Melanie, Mary Hopkin and Maniacal Dictators
It all started innocently enough.
I thought a post on a couple of old, popular but largely forgotten singers might be interesting. I was thinking of Melanie, and then of Mary Hopkin and her song “Those Were the Days My Friend” and then I ended up learning about African dictator Francisco Macias Nguema, a study of power gone mad.
For some reason Melanie and Mary Hopkin go together in my mind, but they have quite dissimilar backgrounds and styles.
Melanie was the singer/songwriter of “Brand New Key” fame, or at least that’s the song I remember her for, from 1972, at university. For a short while that song, also known as the Roller Skate Song, was everywhere. (Take a listen here….)
I lived in the student lodgings on campus that year. There was quite a group of us on our floor, playing chess and hearts, partying, conversing meaningfully about the state of the world and our place in it — even occasionally studying.
One fellow I recall, tall, bearded, poised as a young sea captain, was sure the song was about drugs, and he had a meticulous interpretation for every line. I didn’t really think so. But the song was banned for another interpretation, that of sexual innuendo, on some radio stations which probably says more about the preoccupations of their listeners than about the song. But it was one of those where you could weave your own take into what was really like a children’s song.
Melanie, interestingly enough, performed at the original Woodstock, and has been singing and making albums all these years.
As an aside, when I ran out of funds at the end of that university session, the young sea captain bought the bright red old MGA convertible I had rebuilt to take to school that year. Never saw him again, and can’t remember his name….
Mary Hopkin is a Welsh folk singer who is best known for the song “Those Were the Days” from 1968, who was promoted by the Beatles and signed to their Apple label. The song itself is based on a Russian tune of older vintage. The song shot to the top of the charts in both Britain and the United States. (You can hear the song here….)
In a post intended originally as nostalgic, this could be the ultimate song of one’s youth, although I still find the song too archly sentimental. But it had some precise lines:
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way….
Hopkin also continued to perform and has been often on British television. In a 2010 album, she collaborated with her son on new arrangements of her lyrics and melodies.
On to the bad guy
And now we get to the bad guy. How do we make the leap to the maniacal African dictator Nguema, a creature who should really be consigned to literature or comic books but instead infested our world for real? The connection is through that Mary Hopkin song….
From 1968-1979, he ruled Equatorial Guinea with a crazed, barbaric hand, while stealing his country blind. In 1978, he changed Equatorial Guinea’s motto to read: “There is no other God than Macias Nguema.”
On his way to that grand announcement, on Christmas Day in 1975 he executed 150 alleged coup plotters in the national stadium while over the loudspeakers was heard “Those Were the Days.” Kind of gives it a new twist….
It recalls a film clip I once saw of a smirking Saddam Hussein when he first took power. In a large hall full of people, he laughingly ordered his newly empowered secret police to take away select persons to be killed while the rest looked on, either uncomprehending or in terror.
Nguema is interesting though. The son of a witch doctor, he ended up winning the only really democratic election Equatorial Guinea has ever had. Then, in a series of decrees in 1971, he abolished the existing constitution, banned all other parties than his own, and made himself President for Life. He held a plebiscite for a new constitution enshrining his personal power which passed with an amazing 99 percent.
At one point he banned fishing in order to outlaw the use of boats, which people were using to escape his rule — up to a third of the population fled the country.
With his own relatives and clan controlling the military and other arms of government, he had the habit of ordering entire families and villages executed whenever displeased. He was probably responsible for the killing of 50-80,000 people.
Wikipedia reports that “during Macías Nguema’s regime, the country had neither a development plan nor an accounting system for government funds. After killing the governor of the Central Bank, he carried everything that remained in the national treasury to his house in a rural village.”
He was apparently a devotee of bhang, a beverage made from cannabis, and also, probably more likely to contribute to madness, the rainforest hallucinogen iboga. Both plants are linked to religious rites in different countries, so perhaps it is only fitting that he made himself the object of his own cult.
He finally went too far by executing several members of his own family. His inner circle became alarmed. He was overthrown by his nephew and in 1979 was executed after being sentenced by a special court to death 101 times.
That nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has now been ruling Equatorial Guinea for more than 30 years. The country’s government continues a tradition of torture and bizarre accusations against its opponents (the U.S. ambassador was accused in 1993 of witchcraft and threatened with death). But more recently, the U.S. has pledged friendship with this fine leader of an oil-producing country.
Mbasogo has been accused of cannibalism, eating parts of his opponents to gain their “power”, and has also declared himself a god of sorts.
And we thought politics in our part of the world is reprehensible.
Why have I dwelt on this? I wonder about this too…. I guess I would really like to understand what evil is. Maybe “evil” is too dramatic and supernatural a word. To call such people evil is to think that they are ultimately not like us, not quite human. It becomes a word used to keep our distance from them. Unfortunately, they are too human. In us all are these germs of what in them grows to monstrous proportions, as it derives sustenance from the purest selfishness and lack of empathy. But there’s more than that…. there is also a kind of malevolent willfulness.
I turn away from those considerations…. I prefer to think of Mary Hopkin warbling away, and of Melanie, who also sang in “Look What They Have Done to My Song” what I sometimes feel learning about the world and a few of the humans in it:
Oh I wish I could find a good book / To live in
Notes on images, from top down:
1) Melanie, from the Wikipedia entry.
2) Mary Hopkin, from Fanpix
3) Nguema, from a video embedded on a website on Africa.
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