It’s a brave artist who seeks to take as their inspiration one of the most complex and controversial aspects of recent international history, but this is what Cheri MacNeil (aka DEAR READER) has chosen to do with her third album, Rivonia.
As a child, South African born Cheri MacNeil spent 11 years studying at a small primary school in the north of Johannesburg, not far from what was once an isolated farm called Lilliesleaf. Growing up, she knew nothing of the nearby settlement but it was within these grounds that, on July 11 1963, a dry-cleaning and flower van parked beside a thatched cottage and disgorged a squad of armed policemen. They’d received a tip off from a neighbour‘s son about unusual comings and goings, their suspicions further aroused by the fact that these involved both black and white individuals. It had taken them a while to locate the place: initial reports spoke of a place called Ivon and it was only after searching the area that they found an old, weather-beaten sign from which three letters were missing. It had once said ‘Rivonia’, the name of the suburb in which they stood.
That day, police arrested 19 members of the African National Congress, the underground organisation run by Nelson Mandela – who had already been imprisoned – which sought to overthrow the ruling apartheid government. It was a pivotal moment in South Africa’s history. Cheri MacNeil later learned that these events had taken place around the corner from the building where she had for so long been educated.
This is the story that gives the latest DEAR READER album its name. Rivonia is a moving and complex album that discusses issues surrounding the apartheid. The songs illustrate the personal implications it had on those that were unwillingly surrounded by the events. Rivonia highlights through the lyrics how people were directly affected by the segregation and slavery that happened.
Track two Took Them Away starts with a solemn piano piece and beautiful lyrics that build a narrative. It tells the story of a girl who is confused by everything that is happening around her, she can’t make sense of it all. She visits her friends house to find white and black men sitting together in a barn, “Nicholas invited me to visit at the farm/We were playing in the yard I saw them in the barn/White and black together sat/I just stood and stared”. She then has tea served to her at this family’s home by one of the men she saw in the barn, “David in his overalls came in to serve the tea/I had seem him in the barn something wasn’t right/As I told my father late that night.” You can assume that this family is anti-apartheid and people are using their barn to be able to fight against the segregation and be as one. The song tells the story of the apartheid through a little girl’s eyes which makes it an emotional and touching song.
27.04.1994 is a fantastic track that indicates how significant this day was in South African history. This was the day the first democratic election was held in South Africa where all races were allowed to vote. The simple music accompanied by the story telling lyrics make this song a must hear. There is nothing over complicated about the music in this song, it is the lyrics that make it what it is.
Man of the Book is quite different musically from the other songs, it has a much more folk feel to it. This song tells the story of the Great-grandfather of a baker who was a man of the book. The lyrics tell the listener that the Great-grandfather follows the apartheid rules believing God wants it all to happen but then he begins to feel guilt for his actions and decides he needs to save his soul. The narrator analyse’s his behaviour and believes he should have used his own morals and not those written in a religious text. Being good doesn’t come from following what a religion says, it comes from the heart, from gut instinct. The Great-grandfather tries to right his wrongs so when Mahatma shows up at his house needing somewhere to rest his head, he lets him in, “There was no room at the Inn for men with darker skin/Great-grandfather of a baker shared his bed with a stranger/As the Lord has instructed/He was a man of the…” He believes this is actually what God would have wanted, not the segregation.
Victory is the last track on the album and it ends Rivonia spectacularly. This is an acapella song which uses a choir to create a haunting yet strong sound. The song speaks of two armies (presumably black and white) going into battle against each other where they believe they will either win or die trying to change things, “You pray to your God and I’ll pray to mine/And we’ll see whose God is listening this time…Saddle up the horses/Give us the victory/Give us the victory/Give us the victory/Saddle up the horses/Give us the victory/And if he does not we will join him…”
Rivonia is the first album this year that has made me stop and think. The lyrics are beautiful, passionate and thought-provoking. There is real meaning behind every song which pulls at the heart strings. The album covers a devastating time in history. This is a huge task to undertake and get right. MacNeil has managed to produce an album that highlights just how unfair and disgusting the apartheid was. She doesn’t simplify it or dramatise it in anyway, she has taken what’s there in history and has turned it into a wonderful form of art. This is the best album of the year so far.
Rivonia is released on April 8 2013 through City Slang.