Nurturing our heritage

A protean talent in the fields of music and academia, Professor Mzililkazi Khumalo is the Lifetime Achievement Award-winner of the Arts & Culture Trust Awards 2003.

The 71-year-old emeritus professor of African languages at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) joins the distinguished company of past winners that includes novelist Professor Es’kia Mphahlele; the ‘father of the township musical”, Gibson Kente; and the late uhadi bow singer, NoFinish Dywili, last year’s posthumous winner.

Khumalo’s musical achievements are outstanding. He is an acclaimed composer, eminent choirmaster, ground-breaking musicologist and chairperson of the erstwhile national anthem committee that devised the present South African national anthem. And, as father of soprano Sibongile Khumalo, he has given to the nation its Mother of Song.

Those accomplishments are all the more remarkable given that music has taken something of a back seat to his work as a linguist. Khumalo led the way for black academics at Wits — he was the first from their ranks to become an associate professor and head of department. On closer reflection, his work as professor of African languages is very much of a piece with his varied pursuits in music, for in both fields he has been a champion and articulate voice of African culture.

Through his work as a composer and conductor he has literally given voice to thousands. His earliest compositions, numbering among them Ma Ngificwa Ukufa, KwaDedangendlale, Ugqozi and Koze Kube Nini, retain their popularity to this day, with some having attained the status of standards that are prescribed for choral competitions throughout the country. Similarly, Khumalo’s arrangements of traditional African songs, such as Sangena, Ingoma KaNtsikana and Akhala Amaqhude Ambabili, are performed by many of South Africa’s leading choirs.

Choral music is a focus of Khumalo’s activities. Since 1989 he has served as music director, with Richard Cock, of the Sowetan Massed Choir Festival, the premier annual choir event in the country. Khumalo continues to conduct and be a director of the Soweto Songsters.

It was for his work as a choirmaster and composer that Wits in 1998 appointed him honorary professional research fellow in the school of music for the period November 1 1998 to December 31 2001. The citation accompanying the post noted: ‘This appointment is in recognition of your contribution to the research activities of the school and your eminence as a composer and choirmaster.”

Khumalo’s contributions to African musical heritage are manifold. He is a creator of some of the most memorable and notable works, and is a conservator. In the latter capacity he serves as general editor of South Africa Sings: African Choral Repertoire Collection, which is a continuing project of the South African Music Rights Organisation that is aimed at the publication in dual notation (tonic sol-fa and staff notation) of the most important works in the standard African choral repertoire.

As a composer he has won a number of awards, among them the South African composers’ contest commemorating the African Bank’s 10th anniversary in 1985, for the song Isibaya Esikhulu SeAfrika. In the same year Khumalo wrote the music of uShaka KaSenzangakhona, an epic with poetry by Themba Msimang.

Music expert Gwen Ansell says of uShaka that it ‘was already asking important questions about the relationship between European musical forms and performance resources and the African — specifically Zulu — classical tradition”.

It has been in the past five years that Khumalo’s musical star has been at its apex. At the same time he has been garlanded with honorary doctorates in recognition of his musical trailblazing.

The honours began with the national orders presentation ceremony in June 1999, at which Nelson Mandela bestowed the Order of the Star of South Africa on Khumalo.

The following year, in February 2000, an excerpt from his uShaka for mezzo-soprano and bass was performed by his daughter Sibongile and Abel Motsoadi as part of the Africa! Spirit Ascending! concert season at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, DC.

Two months later, in April 2000, the University of South Africa awarded Khumalo an honorary doctor of musicology degree.

Four months later came the premiere of Haya Mntwan’Omkhulu, a cycle of eight songs by Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu. First, Khumalo had selected and notated the songs. Then, with composer Peter Klatzow, he arranged them for alto and piano. The recital was given by Sibongile in August 2000 and acclaimed by music critic Paul Boekkooi: ‘I am in no doubt that this is the most richly endowed song cycle ever conceived in South Africa.”

That song cycle led to the full-scale opera, Khumalo’s first, Princess Magogo KaDinuzulu?, which premiered at the Durban Playhouse Opera on May 4 last year. Some rate this work as the high point of Khumalo’s achievements as a composer. As with uShaka KaSenzangakhona, Khumalo worked with Msimang to fashion a work of which the Sunday Tribune wrote: ‘With the haunting melodic lines of Mzililkazi Khumalo and the epic poetry of Themba Msimang, this opera has a long life ahead.”

In the same month the University of Zululand conferred an honorary doctor of philosophy on Khumalo in recognition of his ‘outstanding contribution to the field of music and, more specifically, to choral music in this country”. His most recent honorary doctorate, in music, came from the University of Stellenbosch in December last year.

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