Collection: Mandela's Favorite African Folktales

Nelson Mandela celebrates his 91st birthday on Saturday. And in time for the festivities, there's a new audio book of the South African leader's favorite African folktales. Hugh Jackman, Whoopi Goldberg, and Matt Damon are some of the people who lent their voices to the project. Actress Alfre Woodard, who directed the readings, and South African musician Vusi Mahsela, talk with Renee Montagne about the collection.

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(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Nelson Mandela celebrates his 91st birthday this coming Saturday. And in time for the festivities there's a new audio book of the South African leader's favorite African folktales.

(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: From Morocco to Zimbabwe, these stories span the continent. Well-known names like Hugh Jackman, Whoopi Goldberg, and Matt Damon lent their voices to tell the tales. Here's Scarlett Johansson reading one called �The Snake Chief.�

Ms. SCARLETT JOHANSSON (Actress): Nandi was very poor. Her husband was dead and she had no sons to herd cattle and only one daughter to help in the fields.

In summer, when the umdoni trees were full of creamy flowers, she and her daughter dug for amadumbe to eat with their maize porridge. But in autumn, when the flowers had died, she collected the umdoni berries, purple and sweet, and gave them to her neighbors in return for strips of dried goat meat or calabashes of thick and creamy sour milk.

(Soundbite of singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: Along with South Africa's Johnny Clegg, whose music you just heard, Vusi Mahsela composed songs for this CD. The actress Alfre Woodard directed the readings. The two of them joined us in our studio at NPR West to talk about the stories, stories that conjure the particulars of African landscapes, the sights, the smells, the sounds.

Ms. ALFRE WOODARD (Director of audio book): It goes back to the source. Africa is the oldest spot that we all first stood up on two feet. And since we stood up and started to communicate, there's always the fire pit. It's the passing on of those tales.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: A lot of the tales, as folk stories do the world over, involve animals, magic, hard lessons, a commoner outwitting a king - like in this one, �The Clever Snake Charmer,� read by Samuel L. Jackson.

Mr. SAMUEL L. JACKSON (Actor): Sultan Jadi - may blessings be upon him - was very bored in his palace. So he called for his fiddler Mohammed. For a few days he took pleasure in listening to the fiddler, and he even started laughing and cracking jokes again. But it was not long before he tired of the fiddler and had the unlucky fellow's head chopped off.

Then he called for Joseph, his harp player. But it was not long before the music of the harp was just a scratching in his ears and he had the harpist's head chopped off too.

MONTAGNE: I'm guessing that Sam Jackson enjoyed reading this. But this is an example of something in folktales that we almost forget, and that is that there's death, and there's blood, and it's a kind of a regular thing.

Ms. WOODARD: Yes, they're folktales, not children's tales, necessarily.

Mr. VUSI MAHSELA (African Composer): That's why you have to tell it, you know, to children that, okay, you are doing this, watch out. I want you to stop doing this because if you don't, let me tell you this story. This is what happened to people who did this, this, and this.

Ms. WOODARD: Yes. It's about survival.

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

Ms. WOODARD: And, you know, I think Westerners would be familiar with this idea of the Grimm's tales, you know, all those little sweet tales, I know those were European that we're more familiar with, but they are just deadly.

MONTAGNE: No, I mean in Cinderella, the original Cinderella, the wicked step sisters chopped off part of their feet in order to get into the glass slipper. Here these are all as sweet and charming as they are any number of them do have that element in them.

Ms. WOODARD: I think it's good to teach consequences early on.

MONTAGNE: In this next tale, �Sakunaka, The Handsome Young Man,� a mother tries to trick the young women who want to marry her good-looking son. She sets up a challenge. Only a girl who can resist eating the mother's delicious meal can marry her son. LaTanya Richardson Jackson narrates over music composed and sung by Vusi Mahsela.

Ms. LATANYA RICHARDSON JACKSON (Actress): The mother of Sakunaka would go the hut of her son, stand outside the door, and sing�

Mr. VUSI MAHSELA (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. JACKSON: Sakunaka, my son�

Mr. MAHSELA: (Singing in foreign language)

(Talking) I was guided by this story. I composed the music so it's actually something which was in the story already.

Ms. JACKSON: Mother, what have you cooked?

Mr. MAHSELA: What have you cooked, my son, (unintelligible)

Ms. JACKSON: Porridge, my son.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MAHSELA: (unintelligible) have the eaten, so I was saying the things that was just translating that exactly the same thing what, you know, is said in the story.

Ms. JACKSON: Yes, yes my son.

Mr. MAHSELA: (Singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: The proceeds from �Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales� will go to his children's fund and another run by the Los Angeles-based Artists for a New South Africa, both benefit children orphaned by AIDs.

Ms. WOODARD: South Africa is sort of ground zero for the devastation and we see all the numbers of people that have died from the disease, but what you don't see is how far it spreads in terms of family that's left behind, and usually young children caring for the ones left behind. And what happens is people need medication, they need food, it changes the entire landscape of millions of people, not just the dear one that has been lost.

Mr. MAHSELA: But of course another good medicine for it is hope, you know, they need hope in their people which is very important.

Ms. WOODARD: You said hope Vusi, and that's the thing that fuels it all because these are the people that fought down apartheid, and they did it with joy and hope and arts and culture as well. And so we have no doubt at all that given the funds to really do that, the AIDs pandemic can be beat down, not only in South Africa but around the world.

MONTAGNE: Actress Alfre Woodard, she along with musician Vusi Mahsela shared with us �Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales.� That audio book is out now.

(Sound bite of singing in foreign language)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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