A Mighty Man and His Music – Professor Mzilikazi Khumalo

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Professor Mzilikazi Khumalo and his passion for choral music.

At a recent conference held at Unisa titled The Intellectual Legacy of Professor James Steven Mzilikazi Khumalo, DIANE DE BEER discovered how this great man became the focus of this event and why it is so important to relook at all these iconic figures who need to have the spotlight refocused on their work and their achievements:

African American Naomi André, an Associate Professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, first started a collaboration with Professor Brenda Mhlambi (Associate Professor of African Languages and Assistant Dean of Humanities at Wits) and Dr Donato Somma (Senior Lecturer in Music, Wits School of Arts) around 8 years ago (in 2010).

“I was interested in learning more about the opera scene in South Africa, especially after the dismantling of apartheid and had heard about Bongani Ndodana Breen’s Winnie: The Opera,” she says. They saw the premiere (at the State Theatre in Pretoria, 2011) and then published a cluster of articles on it in African Studies something that will also happen with the Khumalo conference to enhance his public profile.

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Diliza Khumalo, Naomi André, Donato Somma, Brenda Mhlambi

Her focus becomes clear and her interest in Mzilikazi Khumalo and the continuation of her South African collaboration is illuminated with the knowledge that she is the author of Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement (University of Illinois Press, 2018) which examines race, gender, and sexuality in opera in the US and South Africa.

Following the first collaboration, she was again involved with her two former collaborators in organising a broader conference where she met Dr Thomas Pooley  (from Unisa who served as conference convenor) with a mutual interest in choral and indigenous music. They all decided then that a working symposium that honoured the great legacy of Prof. Mzilikazi Khumalo as a linguist, choral composer, and opera composer would be a good idea.

“My main goal was (and continues to be) to find a way to have Khumalo’s works become better known, become integrated into school curricula (secondary and tertiary education in South Africa and abroad), performed more regularly, and generate scholarship on South African music,” she says. They also wanted to start small with people directly involved either as family, friends or colleagues as well as academics in the field.

In all these endeavours, she knew that collaboration was a no-brainer. “My (South African) colleagues are terrific as they knew that in order to do this, we would need to bring scholars together with members of the Khumalo family, SAMRO, and people close to Khumalo (such as conductors and musicians who had worked with him) as a way to start the process of getting this music out into a wider public.”

They realised that as South Africa is moving to decolonize their curricula and structures of knowledge, it was fitting to shine more light on Prof. Khumalo (as he is familiarly known) and his work in many interlocking areas with language, linguistics, choral music, and large operatic ventures for example Princess Magogo which was also staged at the State Theatre.

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Themba Msimang (keynote speaker and librettist), Nomavenda Mathiane, a sister, organiser Thomas Pooley and niece, Seloane Matoase

On board were both family members as well as friends and colleagues who could speak about the man and his work giving a very personal insight of how the one informed the other. For those listening it was more than an educational endeavour. The role of music in his life was evident as the different speakers (with audience members) broke into song regularly by way of illustrating a point about the music man under the spotlight. This was after all the best way to tell his story.

What stood out was the central role Prof Khumalo played in this country’s vibrant choral tradition and that, all the speakers agreed was why he had to be in concert halls and in classrooms.

Music was always central in his life and when his family members spoke, (a son, Diliza Khumalo and a sister, Nomavenda Mathiane) they captured the essence of a man whose life revolved around music. “He involved us all in his music,” said Khumalo Jnr, “and when he was involved with local choirs, his children also became members of his choirs.”

He also drew the family into the development of his compositions and when he had finished a piece, they would all have to listen. “He was also a dedicated academic and when he did research, we all did research,” added Khumalo Jnr. His father was passionate about the history and culture of the Zulu nation which explains his compositions UShaka KaSenzangakhona (described as a musical epic) and the opera Princess Magogo for example. “He had one mission and that was to compose music for the people to sing and enjoy,” he concluded.

His sister on the other hand gave insight into their childhood and a family that was always surrounded by music. “We could all play instruments and music was a part of our lives from a very early age,” she explained. Choirs, she believes is where he honed his music skills.

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Professor James Steven Mzilikazi Khumalo

“He was a teacher,” says Themba Madlopha who first encountered Prof Khumalo in a lecturer/student capacity but is now a choir master himself. He threw light on how the professor was influenced by the times, for example, his resentment of the treatment of political prisoners. “He was not at home with injustices, but he was such a gentleman, he hid it under a religious cloak. But, he found ways of including the truths in his work like a lament of the black people in apartheid chains,” he noted.

He also explained that Prof Khumalo was deeply obsessed with folk music traditions and he found a way to marry the melodic directions to the Zulu tones. “He was the most prolific composer of our time,” he said. And he agrees to all the above says poet Themba Msimang, the man who was brought on board by Khumalo as his lyricist. First on the list was Shaka which was intended as a rite of reconciliation not only for the Zulu nation (and those who betrayed Shaka) but also for South Africa as a nation. This was followed by Princess Magogo which originated as a commission from Opera Africa as the first African opera and yet, the man responsible for the lyrics had no experience of musicals or opera.

He was puzzled why he was selected but it was because of his poetry, his own love and understanding of the Zulu nation and his writing as a poet. And probably, because he wasn’t steeped in opera, he would approach it with a fresh eye which contributed a unique quality together with Khumalo’s African-inspired tone. Both of these are now considered landmark productions.

As the chairman of the committee responsible for our current national anthem, he is part of the public discourse yet his name, accomplishments and compositions should be a living part of our heritage.

In conclusion André and her collaborators are planning to publish a collection of essays that include papers that were delivered and round out the publication with other essays to provide a strong introduction to Khumalo’s work and materials for people to learn more about him and include him on the syllabi in music classrooms.

“I strongly believe that the arts and culture of a nation are very important in having that nation develop and thrive. I hope this work that brings Khumalo’s accomplishment into a brighter spotlight will also help open up other opportunities for other composers and artists. South Africa has a rich heritage in music—both in traditional and folk music, as well as the syncretic musical traditions that reveal rich intersections with the West and music from other cultures. Khumalo’s choral and operatic works are central to this legacy,” she concludes.

*The symposium was made possible through funding from an African Heritage Seed Grant from the University of Michigan and from the Department of Art History, Visual Arts and Musicology, Unisa.

 

 

 

 

 

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