Bongani Ndodana-Breen: Finding hope in dark times

People attending the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival will have the privilege of hearing Bongani Ndodana-Breen’s new sinfonia concertante, which will premiere at the event.

People attending the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival will have the privilege of hearing Bongani Ndodana-Breen’s new sinfonia concertante, which will premiere at the event.

Bongani Ndodana-Breen has left his home in Cape Town for Johannesburg, where he will function as the composer in residence for the fifth Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, which begins on January 27.

Ndodana-Breen’s speech is perfectly and carefully pronounced — belying the fact that he spent a decade in Canada and another three years in Chicago.

His accent is difficult to place, but his music reveals that he is a true African homebody.

The festival, which will waltz to the theme “If you would dance”, will premiere his new sinfonia concertante (that’s a piece “written for piano as the lead instrument”, he explains) called Mzilikazi: Emhlabeni (Mzilikazi: The World). It is based on a 40-year-old struggle anthem written by South African veteran composer Professor Mzilikazi Khumalo.

Khumalo’s piece is “this very resolute anthem that was written in a very dark time in this country. But it’s not self-pitying. All these terrible things had come to pass, but there’s more hope in it than despair,” says Ndodana-Breen.

Perhaps that’s why the line he most enjoys from his favourite series, Downton Abbey, is when Violet (Maggie Smith) says: “Don’t be defeatist, dear. It’s terribly middle class!”

What are you reading at the moment? '
Fidel Castro’s My Life: A Spoken Autobiography. It’s amazing to read about his spirit and his ideals. I’m also reading She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. It is scandalous!

Where do you like hanging out?
My friends in Cape Town have this wonderful restaurant called Bizerca. They have the best oysters I have ever tasted — they make it with this gooseberry thing. I don’t know what they put in those oysters, but they have completely converted me.

What music are you playing in your car?
I always play John Adams. There’s always Hugh Masekela. There’s always Zim Ngqawana and Bach. I must have Bach. He is a staple.

When you want to escape Cape Town, where do you go?
My favourite place at the moment is Darling. There is Evita se Peron and all these incredible restaurants, and I love being able to just park and walk everywhere. The wine is wonderful and the people are incredibly friendly. Who would have thought that in the Swartland, us swartes (black people) would be so welcomed?

What is your favourite part of Cape Town?
The inner city is something to be cherished. It’s so multicultural and there’s a certain energy about it. I love going to Greenmarket Square and walking down Long Street and Kloof Street during the day.

Wine or beer?
Why choose? Why can’t we have both?

Cheese or chocolate?
This is a tough one, but definitely cheese. You can have enough chocolate, but you can never have enough cheese. If you’re lactose intolerant, that’s when you know that God doesn’t love you!

I love a nice Stilton, I love blue cheese and I love Camembert. And then, of course, you must always have Parmesan otherwise I don’t want to be your friend. You can’t eat pasta without it.

The Johannesburg International Mozart Festival will run from January 27 – February 10. Visit to view ticket prices and booking options. Performances will take place across five different venues and tickets range between R20 and R250. There will be discounts for students and pensioners

Thalia Holmes

Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.      Read more from Thalia Holmes

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