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EN years ago, a 20-year-old New Yorker named Lee Hirsch left for Johannesburg with $600 in his pocket and the phone numbers of two local contacts. Mr. Hirsch was on a mission: he had become obsessed with the popular music that had sprung up around the antiapartheid movement, and he was determined to make a film about it. If his undertaking seemed quixotic Mr. Hirsch was white, had never before been to South Africa and had no previous research to guide him well, he thought, so be it.
"The music just grabbed me," said Mr. Hirsch, now 30, in his Upper West Side apartment. "There was an urgency in the music that appealed to me, and I wanted to learn more, I wanted to hear more."
On Wednesday, Mr. Hirsch's film, "Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony," which won the Audience and Freedom of Expression Awards at the Sundance Film Festival last year, opens at the Film Forum in Manhattan, to be followed by a national release. Named for the Xhosa word for power, which became a rallying cry for blacks in white-controlled South Africa, this feature-length documentary is both a brief history of the antiapartheid struggle and an in-depth look at how its trajectory was reflected in song.
"South Africa has a history of traditional warfare, hunting and ceremonial music," said the jazz musician Hugh Masekela, whose 1986 song "Bring Back Nelson Mandela" is featured in the film. "There is nothing in South Africa that was never surrounded by music, and it was the most unifying element of our social life. So it was inevitable that music would take a part in the struggle against apartheid."
After the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, for example, when the South African police killed and wounded several hundred people protesting the internal passports blacks were required to carry, freedom songs became laments for dead comrades and imprisoned leaders. "What have we done?" went the lyric of a typical tune. "Our only sin is being black."
In the 1970's, when the African National Congress moved toward armed conflict, the music reflected this change in tactics, and songs broadcast over Radio Freedom, the voice of the congress, became popular throughout the land.
And during the 1980's, when the embattled white government declared a nationwide state of emergency, the energized and more militant antiapartheid movement adopted the toyi-toyi, which combined mass chanting with a jogging, knee-thrusting marching style. Employed in mass demonstrations with thousands of participants, the toyi was a fearsome sight.
"All the different ethnic groups had their different traditional steps, a way to mock and intimidate their enemy," said Mr. Masekela, speaking by telephone from his home in South Africa. "The toyi was a universal hybrid that came out of that. And it drove the Afrikaner cops crazy."
The South African-born pop star Dave Matthews, whose ATO Records is releasing the "Amandla!" soundtrack, said, "Song was a weapon to unify people, to communicate ideas and express dissatisfaction in the face of immovable obstacles and oppression." By telephone from a tour stop in Seattle, he added, "Writing about politics was illegal; political talk was illegal."
Many of the movement's songs appeared out of nowhere, without composers or antecedents. Others were adapted from traditional chants or church tunes like "Thina Sizwe" ("We're crying for our land, the land that has been taken by the Boers"), sung by the Sabe choir. Improvisation was a key to the music: Mr. Masekela calls it "spontaneous composition."
But not all of the music was impromptu. "Amandla!" opens in 1998, with the disinterment from a pauper's grave of Vuyisile Mini, a songwriter and activist hanged by the apartheid government in the 1960's.
Mini, who was later given a more dignified resting place, wrote a popular freedom song titled "Here Comes the Black Man, Mr. Verwoerd," which gently mocks Hendrik Verwoerd, the South African leader who was the architect of apartheid. For Mr. Masekela, Mini's tune is "the strongest and most moving" of all the freedom songs, because "it came out at the time that Dr. Verwoerd was at his most powerful, when he thought the apartheid system would bring down the African nation."
Mr. Masekela and his fellow musicians Miriam Makeba and Abdullah Ibrahim, who all spent years in exile from their homeland, are interviewed in the film, along with a cross-section of people who lived through the apartheid era: African National Congress activists, white riot policemen and the former death-row warden of Pretoria's main prison. That Mr. Hirsch could convince them all to go on camera is, he said, simply a function of his being an eager American.
"If I was a white South African I would not have been given the time that I had," he said. "People would have been far too distrustful. I think I brought a particular energy that people just thought was fun. Just the fact that I was enthusiastic and in the community people responded to that."
An upbeat person who uses the term "Right on!" as a regular declaration of affirmation, Mr. Hirsch had encountered what he calls "freedom songs" as a student activist at the Putney School in Vermont in the late 1980's, while working to get the school to divest its South African holdings. In every antiapartheid film or South African-based news broadcast he saw, a certain type of exhortative choral music always seemed to be in the background. It was the soundtrack to a revolution impassioned, populist and rhythmic and Mr. Hirsch wanted to know more about it.
So in 1992 he sold his car, bought a plane ticket and flew to South Africa. Almost immediately, Mr. Hirsch learned he was starting from scratch. There were no books or studies on the topic, he says, and when he "first started talking to people about revolutionary music and freedom songs, the overwhelming attitude was, 'What?' " He added, "People took it as part and parcel of how they expressed themselves."
But Mr. Hirsch got lucky. Shortly after arriving in Johannesburg he met a Zulu family whose son was an antiapartheid activist, and he soon found himself at a mass rally in Soweto, where thousands of people spent all day singing freedom songs. Then Mr. Hirsch began networking in the movement and took a series of cross-country trips during which he interviewed activists and musicians. He eventually filled 12 notebooks with his findings.
Mr. Hirsch ultimately spent five years in South Africa, researching his subject and shooting film while working as a music video director and CNN field producer. The principal production on "Amandla!" began in 2000. The film cost $750,000 to make, and was financed by an eclectic group, including the Ford Foundation and the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
Mr. Hirsch's film ends on a truly joyous note, a 1995 political rally at which a beaming, dancing Nelson Mandela, president of the country that had once imprisoned him, joins the African National Congress Choir onstage as it sings a victory song before the country's first local democratic elections. It is a truly transcendent moment, an almost Hollywood ending to a story of pain, conflict and struggle. And it is a testament to the enduring potency of music.
"The power of these songs in the face of plastic bullets and tear gas was astonishing," Mr. Matthews said. "It was a cornerstone of the victory in South Africa. Everything is against you, but you have the strength to persevere with this weapon."
Mr. Masekela put it another way, recounting a meeting with the legendary trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie in the 1970's. "Man," Gillespie told him, "I'd like to be part of your revolution, because the people are always dancing and singing."
Lewis Beale is a senior writer at Us Weekly.