Cellist launches social media campaign to celebrate black composers

Johannesburg - Music in the African home has often taken the form of an additional family member. From resembling the aunt who comforts in conflict, to the grandfather who tells stories that inform the history of the family heritage, to being a part of the daily home experience. It’s rare to find the absence of at least one songstress in an African home.

South African composer and cultural theorist Thokozani Mhlambi, who holds a PhD in music, has embarked on a campaign to celebrate great black composers, just in time for the US’s Black History Month this month.

Music in black American history dates back to slave-era field hollers, spirituals and gospel, and goes on to blues, soul and hip-hop, which arose out of the historical condition of slavery that characterised the lives of African-Americans. It gave the African working classes a new sense of identity and means of communicating what was sometimes limited by words.

Using photographs and videos, Mhlambi is celebrating the memory of the likes of Nkosi Sikelela composer Enoch Sontonga; journalist, minister, translator, missionary, and composer of hymns Tiyo Soga; US Lift Every Voice and Sing composer James Johnson; and Ntsikana, the great Xhosa poet of the 18th century.

“[Last year] The Economist rated Sontonga’s Nkosi Sikelela as the best national anthem in the world,” Mhlambi notes.

The work displayed in the campaign illustrates Mhlambi playing his beautiful cello, photographed in front of black historical sites, such as the Anton Lembede mural located in the CBD of Durban; Mariannhill Monastery in Pinetown, where many early African intellectuals studied; and Luthuli Museum in KwaDukuza. It provides a contrast of then and now, and the evolution of music in the black community.

Mhlambi told #Trending: “The campaign intends to take the debate away from the political arena and bring it back to the ground by using Black History Month to celebrate black historical music and musicians.”

Mhlambi also references his personal journey: “My musical tutelage did not begin in formal places like concert halls and opera houses, but in the living room of my grandparents’ home, where we would congregate every evening to sing Wesley hymns,” he said.

He chose to focus on formal compositions from black composers who have forged a legacy surviving through generations. “The focus on African composers was to draw us back into a history we do not know much about.”

(Photos: City Press/Snamandla Gumede and Mandla Mbuyisa)

Mhlambi describes information relating to early African composers as being poor. “We don’t have an education that has taught us to affirm ourselves. Or one that allows African subjects to be creators of their own meaning. Instead, we remain in an ethnic orientation about the history of our music.”

With this campaign, Mhlambi intends to bring back the role of music as culture that allows people to define who they are and not just as a commodity. He also wants to advocate further research into archival manuscripts of African composers.

Mhlambi says the campaign will culminate in a series of concerts to be held at venues in Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal.

Follow the #africancomposers hashtag on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram to see more in the series. Follow Mhlambi on Instagram at @thokozani_mhlambi for info about the concerts