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CityPress - - News - BIÉNNE HUIS­MAN bi­enne.huis­man@city­press.co.za

eo Muyanga’s ba­ton flies through the air as he con­ducts an ensem­ble of opera singers in­side Cape Town’s Fu­gard Theatre.

They are re­hears­ing Muyanga’s latest work, the mu­si­cal ver­sion of Zakes Mda’s Heart of Red­ness. His round tor­toise­shell glasses lend him the ap­pear­ance of a wiz­ard, and his ba­ton is a magic wand.

Male and fe­male voices merge and climb at his di­rec­tion, a ta­pes­try of sear­ing so­prano and deep bass.

In an in­ter­view dur­ing his lunch break, Muyanga’s thoughts fly as quickly as his con­duc­tor’s hand. His diminu­tive frame and soft words be­lie the fact that he is one of the coun­try’s fore­most com­posers and in­tel­lec­tu­als.

For him, work­ing within a genre of mu­sic that has a cen­turies-old Euro­pean tra­di­tion is no elit­ist en­deav­our.

“We’re one of the few coun­tries in the world where opera is a mode of sto­ry­telling not just for the elite, but for poor and marginalised peo­ple,” he says.

“Singing is an im­por­tant part of history here – it was key to fight­ing op­pres­sion.”

Muyanga con­sid­ers vo­cal chords to be our na­tional in­stru­ment.

“Ev­ery­body sings. We sing at the drop of a hat; when we’re elated, when we’re sad. We break into song at the slight­est provo­ca­tion.

“We have al­ways ar­tic­u­lated our sto­ries and our dreams through our voices – take, for ex­am­ple, Miriam Makeba, our first global su­per­star. And her voice was not just artis­tic, but also po­lit­i­cal.”

His latest mu­si­cal, Heart of Red­ness, probes post-apartheid racial di­vi­sions. It has its roots in the tale of Xhosa prophet­ess Nongqawuse’s 1850s vi­sions of spir­its sweep­ing Bri­tish set­tlers out to sea in re­turn for the Xhosa peo­ple de­stroy­ing their crops and killing their cat­tle.

“Zakes Mda’s book flicks be­tween dif­fer­ent time­frames. I wanted to repli­cate that with mu­sic, su­per­im­pos­ing mu­si­cal aes­thet­ics,” he says.

Born in Soweto in the 1970s, Muyanga was 10 years old when he fled po­lice bru­tal­ity to live with ex­tended fam­ily in the Free State town of Vir­ginia. He later moved to the vil­lage of Pit­sane in south­ern Botswana, where he suc­cess­fully ap­plied for a schol­ar­ship to study phi­los­o­phy and physics at the United World Col­lege of Italy in Tri­este.

“Even though study­ing in Europe wasn’t my fam­ily or my par­ents’ kind of life, they had the imag­i­na­tion to back the dreams of their young,” he says. “We were never wealthy, but that – fam­ily – was our wealth.”

While study­ing in Tri­este, it was Ital­ian opera that en­chanted him. He was par­tic­u­larly drawn to Re­nais­sance madri­gals – vo­cal works – which re­minded him of tra­di­tional South African choral mu­sic. The leap from ru­ral life to a city col­lege on another con­ti­nent was tough, but in trade­mark fash­ion, Muyanga’s ap­proach was so­lu­tion driven.

“I lived in Italy when it was still a very racist coun­try,” he says. “It was no fun be­ing a black per­son there. The only way to sur­vive was to learn to speak Ital­ian in a very pompous ac­cent. That kept them guess­ing, and in check.”

Back in South Africa, Muyanga be­came fa­mous as half of the acous­tic pop duo Blk Son­Shine with hits such as Born in A Taxi.

Since then, he has toured fre­quently and has com­posed mu­sic for choirs and large en­sem­bles for the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany and the Hand­spring Pup­pet Com­pany.

His 2012 op­eretta, The Flower of Shembe, a myth­i­cal work about faith and des­tiny, was met with crit­i­cal ac­claim, and soon af­ter that, Opera Africa com­mis­sioned him to com­pose an opera on Nel­son Man­dela called The Strug­gle.

He split with Opera Africa and is now rais­ing funds to fin­ish the pro­ject alone.

Ear­lier this year, Wits Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia an­nounced that Muyanga had been awarded a joint com­poser in res­i­dence fel­low­ship for 2015.

At the time, David Gold­berg, di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia’s Hu­man­i­ties Re­search In­sti­tute, said: “Neo Muyanga

PHOTO: NASIEF MANIE.

MAN OF NOTE

Neo Muyanga says hear­ing madri­gals in Italy re­minded him of tra­di­tional SA choral mu­sic

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