survive and how to sing the history of their struggle. Prisoners sang traditional folk, freedom and worker songs in various African languages and in English, sometimes just adding new phrase or two to a vintage song to give it a new meaning. Entire sections of the prison, or just a few prisoners might launch into one of these simple and stirring acapella phrases in celebration of good news, or in resistance to prison authorities, or simply to express the desperate need for a morale boost during a long struggle against oppression, racism, loneliness. Frequently prisoners would sing a familiar melody and improvise new lyrics to challenge prison authorities. In this album, you will hear these stories and songs. It is a history of struggle that will surprise you for it speaks in rich harmonies across all the boundaries that divide by race, poverty and privilege.
Ironically, these three singers had never performed together outside of the prison until a documentary filmmaker, Jeff Spitz, brought them halfway across the world to the United States. Now through collaboration with Groundswell Educational films, they have been invited to sing at universities, high schools, churches and cultural institutions.
The Robben Island Singers are now taking their unique, unscripted musical performances into American communities, including disadvantaged, violence-stricken neighborhoods. Because of their own life experiences, their bravery and sacrifice for freedom, and their creative, wise insights into forgiveness, The Robben Island Singers give voice to youth and inspire audiences of all ages.
The story of the Robben Island Singers will soon be released in a feature documentary film.
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