Dr Thokozani Mhlambi – Renowned cellist, composer and musician

Thokozani Ndumiso Mhlambi is the NRF Postdoctoral Fellow in Innovation, at the Archive & Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town. Through his music, he explores the iconic cultural legacy of the region, with the likes of Busi Mhlongo, Princess Magogo, Mazisi Kunene – creatively through new music, combining African and classical elements. He is often seen talking with his audiences while on stage, teaching on African innovative and dramatic forms, while gripping them in mesmeric music textures, of song and declamatory vocal lines.

Mhlambi’s compositions are simple and yet musically incisive; they show a deep engagement with the archive (the rich history of southern Africa) whilst wrestling with contemporary forms; they convey the rigours of Western classical discipline, with the imaginative limitlessness of African performance traditions.

In 2016 his composition “Uyambona lo Mfana,” was performed by the Delta Ensemble of Modern Music in Brazil. He is a winner of the African Studies Prize. In 2016 he was also commissioned by New Music SA to compose an electronic piece, which was performed at the Unyazi Electronic Music Festival in Cape Town. Mhlambi was also one of the featured artists in the World Summit on Arts & Culture. His piece “Ukuxhentsa kwa Miriam: Inspired by the life of Miriam Makeba” was proudly published by the Miriam Makeba Foundation on their online platforms. “Ukuxhentsa” was originally commissioned by the Izithunguthu Precolonial Conference 2015.

In 2017, Mhlambi composed a Tone Poem, Isililo esamboza Umhlaba, based on the life of Shaka, the great Zulu king; which was premiered in Durban at the KZN Concert Series.

In 2018, he launched a campaign on African Intellectuals as composers of music, drawing on the inspiration of Enoch Sontonga, Tiyo Soga and James & John Johnson (United States), in cooperation with Luthuli Museum, Marianhill Monastery and the US Consulate. The campaign was selected as the Creative Design of the Week by City Press.

He has been a guest lecturer in Music at the University of Marinhao (Brazil), University of Jyvaskyla (Finland), where he showcased indigenous music traditions of South Africa. He has published on numerous music related topics including kwaito, house music, loudspeaker broadcasting. His paper on kwaito, “Kwaitofabulous” remains one of the most cited papers on popular music in South Africa. He is also involved in a number of music-related BRICS initiatives, including the AfroAsia (whose aim is to expand knowledge on music exchanges that took place between Africa and India from the 13th century), as well as the Sonologia: Sound Studies initiative at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. In 2017, he was invited to present in China on African Kings.

He has performed and given workshops in New York, Vancouver and Montreal (Canada), Windhoek (Namibia), Maputo (Mozambique), Gaborone (Botswana), Bulawayo (Zimbabwe).  

With all that been said I asked Thokozani a few questions to find out more about his journey.

RUAN: You are currently curating the “Early African Intellectuals as Composers of Music” Project in short #africancomposers. What has the experience been like for you thus far?

THOKOZANI: The experience is unusual, cause I believe in the academic world the kinds of ideas about early African intellectuals, including the many who were the founders of the African National Congress in 1912, are often discussed. But the challenge in this project is bringing that information across to a mainstream audience. The challenge is also exciting for me as I feel we have too often kept valuable information in ivory towers, which restrict those without access from ever coming to that knowledge. This is particularly the case when it comes to African music, so little is known, and so much taken-for-granted.

RUAN: Your debut music album is being released the end of April/ early May 2019. What can we expect from this album?

THOKOZANI: I think the album is a representation of my journey, through out the album there are interludes where I play the Bach cello suites, which are so famous in the world of Western classical music. But between these interludes are my own compositions, which are deeply invested in Africa, even as I use the cello, and sometimes the Nguni music bows. The struggle between these worlds, which on the surface seem irreconcilable, is what I have tried to bring forth in the album.

RUAN: What has the journey and process been like putting your debut album together?

THOKOZANI: I felt very vulnerable at times, in the putting together of the album. Even though I studied music up to university-level, what you discover out there in the commercial world of music production is totally different from anything you have been taught, and very often the tricks of the trade are only learnt through experience. So I am happy that I learnt a lot about the technical aspects of production: recording, mixing, mastering, etc.

RUAN: What are some of your inspirations you look for in staying true to your sound and being different?

THOKOZANI: I am inspired by my context, with Africa as my locale; but I am also aware of this Africa as transformative and global in its orientation. I think this comes out through the sounds I choose use in the album; they draw from my studies in Swedish folk music at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. So in as much as the album claims to be African, the influences are from diverse parts of the globe.

RUAN: When you look back at your journey thus far would you say your dream is finally coming to light in the way you were hoping for?

THOKOZANI: I would say yes and no. Yes because music is what I love, and through my art I like to inspire the world. But no, because when I had that dream as a kid, I did not know it would take so long, and it would cost me so much; in terms of hours spent practicing my instrument. It definitely helped having the teachers and mentors who were very committed along my path.

RUAN: When it comes to inspiring young talent in our country, what advice do you have for them to continue living out their dreams?

THOKOZANI: I think dreams much be accompanied with good sense. Idealism can be misleading, in terms of how things work in the real world. But with patience and practice, one does learn to find their own way of doing things. Your way may not work for someone else, and that is also fine.

RUAN: Are you planning on touring the country once your debut album releases? If so when do you think your fans can start seeing you perform live?

THOKOZANI: In the 2nd of half of 2019, we’ve planned a series of concerts for the album release, details will soon follow.

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