The pipes are calling

2010-01-11 00:00

DESCRIBED by friends as a musical prodigy, Themba Xulu could have become a jazz pianist or a member of a band. Instead, he chose to follow his love for a particular instrument and a particular genre of music. The instrument is the pipe organ and the genre church music. These passions have taken his life on an unusual trajectory. Listening to him wax lyrical about pipe organs is an experience in sheer poetry. His face lights up, his eyes move to embrace those soaring pipes reaching up into the ceiling. For Xulu, the sound of a pipe organ is the purest form of music. His dream is to play a role in helping to preserve every pipe organ in the province. He was the first black musician to perform on the city hall organ in 2002 to mark its 100th anniversary and he was praised for his performance. Playing pipe organs, which are technically challenging instruments, takes a long time to master. For Xulu, it was the thrill of a lifetime being able to play the city hall pipe organ. Sadly, he has not been able to repeat the performance because it is difficult getting a booking at the city hall. He says that every time he has tried, he’s been told that council holds meetings in the main hall so the organ cannot be played. This means that the organ only gets to be played by visiting organists giving concerts in the city.

Xulu recalls a recent debate involving the pipe organ at the Durban City Hall where mainly black councillors were reluctant to set aside money to restore the organ. They felt it was a waste of money. “There is no sense of ownership, no sense of understanding the power of the instrument and how lucky we are to have them. I feel strongly that if more black organists who are skilled in playing pipe organs were given a chance to play them, people would take ownership of these instruments and realise why they are important to preserve for future generations,” he says.

Xulu (47) is a maths and science teacher at Njoloba High School in Howick. He has been the resident organist at the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Nativity for the past 10 years. He has also played the organ in churches of different denominations in the city, as well as in Durban and Cape Town. His services as a church musician span a period of over 30 years and he was recently honoured for this contribution by Anglican Bishop Rubin Phillip. Xulu was presented with the Order of the Holy Nativity for Distinguished Lay Service to the Diocese of Natal.

He almost didn’t become a musician. Xulu recalls his mother Agnes teaching him to play the piano at their home in Edendale when he had just turned six. The problem was that he got so involved in the piano that his parents feared he was neglecting his school work, so they locked the instrument away. This was the time when there were a lot of activities going on at the Edendale YMCA so his parents sent him there to get involved in sport. However, the YMCA had just acquired a new piano and instead of playing sport, Xulu hung around Joyce Mseleku, the music teacher and choir mistress. Mseleku, the mother of Thami Mseleku, former director-general of health, picked up on his talent and offered to teach him the piano.

“This was all done in secret. I never told my mother, until she attended a concert at the YMCA. This is when she gave in, but I had to prove to her that I could keep up with my school work as well as my piano lessons,” he said.

Xulu started playing the organ during church services while he was still at school. He played at the Federal Theological Seminary (Fedsem) in Edendale where he was recruited by Bishop Sigqibo and Father Crispin. He remembers playing for the 7.30 am service at St Peter’s in Fedsem, then rushing over to the Machibisa Methodist Church where he played for the 9.30 am service. After completing his matric, he was taken by his uncle, the Reverend Emmanuel Ngubane, to St Augustine’s in Umlazi, Durban, where he became the organist, until he moved to a parish in KwaMashu, and then left to study in the Western Cape

His family was Presbyterian but he so enjoyed playing the hymns at the Anglican services that he eventually asked his parents if he could join the Anglican Church. They gave him their blessing. Xulu says that the Anglicans have a very rich musical tradition and some of the finest classical church music.

He first fell in love with the pipe organ while still at school and remembers sneaking in at the back at the Old St Saviour’s Church, which has since been demolished, in Albert Luthuli Road, to hear the organist play. He also hung around the cathedral, listening to the music, too scared to enter during those apartheid days. This was where he was found by Dean John Forbes, who invited him in and later Phillip asked him to become the organist for the diocese.

Xulu recalls that Catholics, especially the late Archbishop Dennis Hurley, also played a part in his life. “I was invited by the nuns to play at a confirmation mass in Esigodini. Archbishop Hurley led the service and later he asked the priest about the young boy he heard playing the organ. A few weeks later the priest approached me and said the archbishop wanted to meet me. I was given a bus ticket to go to Durban and was told that somebody holding up my name would meet me at the depot. I was taken to Archbishop Hurley’s house where he told me how impressed he was by my playing and offered me a scholarship to study music. I told him I wanted to study for a B.Sc degree first. He said that was not a problem. I remember saying, but I am not going to become a Catholic, I’ve already changed to an Anglican. He was very amused and said that was not a prerequisite. So I ended up getting a very big bursary from the Catholic Church, which allowed me to study at the University of the Western Cape.”

Xulu says he was further assisted in his studies by Catholics through former Pretoria mayor, Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa. This was when his brother, Sipho “MaChina” Xulu, an Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) combatant ,was on death row in Pretoria. He stayed with Mkhatshwa whenever he visited his brother, and the priest, understanding the family’s difficulties at the time, extended Xulu’s bursary which helped him to complete his studies.

It was while he was at university in Cape Town that Xulu was first given an opportunity to play a pipe organ. His teacher was John Burge and he remembers being scared the first time he touched the keys. “Sitting at the keyboard, you don’t hear the sound straight away so you have to make sure you press the correct notes and keep your timing. It is important that you practise all the time,” he says.

Xulu once described himself as being married to the organ, calling it a selfish and demanding instrument. The result is that when he is not teaching, all his spare time is spent at the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity, choosing hymns and practising. This is also because he is in such demand to play at weddings and funerals. He says that what is most remarkable is that he can be walking down the street when he meets somebody and they will say, hey Themba, when I die, I want you to play at my funeral.

“I often get calls from friends and acquaintances who say so-and-so has died and their last wish was that you play at their funeral.

“Or when people walk out of a service, I will be approached by someone who will say, please play the hymn that you played at my funeral. The result of all of this is that I spend most of my time at church, I really am a church mouse,” he says.

Xulu is a member of the Royal School of Church Music and also takes time to train other organists, some of whom are still playing in various churches. One of his students, Musa Ndlovu, is the director of music at the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity. Another of his students, Ntuthuko Sibisi, plays for KwaZulu-Natal’s top gospel group, Joyous Celebration, and is a director of music at Umlazi Secondary School. He says that when he is playing, children often sit around him, and it is how he notes those who are interested and offers to teach them.

His sons have followed indirectly in his footsteps. Xolani and Simphiwe are involved in gospel music, while his youngest, Siyanda, who is often seen with Xulu at the cathedral, plays the marimba.

People often ask Xulu why he does not use his talent to make money or why he did not join a band. He says it’s hard to describe, but with music it is about following your heart.

“Perhaps unwittingly in my youth, I chose the right path, because with my brother, MaChina, being a political activist and executed on death row, there was, and still is, so much to come to terms with. The music has been healing.”

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