Chit Chat: Nondumiso Tembe

2011-02-04 12:04

Durbanite Nondumiso Tembe has a fine performance pedigree. Her parents, Linda Bukhosini and Bongani Tembe, are African opera pioneers and now this multitalented 26-year-old artist is blazing her own trail. Lesley Mofokeng catches up with her.

Tell us about your background
I was born in Durban and my parents moved to New York, where I grew up from three to 10. My involvement in the performing arts has been quite broad – as an ­actress, singer, songwriter, dancer and choreographer.

I studied ballet and dancing for 10 years at places like the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and the Djoniba African Dance and Drum Centre, both in New York, and also at the Playhouse in Durban.

How did your parents’ success ­inspire you?

My mother is the chief executive and artistic director of the Playhouse in Durban, and my father is the chief executive and artistic ­director of the KwaZulu-Natal ­Philharmonic Orchestra.

It was ­inevitable I would study classical ­singing and I ended up with a BA in Fine Arts from the New School University in New York, majoring in theatre and political science, and a Masters of Fine Arts from Yale University and Oxford ­University.

You seem to have your fingers in too many pies, though
I do this because it’s my calling. I am not interested in pursuing frivolous things in the entertainment industry.

God and the universe call people to contribute to the community and my vehicle is my art. I am sociopolitically conscious and passionate.

What drives your art?
Breaking down negative stereotypes, especially about Africans. I would like to represent our people in ways that go against these perceptions.

I take pride in telling our people’s stories and rising above racism and prejudice.

And your music?
It is a reflection of my life on the two continents I have lived on. It’s old, new, traditional, modern, African and Western, with neo-soul and classical influences.

I also like maskandi and mbaqanga, especially the former because it’s so political by nature. It will never die as it will remain relevant.

My challenge is how, as a young woman, to sing really good traditional ­music, something my peers seem not interested in.

Who did you work with on your album?

I’ve been very lucky to work with great talents such as Mbongeni Ngema, Phuzekhemisi, Madala Kunene and Young Nation on my debut album.

Your favourite musicians?
My all-time favourites are Mfaz’omnyama and Busi Mhlongo. I also admire Angelique Kidjo, Khadja Nin, Miriam Makeba, Tu Nokwe and Fela Kuti.

How is life for you in LA?
I travel between New York and LA so that I can work on my film career. I starred in NCIS LA with Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J.

I think it aired in November or December last year in South Africa. It’s interesting that I have become the “go to” African woman to tell African stories.

Perhaps my revolutionary attitude of breaking up stereotypes as an actor is making headway. I’ve played a Congolese woman, a West African, an East African and a Haitian woman.

What are you doing in theatre?
I am in Witness Uganda, a modern Ugandan story about a group of friends who “adopt” 10 orphans and put them through school with their Be The Change NGO.

The play follows their journey and I am Joy Mukasa, who is kind of a villain but is not. She is just a ferocious woman who runs the orphanage and has had it tough and has no time to be nice. We’re aiming to get it on Broadway.

What’s the biggest challenge facing young Africans today?
We’ve allowed the influence of hip-hop, pop and American celebrity reality TV to seep in and allowed ourselves to buy into Hollywood and Western values that are not about us and are destructive.

We have such a rich legacy of music from Sophiatown and before that.

We have the struggle songs we took to the world as part of the anti-apartheid movement.

It’s sad we’re not carrying the torch. Why should we copy Americans? It’s a slap in the face of our history.

How many languages do you speak?
I speak English and isiZulu of course, French, Spanish, isiXhosa, Afrikaans and I am learning Swahili. And I have made a conscious decision to polish up my seSotho.

What’s the biggest misconception about you?
Some people take me too seriously when they hear all of these things like opera, Yale University, French and so on.

They don’t know that I’m silly and goofy. I love to laugh. I really am the goofiest and most tomboyish person in the world.

Where in the world would you like to settle?

I am proud to be a Durbanite. It feels good that your government is behind you and wants to see you succeed and get your voice heard with a programme like KZNMusic company, which helps us musicians from KZN to put our province on the map.

I want to establish a ­career and a body of work that will allow me to live anywhere in the world and be able to work in LA or New York. I want to be based ekhaya.

Your message to young people like yourself?
I challenge my peers to come to the party. Our parents have done their part and it’s our turn now. We are having it easy.

The problems we face today are nothing compared to what our parents had to go through. One thing my parents taught me is that you must reach your potential to effect positive change given the opportunity, resources, means and health.

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