Cul­tures blend in up­lift­ing har­mony

Sunday Tribune - - NEWS - LIZ CLARKE

ACELEBRATION of things South African is at the heart of Her­itage Month. And that is epit­o­mised by a mu­si­cal pi­o­neer who is dis­cov­er­ing the ori­gins of tra­di­tional mu­sic and its link to the past

The mu­sic of El­gar, Brahms and Han­del and the haunt­ing sounds of the cello and Jac­que­line du Pré are hardly things you would as­so­ci­ate with a town­ship up­bring­ing. But the story of Dr Thokozani Mh­lambi, born in Madadeni out­side New­cas­tle, goes against the odds.

When this mu­si­col­o­gist, his­to­rian, per­former and com­poser emerged from King Shaka Air­port one evening this week, his arms pro­tec­tively around the tall sil­ver case that houses his cello, this in­con­gru­ous mix­ture of cul­tures seemed even more per­ti­nent.

He seemed to read my thoughts as we sat at the air­port’s Mugg and Bean, where we had ar­ranged to meet and chat about his mu­si­cal ca­reer and up­com­ing en­gage­ments in KZN.

“I sup­pose you are won­der­ing how a town­ship child came to study the cello,” he grinned know­ingly. “Why not kwaito?

“Why not tra­di­tional mu­sic?”

I had to ad­mit it had crossed my mind. How­ever, his an­swer sort of put things in place.

“When I was in high school, I was asked what mu­sic I liked. I had heard the cello played once, so I said that was what I wanted to learn.

“My fa­ther had just enough money to buy me one and from then on it be­came a cen­tral part of my life. I lived for my cello. I al­ways say it lis­tens to my heart. It un­der­stands the way I feel. When I am alone with my thoughts, it is my clos­est friend.”

How­ever, the school­boy cello has been su­per­seded by a clas­sic baroque cello, which he had es­pe­cially made for him in beau­ti­ful light wood, with old-school an­i­mal gut strings.

“Ev­ery time I hear it, new ideas and com­po­si­tions whirl through my head.”

It is this heady mix of imag­i­na­tion and pos­si­bil­i­ties that he says fas­ci­nates him and com­pels him for­ward in his mu­si­cal ca­reer.

“What I have come to learn is that there is a strong con­nec­tion be­tween the sounds that the bow makes on a cello and the sounds that tra­di­tional African in­stru­ments make. It’s al­most as though in our deep past there was some meet­ing point.”

It is this as­pect of sound sym­me­try, he says, that fas­ci­nates and com­pels him for­ward in his mu­si­cal ca­reer.

“Princess Ma­gogo.” He says her name al­most as though it is part of a revered song cy­cle. “She in­spires me to dis­cover more about the roots of African mu­sic, about the myths that are part of our cul­tural threads and the poetry that must never be for­got­ten.”

A dip into his­tory tells us that Princess Ma­gogo, the mother of Chief Man­go­sutho Buthelezi, was born in 1900, the daugh­ter of the Zulu King Dinizulu kacetshwayo (1868 – 1913) and Queen Silomo. In 1926, she mar­ried Inkosi Mathole Buthelezi.

“Princess Ma­gogo has left us a rich legacy, which needs to be ex­plored and cher­ished. She was a singer and poet and com­posed in Zulu some beau­ti­ful clas­si­cal mu­sic.”

He ex­plained that the baroque cello and the mu­si­cal prow­ess of Princess Ma­gogo have quite African a lot in com­mon.

“She was gifted in play­ing the ugubhu (a stringed bow and cal­abash in­stru­ment) and isithon­tolo (like a bow, with a string bound down to the mid­dle). The thrill for me is to try to bring the two sounds to­gether – al­most like a mar­riage – and pro­duce mu­sic and song that blends both cul­tures, mak­ing some­thing com­pletely new.”

That blend­ing of poetry and mu­sic will be the fo­cus of a se­ries of per­for­mances and lec­tures from Septem­ber 27-30, when Mh­lambi will share his thoughts and mu­si­cal ex­pe­ri­ences as part of Her­itage Month. Also fea­tured will be the work of for­mer South African poet lau­re­ate Maz­izi Kunene, fa­mous for his epic poems drawn from the his­tory and myths of Africa.

“It’s a wealth of ge­nius that we need to cel­e­brate and ab­sorb into our his­tory. But isn’t that what makes cre­ativ­ity such a won­der­ful thing?” asks this 32-year-old, whose pi­o­neer­ing adventure into a con­tem­po­rary mu­si­cal world will bring to­gether the old and the new in a to­tally dif­fer­ent way.

You can fol­low him on In­sta­gram: @thokozani_mh­lambi

Dr Thokozani Mh­lambi stud­ied at the Royal Col­lege of Mu­sic in Stock­holm, Swe­den, and at the Univer­sity of Cape Town, where he ob­tained his Phd in mu­sic in 2015. He is the NRF Post­doc­toral Fel­low in In­no­va­tion at the Univer­sity of Cape Town.


Princess Ma­gogo, a source of in­spi­ra­tion in Madadeni town­ship, where the story of a boy’s love for a cello be­gan.

Dr Thokozani Mh­lambi – tak­ing clas­si­cal mu­sic to an­other level. On ar­rival at King Shaka Air­port, Mh­lambi was happy to give an im­promptu mu­si­cal pre­view of his up­com­ing con­cert se­ries in Dur­ban.

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