By Barrie Lake
Can South Africa’s turbulent history be explored by a pop record? Dear Reader, the solo project of South African-born Cherilyn MacNeil, has attempted to answer that question with their fourth album, Rivonia.
MacNeil grew up in South Africa but has been living in Germany for several years now. She found she was unable to adequately answer her German friends when they asked her about South Africa’s history. This lead her to do some research which in turn inspired her to create Rivonia.
Most of Rivonia was recorded in MacNeil’s apartment in Berlin and it is the first album MacNeil has produced herself. The lack of a studio and a producer forced her to strip down songs to their basic elements: vocals, piano and percussion, with a few other instruments making appearances here and there. It is a marked departure from Dear Reader’s previous album, the lavishly produced Idealistic Animals.
Rivonia gets its name from the infamous Rivonia Trial in which members of the African National Congress were charged with committing acts of sabotage against the government. MacNeil went to primary school near the farm where members of the ANC used to conduct secret meetings and where the Rivonia Trial defendants were captured during a raid. However, she only discovered what happened at the farm in her twenties.
In Took Them Away, the second track on the album, she sings about the farm raid and her ignorance of it: “How could I know?”. The rhythm is pulsating; the background vocals sound like tribal calls. The song is like a ghost story acted out around a campfire: there is a sense of adrenaline but also a feeling of detachment from the story. At the end of the song two trumpets blast out an unsteady melody which descends into a yawn, an expression of boredom and indifference.
MacNeil has a pure, sweet voice which at times does not fully convey the anguish of her lyrics. For instance in Down Under, Mining when she sings “Mother, my brother is dead in the gutter”, her syrupy vocals do not carry enough emotional weight. This is repaired when a choir of voices enters to deliver a beautiful, mournful performance.
The liberal use of choral vocals is one of the reasons I have been a fan of Dear Reader since their second album, Replace Why With Funny, in which several songs featured the Drakensberg Boys Choir. Victory, the album’s final song, is a purely choral performance. There is no instrumentation and MacNeil’s vocals are barely distinguishable from the sea of other voices. It is a short but mighty song which is quite discordant with the rest of the album, both because of its purely choral delivery as well as its subject matter. Victory seems to be less about South Africa and more about religious wars: “You pray to your god and we’ll pray to ours, and we’ll see whose god has battle-winning power.”
My favourite track on the album is the goosebump-inducing Good Hope because it encapsulates the best of Dear Reader. MacNeil’s songwriting ability is at the forefront as she sings alone while playing a piano, retelling the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope by European settlers. What makes the song so brilliant is its uncanny grasp of mood. When the settlers climb up Table Mountain and survey the land below, a cello and backing vocals join MacNeil to proclaim, “You can do anything, boy!” In that line Dear Reader masterfully relays a sense of awe and opportunity with a foreboding, sinister undertone.
So yes, a pop record can explore South Africa’s history. It is by no means an exhaustive or accurate history; you can visit a library if you want that. It is however a hauntingly beautiful piece of work, and proof that MacNeil is a very capable artist and producer. Fans of Dear Reader may find this album a bit too literal in theme or lacking in production value, but I don’t count myself among that number. Like Dear Reader’s previous albums Rivonia has earned its place in my music collection and in my heart.
The whole album is freely and legally available to be streamed via Rolling Stone.
A deluxe edition with a bonus song is available on iTunes.