Singer and composer Mbuso Khoza has a versatile and affecting voice that allows him to make strong contributions to any musical ensemble he collaborates with. Over the years, he has worked with a variety of jazz artists, cultural ensembles and on his own solo recordings that present various vocal styles while tracing the history of Zulu song writing which had started on this journey.
At the Africa Day event, taking place at Wits University’s Senate House and the Wits Great Hall from 9am until 9pm, Khoza will present research on songwriter, poet and performer Princess Magogo.
The paper will focus on how she neutered patriarchy by smashing gender-based boundaries in her practice. He spoke to the Mail and Guardian about her influence in his life. The annual event’s theme this year is militarisation of democracies and democratic spaces in higher education.
When did you first encounter the legend of Princess Magogo?
We grew up hearing her name. She was well known for playing ugubhu no umakhweyana. She was from the royal house so she performed at royal events. So growing up, she was always spoken about.
Working with her music, though, is a quite recent thing for me. When Themba Mkhize did an arrangement of one of her songs, [Wathint’u]Phefeni, he asked me to do the voice.
What gave Princess Magogo her stature?
It was just the extent of her gift. But you know, of all the readings on her I have come across, they never talk about her as a philosopher. Her gift also fitted into male roles, like the role of imbongi. The fact that she was a performer and a princess was something that was unique, and yet scholars like [David] Rycroft and Hugh Tracey do not write of her as a philosopher.
What of her content made her a philosopher?
She was a devout Christian and yet she didn’t relinquish her cultural beliefs and practices. Both her parents died when she was very young so she had to raise her brothers herself. In her songs, she could veer from topic to topic, singing about her lovers and her brothers in the same song. She demystified and challenged the function of patriarchy by transcending gender-based boundaries.
When families, for example, are brought together by marriage. If, say, the bride has as illness of some kind, they tell the husband to be careful of it, or something of that nature. Her only sickness was that she couldn’t stop singing.
In one of my chats with Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, he says that growing up, when he went to sleep, his mother [Princess Magogo] would be singing and when he would wake up, he would wake up to his mother’s singing.
Her feminism was not from the approach of: “I can do what a man can do,” which, I feel, is what feminism has become now. Her approach was more to say: “I can also play that role.”
Musically, what do you think she means today?
She could switch from genre to genre, and yet she never studied music. She had converted to Seventh Day Adventism from Anglicanism. So she knew Anglican hymns, Lutheran hymns, Seventh Day Adventist hymns. Then she would turn around and play the autoharp, which, combined with singing, she could turn that into mbaqanga. Then she’d turn around and vamp on the piano, reciting David’s [biblical] psalms. She’s doing this as someone who is not a trained musician.
Though a lot has been documented, some of her history is wrong, like the idea of referring to her as the daughter of a paramount chief. The British, during colonialism, had this thing where they were refusing to call a Zulu king a king, because their flawed reasoning went: how could a Zulu man call himself a king, when our king exists in England?
You also have no formal training in music, how has that shaped the trajectory of your career or your personal journey in music?
I have learned through the ear and also through my upbringing. The way we compose as a community could stem from the account of actual events. So my approach is more a conversation rather than a technical endeavour of saying, “the harmony should be here and these are the chord changes that work with this melody.” For me, not going to school is a bonus because with university alumni, you can hear how they sound and that it’s due to their training, but what is often missing is an African school of thought.
What do you think is her influence today?
There are singers like Siphokazi. She has recorded Magogo songs like Indlu Yegagu. People like Mam Sibongile Khumalohave openly declared how they were influenced by Magogo. Choirs from overseas come to South Africa to ask how they could incorporate her approach to their church hymns. [Khoza breaks into song]: “Bambethela uJesu izulu laduma ntambama.” She sang about Jesus and didn’t lose the nuance that makes it special.