We weep, Africa weeps
A white South African youth was drafted into the apartheid army in 1983. While serving, his musical instincts were triggered by the declaration of the State of Emergency. He penned what is today one of apartheid’s greatest protest songs – “Weeping”. Today, writes WONDER GUCHU, as long as oppression remains and as long as people are weeping in Africa, Dan Heymann’s “Weeping” remains relevant.
Army conscriptions are very common but it’s not every man who enjoys them.
During apartheid South Africa’s terrible years of mass brutalisation, one man – a white man – by the name of Dan Heymann was conscripted into the army.
Reluctantly, Heymann accepted because he had no choice but what he experienced during the stint as a South African Defence Force soldier inspired him to write lyrics of a song – he history of apartheid.
Born in Cape Town in 1960, Heymann had piano lessons at school when he was 14 years old where he also was fluent in reading music.
After high school, Heymann dabbled in engineering at the University of Cape Town and when he turned 21, he bought himself a Wurlitzer electric piano which he used to perform in restaurants to raise money during holidays.
Most of the improvisations he made had strong influence of traditional South African music.
By 1983, Heymann teamed up with former high school mates – Ian and Peter Cohen to put together a band. They were later joined by Robin Levetan and Tom Fox. They called their band, Bright Blue.
Just then, Heymann was conscripted into the army but did not stop composing songs and playing pianos he came across at the army camp.
One of his compositions at the time – Weeping – was borne out of the declaration of the State of Emergency.
Below are the poignant lyrics:
I knew a man who lived in fear/ It was huge, it was angry,/ It was drawing near./ Behind his house a secret place/ Was the shadow of the demon/ He could never face./ He built a wall of steel and flame/ And men with guns to keep it tame/ Then standing back he made it plain/ That the nightmare would never ever rise again/ But the fear and the fire and the guns remain. / It doesn't matter now it's over anyhow/ He tells the world that it's sleeping/ But as the night came round/ I heard its lonely sound/ It wasn't roaring, it was weeping/ It wasn't roaring, it was weeping./ And then one day the neighbours came/ They were curious to know about the smoke and flame/ They stood around outside the wall/ But of course there was nothing to be heard at all/ “My friends,” he said, “We've reached our goal/ The threat is under firm control/As long as peace and order reign/ I'll be damned if I can see a reason to explain/ Why the fear and the fire and the guns remain.
When Heymann finally left the army in 1986, he recorded the song in 1987 with the backing of Bright Blue comprising Ian and Peter, Fox, McCoy Mrubata, Basil Coetzee, Peter Barnett and Scorpion Madondo.
“Weeping” talks about how fear makes oppressors guilty and unstable. It shows the length and breadth the apartheid government went in trying to lie to its white population about false security as shown by security fences and high walls as well as heavily armed soldiers on patrol.
Although all that is meant to scare the public, it does not stop anything from a defiant people. While the apartheid regime assured the people that they were in control, the song asks: If there is peace and if there is control, why is there is fear, guns and fire?
“Weeping” that has since been re-done by American singer Josh Groban as well as the Soweto Choir was South Africa Rock Digest all-time favourite song. It even beat Johnny Clegg’s “Scatterlings of Africa” to the top slot. The song also held onto the top slot at Radio Five for two weeks.
Other individuals and groups that have renditions of “Weeping” are Qkumba Zoo and Afrikaans singer, Coenie de Villiers, who translated the lyrics into his language. There is also James Stewart’s rock version while the Kearsney College Choir gave the song choral feel with Jinny Sagorin putting in on cabaret.
Although Heymann has moved to New York City, his song still means a lot not only to South Africa where people still live in fear.
Just like then, “Weeping” is today a protest song because the weeping does end.