The founder of the KZN Ensemble keeps culture alive and develops it for a new generation
‘Around 1985, when I was about six years old, we would herd cattle in the hills,” says vocalist and cultural researcher Mbuso Khoza. “I grew up with boys who could sing and lead songs particularly well. You would find that, in the afternoons, we would have imfundelo for imigonqo or weddings. A lot of the songs I knew then I learnt there. These were like practice and prep sessions for specific occasions.”
Khoza’s mother had an extensive knowledge of amahubo, which were essentially historical and political documents of Zulu cultural life. “If it was stormy weather, she would collect us into the house and start singing amahubo akwa Khoza.”
Khoza, a convenor and leader of the KZN Heritage Ensemble and descendant of Ntshingwayo kaMahole Khoza, believes that, because of urbanisation, there are fewer occasions for people to become versed in song, particularly amahubo, than there were when he was growing up. This is why he recruited members of his group from townships around KwaZulu-Natal.
“There are a few people who, for example, still do imihlonyane [a rite of passage ceremony for children],” says Khoza. “But if you go to kwaNongoma or Eshowe and you ask someone what ihubo lakubo is, they won’t be able to tell you. That knowledge had faded.”
Khoza, though, is not necessarily a purist about how these cultural treasures can and should be preserved.
“When Americans sing Swing Low Sweet Chariot or other spirituals, they still preserve the bluesy approach to the music. Let’s say they are honouring Ella Fitzgerald. You will find Gregory Porter doing a Nat King Cole song.
“So it is important to safeguard that culture as it is and also open it up to other interpretations like jazz or pop so that it reaches the public consciousness and, through that, find a way for its essence to be safeguarded.”
Khoza fine-tuned his ears to the details of amahubo and the manner in which they can be reinterpreted at the cultural functions he attended in his youth.
“I used to go to royal events to find that most people, when they sing, they are inaudible. So the youth lose interest because they find the singing to be dirgelike and the elders