Folk music can be a powerful force for change and a voice for reflection. Bob Dylan said that the times were a changing and they were. Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and others sang We Shall Overcome and after a long struggle they were right. It might be premature for Cheri MacNeil, aka Dear Reader, to be cast among that kind of musical royalty, but Rivonia does what the great political music of the 20th and 21st century has done – combine exceptional songcraft with powerful statements.
Cheri MacNeil hails from Johannesburg, South Africa. Rivonia is the name of a suburb there, where, in 1963, 19 members of the African National Congress (ANC) were arrested by armed police, who’d been tipped off by a neighbour reporting unusual activity in the area – unusual being that black and white people had been seen mixing together.
The 11 tracks on the album are examples of beautifully crafted, often upbeat sounding folk pop, but, scratch the surface and you will hear that MacNeil has used her talent to tell us a multi-layered story about her home country and its difficult and divisive history. It is essentially a concept album, each track a different historical ballad, dealing with race and violence, but also progress.
Rivonia will draw parallels with Let England Shake by PJ Harvey. MacNeil herself has described it as a ‘pop-opera’ and in much the same way as a musical it ebbs and flows with a theatrical air – choirs, trumpets and strings abound and uplift, as her lyrics tell the sometimes upbeat and sometimes harrowing stories.
The opening act is Down Under Mining, a ballad about a gold mine and a dead brother, the black workers “fetching the white man his gold”. MacNeil’s voice has a good slice of Joanna Newsom in its delivery, if with more Afrikaans twang than twee chirp. She plays the piano with the same delicacy and intimacy as Tori Amos or Kate Bush.
Took Them Away is equally about division rather than unity. It tells the story of the arrest of ANC members that gave the album its name, but from the perspective of the person that reported black and white people mixing, rather than the victims. It could be described as jaunty, if it were not for the subject matter.
There is optimism among some of Rivonia’s harrowing imagery. 26.04.1994 is named after the South Africa General Election that took place that day, the first election where race had no impact on right to vote and Nelson Mandela and the ANC were swept to power, officially ending the Apartheid era. MacNeil tells it through listing a series of names heading to the polling booths, some traditionally black, some white, to powerful effect.
Good Hope is similarly upbeat. Presumably named after the Cape of the same name which sits below the South African peninsula, it tells the tale of the early settlers in the country and the view they saw when they arrived. MacNeil sings that that view told them they could do anything; the limitless optimism of a new land and new possibilities.
It is a testament to the Cheri MacNeil’s ability as a songwriter that Rivonia would stand on its own as a superb folk-pop record, regardless of the subject matter. The fact that she can legitimately make it much more than that – a snapshot of her homeland’s troubled history – and do so with an authentic and original voice is even more impressive.