‘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 to be impatient in imparting their skills. I found it better to recruit people from the township as opposed to more rural people. I sit them down and teach them the historical background of this style of singing. That’s how I set up the KZN Heritage Ensemble in 2016.”
The way Khoza sees it, the foundation of music is itself storytelling. “For example, imilolozelo [lullabies], nezinganekwane [folk tales] were not merely stories. They were historical. There is one called SququMadevu, about someone who would come and steal children. If you look at the political history of Mozambique, the Portuguese colonisers did accost children while they were going to fetch water or collect firewood and lure them with food or sweets. So when your grandmother said: Lizokupha amaswidi izim zim, it was very political then but they had to splice it down so as not to scare the children.”
In a way, the KZN Heritage Ensemble could become a catalyst for Khoza to compile a songbook that tells us what the migration and movement of people across Africa and Asia reveals about our collective ancestry.
The songs that form part of the group’s repertoire also tell us quite a bit about what he calls the pre-Shakan era.
“We try to marry the past and the present by first looking at the pre-Shakan era. What did they sing about in the era of Malandela and Mnguni? By finding that out, you determine what the political situation was at the time. Were there wars? Were they frequent? If the songs focused on nature and the beauty of eligible women, then you can determine that it was a time of relative peace.
“In the Shakan era, many were definitely about war. Also, you can establish what the post-Shakan era tells us about melodies. That was a time of missionaries and people like Theophilus [Shepstone, also known as Somtseu]. So when you hear the national anthem, you can hear that it was Anglicised. Throughout our performance, you get to experience all these things, the Zionists and their influence.”
A parallel project that informs Khoza’s practice is the KZN Heritage Foundation, a privately funded fledgling institution that funds the research that may or may not one day turn up in the songbook Khoza is painstakingly compiling.
His insatiable quest for knowledge has had a direct effect on his musical choices and vocal style.
“I was on a mission to not sound like a typical Zulu singer,” says Khoza of his career, which includes collaborations with the likes of Themba Mkhize and Carlo Mombelli and the Prisoners of Strange.
“This was simply because, if you look at the recording history of maskandi artists like Mfaz’ Omnyama, Phuzushukela and Phuzekhemisi, they all sound similar by virtue of region. I was after a different sound, and to approach it as an African and not merely someone from KwaZulu-Natal. When I collaborated with Themba Mkhize, he introduced me to people like Richard Bona from Cameroon.
“From there, I didn’t look back and reflected more, which was when I came across the likes of Cheikh Lô and Ismaël Lô. Their vocal approach and their dedication to their heritage influenced me a lot. They have a huge impact in Europe even though people cannot hear [understand]what they are singing about.
“My album Zilindile, which won a Metro FM award for the best contemporary jazz album in 2013, does not have a single song in English.”
Khoza counts Sazi Dlamini and Nduduzo Makhathini as among contemporaries on a similar quest to discover the hidden histories encoded in the music.
“Comparisons with other countries like Ethiopia are interesting to me. There are similarities. There are Nguni people that left with Ndaba [an early king] to go to Zambia and others that ended up in Malawi called the Ngoni. They dress like us but their singing is different.
“This is why I enjoy research and travel because all these revelations contribute to a bigger picture.”
The KZN Heritage Ensemble’s Ijadu le Afrika is presented in partnership with the Joburg Theatre. Tickets are R150 and showtimes are 8pm (Friday and Saturday) and 3pm (Sunday)