Song cycle unlocks cultural ties

‘I guess for me, it’s all about integration,” says Thokozani Ndumiso Mhlambi over the clink of teaspoons and a chorus of animated mid-morning voices at the Baxter Theatre Centre café. “Social media has raised the profile of the superficial. It seems to matter more now what shows in a photograph than what is being played live.

“This Afrofuturism that is currently exploding seems to be very ahistorical and a lot about fashion-centred appropriations. But these appropriations are happening in spite of history. Whether it’s Wakanda [the mythical northeast African kingdom that is the setting of the 2018 Marvel superhero movie Black Panther] or the designer Basotho blanket jacket, it’s just a random mixture of things that is suddenly supposed to affirm something …

“Having struggled with the Western classical archive of music and understood its intentions and having also struggled with African performance traditions and understood the gestures, I felt the need for something that it is integrated at a deeper level.”

Zulu Song Cycle is his answer to this creative calling. He explains that the song cycle is widely associated with the German lieder form pioneered by composers such as Schubert, Weber and Beethoven.

“Unlike the large-scale works typified in forms such as opera, the song cycle is an intimate one driven a lot by the lyricism of the words sung. Given the fact that Zulu is a tonal language, it makes it a language very suitable for this kind of form, along with its nuanced gesture,” he says.

Zulu Song Cycle is, in part, a compilation of songs that draw on the spirits and cultural legacy of the KwaZulu-Natal region, with the likes of renegade singer Busi Mhlongo, Zulu classical composer, musician, singer and poet Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu and epic poet Mazisi Kunene inhabiting the music. Deeply diverse in its pool of time and geography-crossing sources, the performance will also include renditions of solo cello pieces by JS Bach and healing songs by medieval composer Hildegard von Bingen, who was considered to be a heretic nun during her time.

“One thing I get from Princess Magogo and Mazisi Kunene, who are both modernisers of African performance traditions, is their economy of means. Magogo sings her own dramas; she answers to herself, while she is playing ugubhu [a stringed bow and calabash instrument],” says Mhlambi.

“If you think about Wagner’s project — the integration of all the arts into musical stage works that entailed a very forceful kind of grandeur and drama — and then you look at Magogo, the drama is similarly big and bold.

“Equally in Mazisi’s poems, he’ll be joining wide temporalities, moving boldly between the past and the future, but with great economy, in a very stripped-down way. And I think these are particular decisions which they are choosing to make and that’s what my approach is about … The cello imitates the sound of the ugubhu musical bow that Princess Magogo would play, while the voice soars above it in a kind of dramatic musical dialogue.”

Mhlambi is the National Research Foundation postdoctoral fellow in innovation at the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town. Although he has his feet firmly in the present and has published on topics including kwaito, house music and loudspeaker broadcasting, his compositions arise out of a deep engagement with the rich history of Southern Africa.

An apt performance for the start of Africa Month, Zulu Song Cycle draws on some key historical moments and figures, notably the 18th-century Xhosa poet Ntsikana. It is said that Ntsikana began to preach a message of modernity to his people before the European missionaries arrived. One of his instructions was that people should throw away the red clay paste (udaka olubomvu) that they used to smear on their faces, a practice that came to be deemed “uncivilised” (ubuqaba) after the arrival of the 

“I’m being Ntsikana in the song and I’m picturing myself trying to preach something that has no precedent whatsoever, because he supposedly wanted to preach a message of Christian conversion to his people.”

Given the decolonial tenor of our times, this might seem like a conservative reference to some, who might narrowly read Ntsikana as a proponent of Western modernity/coloniality.

“But all the new African intellectuals are like that,” says Mhlambi. “[Writer HIE] Dhlomo is similarly seen as a controversial figure because he was saying the problem with Africans is they have a tendency to make everything sacrosanct and they must get rid of this superstitious mindset so that they can come fully into modernity.

“I understand the role of a prophet as being someone who brings something before it happens. So essentially what Ntsikana was speaking about was the inevitability of what was about to happen. So, if you want to excel, come into this new way of doing things. And indeed those that did, the first converts were the first ones to be getting clerk positions, to be getting promoted … And those who resisted soon became irrelevant. I feel that that is what Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is about.”

This seems to be a contrarian view in the context of a postcolonial post-apartheid culture that is strongly invested in salvaging and honouring the sanctity of the precolonial. But, luckily for his audiences, Mhlambi is an artist, not a polemicist.

“I’m not saying let’s take this and live by the precepts of Ntsikana — no. Ntsikana keeps saying in the song, ‘I keep trying to preach to them to throw away the red clay, but I can’t quite enter them, I can’t penetrate them’.

“So the song could in fact be showing the opposite — those things that, as Mazisi Kunene would say, notwithstanding colonialism, were unshakeable, those things that people chose to believe about themselves. Take someone like Samuel Moroka suddenly defying the Anglicans, who have taken him to Saint Augustine College in the UK, by defiantly paying bride price.”

It’s that unspoken strategy of adopting the mode of the coloniser, but simultaneously barbing, undoing and railing against it that is so well described by critical theorist Homi Bhabha. “Yes! I can’t look at this stuff outside of that perspective. It’s that tension between agreement and defiance that I’m interested in.”

Earlier this year, Mhlambi launched a campaign involving intellectual African composers in co-operation with the Luthuli Museum, Marianhill Monastery and the United States consulate. He drew on the inspiration of Enoch Sontonga, Tiyo Soga, and James and John Johnson (United States) and the campaign was selected as the Creative Design of the Week by City Press.

Although he might laugh off the term, Mhlambi is unpretentiously “glocal” in mind and mode. He is proudly rooted in Newcastle, in the foothills of the Drakensberg, where he runs a creative-hub project called Afropolitan Explosive. Last year he composed a tone poem, Isililo esamboza Umhlaba, based on the life of Shaka, which was premiered in the KZN Concert Series in Durban.

But he is also very much a citizen of the world. In 2016, his composition Uyambona lo Mfana was performed by the Delta Ensemble of Modern Music in Brazil. He has lectured in music at the University of Maranhão (Brazil) and the University of Jyväskylä (Finland). He is also involved in a number of music-related Brics (Brazil, Russia, China, India, South Africa) bloc initiatives, including AfroAsia (to expand know-ledge on the musical exchanges that took place between Africa and India from the 13th century) as well as the Sonologia: Sound Studies initiative at the University of São Paulo.

In innovative African style, Mhlambi frequently talks to his audiences while on stage, mixing entrancing musical textures with song and declamatory vocal lines. In addition to drawing on hybrid sources, the Zulu Song Cycle concert will be formally experimental. Mhlambi and his cello will be accompanied on stage by writer Shiba Mazaza (MC/narrator/interlocutor), Ncebakazi Mnukwana (Xhosa uhadi bow) and Theo Ndindwa (dancer).

Mazaza has worked with the likes of Toya Delazy, Hugh Masekela and Pharrell Williams and recently helped to bring the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival to life.

Mnukwana is a lecturer in African music and music education at the Stellenbosch University and has worked on many collaborations with the likes of Khoi Konnexion and Cape Cultural Collective.

The director of the Ikapa Dance Theatre Company, Ndindwa harnesses his relationships with dancers, choreographers and composers around the globe to bring vibrancy to the Cape Town dance scene.

Zulu Song Cycle will be performed at the Masambe Theatre, Baxter Theatre Centre, on Saturday May  26 at 6pm. Tickets cost R100 from Webtickets at or call 0861 915 800 or at

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