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Music History #10: "Biko"

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“Biko”
Written and performed by Peter Gabriel
(1980)


The Music

As lead singer of Genesis, Peter Gabriel was never an overtly political songwriter. If he touched on it at all, it was usually couched in fanciful language and scenarios. But on his third solo record, he delivered an impassioned tribute to the fallen anti-apartheid leader Stephen Biko.

Gabriel did his research, reading three biographies as well as a book of Biko’s own writings. Even so, he said he felt more like a reporter than an insider. “It’s a white, middle-class, ex-public schoolboy, domesticated, English person observing his own reactions from afar,” he said. “It seemed impossible to me that the South Africans had let him be killed when there had been so much international publicity about his imprisonment. He was very intelligent, well reasoned and not full of hate. His writings seemed very solid in a way that polarized politics often doesn't."

“Biko” reached #38 on the UK charts, and for years was a powerful sing-a-long closer to Gabriel’s live set. The song has been covered by Joan Baez, Simple Minds, and Paul Simon.

The History

Wikimedia Commons

On September 12, 1977, Stephen Biko, an influential leader in South Africa’s “Black Consciousness” movement, died while in police detention. He was 30 years old.

Biko was born in South Africa in 1946, two years before apartheid—enforced racial segregation—was made an official policy of his native country. While studying medicine in college, Biko became active in the anti-apartheid movement. In 1968, he set up the South African Students’ Organization and was elected its first president the year after. By 1972, Biko’s full-time activism got him expelled from medical school, and brought him under scrutiny by the government. They even tried to impose a kind of restraining order on him, preventing him from leaving his hometown. But Biko’s fervor spread, as he set up clinics and community groups to help political prisoners and to assist black students.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr. before him, he was charismatic and eloquent, inspiring his followers to work for peaceful change. And like King, he made a lot of enemies.

When Biko was taken into custody in August 1977, it was the latest in a string of arrests. He was never convicted of a crime, nor accused of inciting violence, but the South African government considered him a growing threat to their regime.

The government’s official line on the cause of Biko’s death was that he starved himself while in prison. But an autopsy revealed that he had been tortured and beaten, and died from massive head injuries. Donald Woods, a journalist and close friend of Biko’s, photographed the body in the morgue and exposed the truth of the police brutality.

There was a trial, but the South African Attorney General said that he would not prosecute any of the officers involved with the arrest. Biko’s injuries were explained away as the self-inflicted wounds of a suicide attempt. Ultimately, the judge dismissed the murder charge because there were no witnesses. After the trial, the police claimed that they had documents proving that he was a terrorist who had been planning sabotage, murder, and riots.

Biko’s death raised world consciousness of the apartheid issue, and laid the foundation for a long, slow march toward the democratic elections and integration that finally took root in South Africa in the early 1990s. In 1987, Stephen Biko’s story was brought to the screen in Cry Freedom, starring Denzel Washington.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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