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However, the schoolboy cello has been superseded by a classic baroque cello, which he had especially made for him in beautiful light wood, with old-school animal gut strings.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