Interview With Renowned Cellist, Composer And Musician Thokozani Ndumiso Mhlambi

Thokozani Ndumiso Mhlambi

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.

Extensive Music Experience

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.

Thokozani Mhlambi
Thokozani Ndumiso Mhlambi

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).

In this interview, Thokozani Ndumiso Mhlambi shares with us more about his love for music.

AFRICA.COM: Please give us a brief explanation about bringing Zulu Song Cycle to the Eastern Cape for the first time?

Thokozani Ndumiso Mhlambi:

Showcasing the Zulu Song Cycle in the Eastern Cape at the National Arts Festival was like coming home, as so many of the moments depicted in the musical stories are about the Eastern Cape. People like the 18th century Xhosa Prophet Ntsikana, whose life story has inspired so much music, and is the subject of one of the main tracks in the Zulu Song Cycle.

I also find audiences in the Eastern Cape quite receptive to life performance. This is something really great, as you find that in other places, like where I come from in KZN, it is electronic (DJ) music that dominates. I believe this has something to do with the long history of choral music and jazz in the Eastern Cape, which has produced many artists.

AFRICA.COM: You indicate that you are a cellist, composer and musician, what exactly does that mean, and can you provide some of your best work?

Thokozani Ndumiso Mhlambi:

When you travel all over the world, you notice that although there are many of us who were trained as classical musicians, in the conservatories and universities, however many of us have started to deviate from the conventions of what we have been taught. As we start to experiment with new ways of playing our instruments, and producing sounds we then have to take on all the labels simultaneously, of being composers and performers of the music we create.

I think that is where I fit, and it gives me a great pleasure when I am able to collaborate with other cellists across the world who do things like me. I had that very opportunity recently in my travels in different parts of the USA.

In my own work, I like to integrate the epic genre of storytelling, often related to great moments in history, and then using certain instrumental and vocal effects in conveying the meaning. The result is like a sound-travel series.

AFRICA.COM: Where do you see yourself headed in the next 10 years?

Thokozani Ndumiso Mhlambi:

I see myself as a bridge between different traditions of performance; and in 10 years I hope to widen opportunities for such collaboration and cooperation across wider territories. I think for me this has to do with better inter-connection between artists in Africa and elsewhere in the globe. I also see enveloped in that move an emphasis on experimental pedagogical approaches; which entails educating the next generation, while promoting the idea of life-long learning. For as an artist one must always re-learn again, in order to continue to reinvent and develop creatively.

AFRICA.COM: You are currently curating the “Early African Intellectuals as Composers of Music” Project, in short #africancomposers, tell us more about it?

Thokozani Ndumiso Mhlambi:

This is a project whose aim is to bring attention to the creative output of African intellectuals such as Enoch Sontonga (composer of Nkosi Sikelela), Sotho composer J Mohapeloa, 1920s composer of jazz inspired tunes Reuben Caluza and many others who have shaped the field of popular music as we know it today in South Africa. Their story seems to be missing in how we understand our music today. For to truly have a grasp of where we are going, we must have a strong sense of where we come from. This information about past composers, can influence our ideas about music today; this includes Gqom DJs, choral singers, gospel artists, etc.

When we are able to maximize on all the resources (past and present) we have at our disposal then we have no limit in terms of where we can go. We then have an unlimited creative potential.

AFRICA.COM: We know you are an artistic innovator and you uses your music and visual exhibitions to tell stories that impact people and how they see themselves and the world. Can you explain what this means and why is this important for Africa and for you?

Thokozani Ndumiso Mhlambi:

I think this point is about what we do, in the process of making culture. It has become a matter of routine to remember what others once did to us, however tragic that memory may be. But we have an even greater story to tell, of how we built and expanded beyond the limitations. It is about our footing in the world.

AFRICA.COM: If there were one thought that you want people to recall about you, what would that be?

Thokozani Ndumiso Mhlambi:

I think when people come to my shows I want them to be entertained, while also learning something. Its entertainment with a thesis.

Nelly Gachanja
Nelly is a digital marketing professional responsible for managing Africa.com’s social media platforms. During her leisure time, Nelly loves cooking and working on her Kenyan food blog Talkingtonelly.com. She also enjoys catching up with current affairs, updating her African music collection, watching movies, traveling, and spending time with family.