Book extract: A passport to fame

Odyssey of an African Opera Singer 

by Musa Ngqungwana

Penguin Books

195 pages


International opera star Musa Ngqungwana was born in Zwide township in Port Elizabeth and found his voice when he joined the school choir because he wanted to date a girl who was a member.

His impoverished circumstances didn’t stop him from dreaming of singing on the world’s stages.

In this extract from his memoir, he writes about how a visit to the home affairs department changed his destiny

From the day I turned 16 and got an ID document, I’d had this dream.

I remember what sparked it: on the day I went to apply for my ID at the home affairs department, the queue was very long.

Curiously, the queue for passport applications was much shorter.

There were about two black folks in the line, five Indian people, three coloured people and more than 30 white people.

It appeared to move much faster than our queue, which processed matters of identification, birth certificates, marriages and other domestic services.

Our queue was full of crying babies and stressed-out people who had forgotten their supporting documents or didn’t have enough money to pay the required fees.

The passport queue, though, seemed full of travellers, entrepreneurs and proprietors; it appeared these complications did not exist for them.

Every one of them, including my black brethren, had everything he or she needed.

They all looked important and respected. No government officer screamed at them or patronised them, as they did with the general population in my queue.

Right then, I knew I wanted a passport.

LADY AND THE TRAMP The author performs the part of Amonasro opposite Latonia Moore as Aida in last year’s English National Opera production of Verdi’s Aida. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Where would I go with a passport?

I had no idea.

Where would the flight, accommodation, visa and spending money come from?

I hadn’t the slightest clue – I could not even afford school fees.

But I knew I wanted that damn passport so that I could have what those other folks had – a sense of purpose and a vision of a destination.

I enquired of the officer who attended to my ID application about the process of obtaining a passport.

He looked condescendingly at me as I spoke, but, by law, he was required to help me, so he gave me the application form and told me about the fees.

I raised the money.

It took a while, and many sacrifices, but, by the end of the year, I had my passport.

It arrived fewer than three weeks after I’d applied; my ID took three months to process.

I told no one at school about this.

A classmate once told me I was a dreamer when I said that one day I’d travel the world, and that I’d love to walk the streets of New York City, ride the subway and see shows on Broadway.

He shot down my dream with a grim dose of reality, saying, “Dude, don’t kid yourself. None of us will ever leave the city, let alone the province.

"If any of us are lucky, we’ll get hired at Volkswagen, Ford, General Motors, General Tyre or Shatterprufe.

"Then, perhaps in five years, with your bonus, you can visit Joburg with friends to go see some award show. But New York? Who do you think you are?”

It came from what he thought was a good place, to protect me from setting myself up for a major disappointment.

I may have had nothing credible to counter his assertions, but I knew I was right to follow my instinct.

So, I had the passport, but it would take me a while to figure out what to do with it.

But reality soon kicked in.

I’d finished high school and struggled to raise registration fees for college.

When I finally got to college, I couldn’t afford it.

I was down.

Distressed, with no plan. Makhaya’s group kept me busy for a while.

I thought something of substance would come of it. When it didn’t, I still had my dreams.

That passport, which I had applied for three years earlier, reminded me that I had an appointment with destiny.

The magazines I read, with their pictures of capital cities around the world and interesting facts about them, came alive.

I knew New York City was where I wanted to go – I just didn’t know how to get there.

Out on my own, I needed something that would turn my dreams into reality.

After leaving the Glorious Singers, I found out that Nonkie and Sabelo had not got that far in setting up a new group. They needed a driving force, a responsibility that I assumed.

Sibongile Xhathi, a baritone, joined us.

An elderly chap, he had also been in Makhaya’s group and had also quit.

We agreed that once we made money, we would split it among ourselves and put a little into a joint bank account.

We also needed a constitution, funding and new singers. I created the constitution, which I fashioned off the National Arts Council of SA’s constitution.

The group from Uitenhage was back.

After much deliberation about a name, we came up with the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Opera Ensemble.

Nonkie and I were to play a fundamental role in setting up our marketing and funding, and in securing concert venues and accompanists for our performances.

It sounded like a wonderful plan; this time, we were determined to see it through.

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