Nelson Mandela Endows His Birthday Celebration with a Purpose


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This year for the first time a Mandela Day concert was held in New York. It was a birthday party and fund-raiser for 46664, Mr. Mandelas AIDS organization.

“Happy 91st, Mr. Mandela," Aretha Franklin announced at Radio City Music Hall on Saturday night, celebrating Nelson Mandelas birthday. She was among the dozens of musicians at Mandela Day, a benefit concert for 46664, Mr. Mandelas organization for AIDS and H.I.V. prevention. It is named for his prisoner number during his 27 years in jail for fighting apartheid.

Since 2003, concerts have been presented by 46664 in South Africa, Spain, Norway and England, before New York City this year. This was the first one Mr. Mandela could not attend, because he no longer travels outside South Africa. Now Mr. Mandelas admirers hope to see his birthday, July 18, become an internationally recognized Mandela Day: “Not a holiday," Mr. Mandela admonished on video, but a day dedicated to service.

His call for volunteerism has a theme song, “With My Own Two Hands," which was written by Ben Harper and was performed on Saturday by a South African singer, Chris Chameleon, and a Senegalese one, Baaba Maal.

Pressing the case, and calling on the audience to devote time to unselfish deeds, were Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, among other actors.

Stevie Wonder concluded the show, flanked by all the other performers, exulting in his own “Happy Birthday" a song that once supported the creation of the Martin Luther Kings Birthday holiday, now repurposed.

It was a briskly paced concert of songs with messages protests, exhortations, laments, rallying cries and a few pop love songs on the side. Top billing went to American musicians, who also included Alicia Keys, Josh Groban, Will.i.am, Gloria Gaynor, Queen Latifah, the improbable duo of Cyndi Lauper and Lil Kim, and Jesse McCartney, a 22-year-old would-be Justin Timberlake, who proposed Body Language as a path to multicultural entente. Europeans were also on hand, including the chanteuse whos now the first lady of France, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy breathily singing Blowin in the Wind with the English rocker Dave Stewart and the Italian rocker Zucchero.

Musicians from Africa, including Mr. Mandelas fellow South Africans Vusi Mahlasela and Thandiswa Mazwai, were equally prominent, and vivid. Mr. Mahlasela, who had protested apartheid, sang his Weeping, about lives destroyed by it, with tender crooning, rushing declamations and dramatic crescendos. Ms. Mazwai, who sang with the South African group Bongo Maffin, unleashed a bright, penetrating voice with growls, wails and ululations.

Suzanna Owiyo, from Kenya, had a song with a salsa beat; Loyiso, a younger South African singer, had clearly been listening to American R&B singers like Usher. Collaborations were frequent and jubilant, like the duet of Alicia Keys and Angelique Kidjo (who is from Benin, but now lives in New York) extolling Afrika to a township groove.

The Soweto Gospel Choir was onstage throughout the concert as a rich-voiced, brightly dressed embodiment of the ties between African and African-American music. It lent harmonies to both dance tunes and inspirational songs, which were often one and the same.

There were songs from the apartheid era like the steadfast Asimbonanga, performed by Jesse Clegg with the South African group Freshlyground; it was written by Jesses father, Johnny Clegg. Gimme Hope, Joanna was performed by the gathered African singers; it was a bouncy hit in Britain by Eddy Grant, while it was banned in South Africa for its lyrics bluntly protesting apartheid.

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