African Intellectuals Celebrated through Music

17 Dec 2019 - 12:00
Searching the Archives, Dr Thokozani Mhlambi. Photo courtesy of Thokozani Mhlambi.

After a highly successful showcase in KwaZulu-Natal, the Early African Intellectuals as Composers of Music project ignited the Cape during Heritage Month (September 2019).

The project is a historical undertaking seeking to 'wake up' Africans to their ancient music composition and intellectual excellence. It is also meant to raise awareness of and educate about the birth and journey that has been travelled by compositions of the past while finding a place for them to be recognized and enjoyed in contemporary Africa.

The projected unfolded through a rich combination of intellectualism and creativity, kicking-off with a Panel Discussion, which took place at The Kitchen, in Woodstock on the 3rd of September. The panelists were Ms Ncebakazi Mnukwana, Stellenbosch University, Music; Dr Litheko Modisane, University of Cape Town, Media; and Dr Thozama April, University of the Western Cape, Centre for Humanities Research.


(from left) Panelists Modisane, Mnukwana and April.Photo courtesy of Thokozani Mhlambi.

The Exhibition Concert took place on the 27th of September, at the College of Music, UCT. The cast for the performance included students from UKZN's opera school and UCT music department, plus special guest features by leading musicians in Cape Town: Nobuntu Mhlambi, voice; Lonwabo Mafani, piano; Ludwe Danxa, electronic keys; Bulelwa Msane, voice; Nomonde Duma, voice. The Programme was directed by APC Post-doc, Dr Thokozani Mhlambi, who also performed on the cello.


(from left) Performers Bulelwa Msane, Nobuntu Mhlambi, Nomonde Duma. Photo courtesy of Thokozani Mhlambi.

Some reflections on the idea of performing historical African compositions: the composing of songs by early African intellectuals can be taken as a way of this class taking "measure of the impact of Western civilization upon the African world"(Abiola Irele) and transcending it. They desired to make use of older African modes, and drew on a deeper history than that circumscribed by colonial encounter. The compositions of early African intellectuals such as Tiyo Soga's 'Lizalise idinga lakho' and Sontonga's 'Nkosi Sikelela, as they are known and understood by communities today, have become indigenous. Those who sing them in church meetings, stokvels and political gatherings do not refer to a written score, but rather rely on a collective memory which has developed and changed over time. This became evident both in the Panel Discussion and in the Exhibition Concert, as in both instances when 'Lizalise Idinga Lakho' was rendered, the audience would join in chorus.

Audiences were treated to renditions from what Mhlambi terms 'The Ntsikana Moment' which honours and is a revival of Xhosa prophet Ntsikana's music; and music from Reuben Caluza's 1920s ragtime, sung by UKZN Opera students. Caluza was the first African to receive a music degree in the country. The piece called 'i-Land Act,' relates the tragic consequences of the controversial Land Act which many early African intellectuals, including Sol Plaatje and John L Dube, stood against. 

Audiences also learnt about and indulged in the revived sounds of Enoch Sontoga and lesser known woman composer Nokutela Dube, first wife of John L Dube. These compositions are among those that were performed by Dr Mhlambi, and the ensemble of UKZN and UCT music students.

Further developments are planned for the project. The Afropolitan Explosiv, the implementer of the project, is grateful for the partnership with the NIHSS, the Archive & Public Culture Research Initiative, and the NAC of South Africa.


(from left) Prof Njabulo Ndebele, Dr Modisane, Prof Christine Lucia, Dr April at the Exhibition Concert. Photo courtesy of Thokozani Mhlambi.