What does it mean to compose for the nation, rather than for a select few?

22 Dec 2021
Songezo Mtshixa performing in the Baxter Theatre Gardens. Image courtesy of Thokozani Mhlambi.
22 Dec 2021

On the 18th of September 2021, Thokozani Mhlambi curated a concert at the Baxter Theatre gardens. This was as part of his Homecoming Tour, following his residency in Paris in 2020.

The concert took Heritage Month, and the diversity of cultural influences which make-up South Africa, as inspiration.

The opening set was dedicated to early African composers such as Enoch Sontonga and John Knox Bokwe. Mhlambi played Plea for Africa on the cello, an anthem composed by John Knox Bokwe (1855-1922), accompanied by Lonwabo Mafani on the piano.

John Knox Bokwe is today particularly known for this anthem, Plea for Africa. But in his lifetime, Bokwe busied himself with a variety of accomplishments other than music, such as biographical writing (on Ntsikana) and biblical reflections. In his musical output Bokwe seems to have encapsulated his intellectual endeavour which was to retrieve African configurations in terms of ideas and combine these with European ideas. Ntongela Masilela quotes from ZKMatthews in describing Bokwe as a man who “drank deep at the spring of western civilisation and yet they remained true Africans, loyal to the best traditions of their people and good examples of what has been described as the African personality.”

Plea for Africa was made particularly prominent by the nation-building choral festivals that began to spring up in different areas across the country in the mid-1980s, as part of the united efforts and community activism that gave birth to democracy. What the Congress of South African Writer’s achieved in the area of literature and dramatic arts, the nation- building choral festivals did through music. The movement gave shape to the careers of the likes of Sibongile Khumalo and others. Prof Mzilikazi Khumalo did an arrangement of the piece in staff notation (from Tonic-Solfa).

For Mhlambi, having this tune at the opening of the programme was about recalling these great ancestors of music. He went on to invoke the concept of ‘anthem’ and what its role was in history.

The term anthem which originates from the Old English word antefn which was taken from ancient Greek term for antiphone. In its original framing, it described a kind of group singing that was split into parts, with one group singing a section of the music, and another group singing the response. When the printing of music for group singing became common in the 18th and 19th century, anthems were those tunes which were widely sung. Innovations in music notation, with the advent of John Curwen’s tonic solfa notation system in 1843 allowed even those with little or no formal music education the ability to read and sing music by note.

Mhlambi observed that thinking about music using the anthem tradition highlights a different orientation to music than the tradition favoured by the commercial recording industry today. Anthems in their nature are participatory: they are less about the impressive virtuosity of the performer on stage and more about the collective voices of the community of singers. The history of early African composers, such as Sontonga, Bokwe and others, shows that they composed songs in the anthem tradition. Mhlambi elaborated on the relevance of anthems for his concert:

I wanted to use the notion of anthem to help me understand other similar forms such as ihubo in Zulu, igwijo in Xhosa, and what it may have meant for someone to refer to ihubo as an anthem, or how does the Bible translate Psalms of David as Amahubo in Zulu, for example.

My question is: what does it mean to compose for the nation, rather than for a select few? Where is the space for this kind of music, this kind of orientation, is it accommodated in the IP business-model of today?”

This is a point Mhlambi kept on returning to throughout his performance, which was, in some ways, also a lecture.

For the second set in the concert, Mhlambi introduced Kitso Seti, a Cape Town-based performer. Seticombines spoken-word, poetry and African soul music to create his own unique style of performance. He allows his scholarship as a Masters student in political studies to speak through his performance.

For the third set, Mhlambi invited Kholisile Theo Ndindwa, a contemporary dancer, on the stage. Ndindwa performed a choreography he created to Mhlambi’s rendition of Tiyo Soga’s anthem, Lizalise Idinga lakho. This piece appears in Mhlambi’s first album, Zulu Song Cycle.

In the fourth and final set, Mhlambi premiered some of his own works. The most notable of which was awork for pure-intonation piano and baroque cello. This meant that the piano at the Baxter had to be specially tuned for the occasion. Mhlambi guided this process of tuning, based on his studies on tuning systems, which he presented as a paper at the APC R&D Workshop in 2020. These innovations in tuning and the use of a baroque instrument gave the music an ancient feel. The sound proved most agreeable in the setting on the slopes of Hoerikwaggo (the Khoi word for Table Mountain). The history of Khoi communities is a story yet to be fully told in the context of a new Africa. But what is undisputed is that they took music very seriously, and saw it as a key aspect of healing. Maybe that is what they are wanting to teach us today.