Thursday, April 4, 2013 Bongani Ndodana-Breen's Piano Concerto 'Mzilikazi: Emhlabeni' Premieres at Festival, is 'a homage to Prof. Mzilikazi Khumalo'

"IN THE FAMILY: Music was always present when Bongani Ndodana-Breen was growing up in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON"

Bongani Ndodana-Breen writes:
Hi Bill: herewith a conversation in Business Day with veteran journalist and cultural commentator Gwen Ansell on the state of art music in South Africa. Regards, Bongani

AfriClassical presents an excerpt from the article; it mentions Prof. James Stephen Mzilikazi Khumalo (b. 1932), who is featured at

Business Day Live
Life / Arts & Entertainment

Bringing back the ‘Little Jazz City’ legacy

by Gwen Ansell, April 04 2013, 05:51
MORE than 60 years ago, Queenstown, in the Eastern Cape, was South Africa’s "Little Jazz City". Almost every black home hosted an instrument, or a player or singer of note, and musical dynasties such as the Matshikiza family were being established. By the time composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen was born there, in 1975, apartheid had dismantled much of the self-confident prosperity on which that bustling cultural milieu had been founded, but the legacy remained.

"Growing up, music was always present," says Ndodana-Breen. "One of my great-aunts played the piano. 
Based in Cape Town, we talk in Johannesburg on the eve of the premiere of his piano concerto, Mzilikazi: Emhlabeni, at the city’s International Mozart Festival, and anticipating the July premiere of Credo, his oratorio based on the text of the Freedom Charter, written for the University of South Africa’s 140th anniversary.

Since those childhood experiences, he has achieved much: work in Canada and the US; the directorship of various ensembles and cultural organisations; commissions from a dozen orchestras and festivals from Trinidad and Hong Kong to Eisenstadt and the Wigmore Hall; operas based on the poetry of Guy Butler, and on the lives of Chris Hani and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and more.

The new concerto marked an additional landmark: "It was my first piano concerto and, I believe, the first such from a composer of colour here. It’s a homage to Prof Mzilikazi Khumalo, a great man of music and letters, but also — because it is based on his liberation anthem, Bawo Thixo Somandla — a bridge between the two parallel musical worlds that have grown up here: the white orchestral/classical world and the black choral world."

He well understands the roots of that separation. Classical music had been appreciated and played in many black homes before apartheid, "but with the advent of the performing arts councils and Nationalist rule, a barrier was placed around it. It became a property of cultural identity for one group, no longer really about the art." His own education reflected that. At the elite but relatively progressive St Andrews School, South African concert music was studied "via compositions by Hubert du Plessis. The same with literature: I think I was set one poem by Mongane Wally Serote. However liberal, we still had to pass Cape matric."

The school did encourage extracurricular awareness of African culture, though, and he found alternatives. By his mid-teens, he was writing his own music for school productions and church, and escaping to the International Library of African Music in Grahamstown. "I spent whole afternoons absorbed in the most wonderful field recordings from across Africa."

Referencing familiar themes, as Ndodana-Breen does in Mzilikazi: Emhlabeni, is one strategy for opening a sound-world to new audiences. Employing traditional musical textures is another. "Writing a concerto, one can be haunted by Grieg and Rachmaninov. I decided to use different, sparse, African textures. The piano is the first among equals, not a prima donna. There are patterns from amadinda and mbira music and passages of near-transparency. Sometimes I’m trying to make 65 orchestral players sound like 12."

He remains optimistic about the future. "I think 2013 could be the year South African classical music turns a corner."

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