Hal­low sound struck a chord with tra­di­tional in­stru­ments

The Sunday Independent - - NEWS -

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 In­ter­na­tional Air­port one evening this week, his arms pro­tec­tively around the tall sil­ver case that houses his cello, the in­con­gru­ous mix­ture of cul­tures seemed even more per­ti­nent.

He seemed to read my thoughts as we sat at an air­port café and chat­ted about his mu­si­cal ca­reer and up­com­ing en­gage­ments in KwaZulu-Na­tal.

“I sup­pose you are won­der­ing how a town­ship child came to study the cello,” he grinned know­ingly. “Why not kwaito? Why not tra­di­tional African 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 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 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 to strive 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 men­tions 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 Inkatha Freedom Party leader Man­go­suthu Buthelezi, was born in 1900, the daugh­ter of the Zulu King Din­uzulu 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 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 Wed­nes­day to Satur­day, 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 Mazisi 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.

Dr Thokozani Mh­lambi stud­ied at the Royal Col­lege of Mu­sic in Stock­holm, Swe­den, and at the Univer­sity of Cape Town, where he ob­tained a PhD in mu­sic in 2015. He is the Na­tional Re­search Foun­da­tion post-doc­toral fel­low in in­no­va­tion at the UCT.

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