For classical scholar, a cello well met
THE MUSIC of Elgar, Brahms and Handel, and the haunting sounds of the cello and Jaqueline du Pre, are hardly things you would associate with a township upbringing, but the story of Dr Thokozani Mhlambi,
32, born in Madadeni outside Newcastle, goes against the odds.
“I suppose you are wondering how a township child came to study the cello,” he grinned knowingly. “When I was at high school, I was asked what music I liked. I had heard the cello played once, so I said it was what I wanted to learn.
“My father had just enough to buy me one and, from then on, my cello became a central part of my life. I lived for it. I always say it listens to my heart. It understands the way I feel. When I’m alone with my thoughts, it’s my closest friend.”
However the schoolboy cello has been superseded by a classic baroque cello, which he had especially made for him in a beautiful light wood, with old-school animal gut strings.
“Every time I hear it, new ideas and compositions whirl through my head.” It is a heady mix of imagination and possibilities, and sound symmetry, that fascinates him and compels him forward in his musical career.
“There is a strong connection between the sounds the bow makes on a cello and those that traditional African instruments make. It’s almost as though, in our deep past, there was a meeting point.”
“Princess Magogo,” he says her name with reverence, “inspires me to discover more of the roots of African music, myths that are part of cultural threads and the poetry that must never be forgotten.”
Magogo, mother of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, was born in 1900, the daughter of Zulu King Dinizulu kaCetshwayo (1868-1913) and Queen Silomo. In 1926, she married Inkosi Mathole Buthelezi.
“Princess Magogo left us a rich legacy, which needs to be explored and cherished. She was a singer and poet, and composed some beautiful Zulu classical music.”
The baroque cello and Magogo’s musical prowess have a lot in common: “She was gifted in playing the ugubhu (a stringed bow and calabash instrument) and the isithontolo (an instrument like a bow, with a string down its middle). The thrill for me is to try to bring the two sounds together … and produce music and song that blends both cultures, making something completely new.”
Follow Mhlambi on Instagram: @thokozani_mhlambi
Mhlambi studied at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Sweden, and the University of Cape Town, where he obtained his PhD in Music in 2015. He is the National Research Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Innovation at UCT.
Dr Thokozani Mhlambi, making a new type of fusion music.