Music heals, uplifts and connects us

I attended the Cape Town International Jazz Festival recently and was deeply moved and inspired by the music played by the varied and very talented performing artists.

But more than that, I saw others who seemed equally uplifted and connected through music.

Music matters it has power, it inspires, and it heals. That’s what musicians like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, Brenda Fassie, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Pete Seeger, among many others, have shown us. These artists were among many who were pioneers in the use of music to influence change.

The German playwright Berthold Brecht’s idiom “art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it” can be used to reflect how the political use of music in South Africa changed from being a “mirror” in the 1940s and 50s to becoming a “hammer” with which to shape reality by the 1980s.

In South Africa, music went from reflecting common detrimental experiences and concerns in the early years of apartheid, to eventually function as a force to confront the state and as a means to actively construct an alternative political and social reality. Of equal value, music was and is used as a means to open, heal and connect our minds, bodies and souls.

The moral outrage at the injustices committed by apartheid became part of Western pop culture through songs such as Biko by Peter Gabriel, campaigns such as Sun City organised by Little Steven and the successive Mandela concerts at Wembley Stadium in London in 1988 and 1990, as well as the 46664 concerts held in post-apartheid South Africa.

Paul Simon’s Graceland album had been the source of much controversy not only in the press but also inside the academia, since Simon’s recordings in South Africa had contributed towards dismantling the UNESCO cultural boycott on South Africa that was in effect since 1968. The very fact that such a boycott existed reveals how deeply the arts and politics had become enmeshed in the South Africa oppressive system.

A homegrown example, was Cape Town pianist Abdullah Ibrahim who was very adept at inserting political subversion at the purely musical level.

Ibrahim has for many years used the melodies of freedom songs in his instrumental piano improvisations. As one jazz musician from Cape Town’s old District Six elaborated, “music can deliver its message without words”.

The most powerful anthem of the struggle in the 1980s was a song called Mannenberg, composed by Ibrahim, which had no words, it simply referred to a series of styles of music that was influenced by black culture, drawing on church organ music, marabi, jazz and the blues. Upon hearing such songs, says the jazz musician, it would generate an automatic mental association to being liberated, to having an identity. They delivered the message “you can do what you like, but we are not going away”.

Ibrahim was also one of many jazz musicians who gave political titles to instrumental pieces, such as his Anthem for the New Nation, released in 1979. South African music of this time reflects not only the continuing resolve to resist apartheid but also an ability to make a statement of liberation, even if covertly.

By the mid-1980s, the musical fusion that was set in motion by groups like Harari and Malombo, gained new momentum. Groups such as Sakhile, Bayete, Sabenza, Tananas and Savuka, as well as many lesser known local bands, played music that might blend “mbaqanga with traditional Nguni song; Cape coloured klopse idioms with bebop; marabi with electronic rock; Zulu guitar style with Cape Malay ghoemmaliedjies; or many other permutations”, according to music academic Christopher Ballantine.

Ballantine continues, “It is what these integrations discovered and made possible that was exciting and important, for, like their audiences, the bands were wholly non-racial, rejecting in their behaviour and commitment, centuries of racial and class dichotomy”.

Their music was an alchemy, helping, in its way, to corrode the old social order, both internal and external, and to start to dream of a new existence, unshackled and free. Imagination is powerful, if anything, music allows us to dream of something better, to hope, to feel alive even under the worst circumstances, to connect to our deeper selves, our souls, but also to feel connected to the souls of others.

Similarly, Seegers’ combination of incredibly catchy melodies and thoughtful, socially conscious lyrics in songs such as We Shall Overcome, This Land is Your Land, If I Had a Hammer, and Turn, Turn, Turn were a powerful influence on national movements in the USA and worldwide, including the fight for civil rights, world peace, and environmental protection.

While Seeger is best known for using music for social change, an important part of his legacy is the potential of music to effect change on a personal level. When Seeger said, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,” he was throwing down the gauntlet. Music can inspire and liberate the soul but it can also heal.

Nowhere is this legacy more clear or important than in the movement to use music to treat mental illness.

Research demonstrates that adding music therapy to treatment improves symptoms and social functioning among people who suffer from schizophrenia or dementia. There are also several mechanisms by which music can reduce depression, anxiety and chronic pain. First of all, music has positive physical effects. It can produce direct physiological shifts, such as reducing heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels (stress hormones).

Seeger was well known for his use of the sing-along, and he made his goal to build communities, saying, “The idea of using music to try to get the world together is now all over the place.” Research clearly demonstrates that improved social connection and support can improve mental health outcomes. Thus, any music that helps connect people can have a profound impact on an individual’s mental health. We can all take to heart Seeger’s statement, “Participation. That’s what’s going to save the human race.”

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.