An Early Music Revival: African Intellectuals as Composers

As early as the 19th century, Africa already had intellectuals who also excelled as composers of music. They took what was a western education and music training and made something of their own. The Early African Intellectuals as Composers of Music project puts a spotlight on this cultural renaissance. Tiyo Soga, who was the first African to be ordained minister under the Presbyterian Church and worked at translating the Bible into Xhosa, Enoch Sontonga, composer of ‘Nkosi Sikelela’, Ntsikana, poet and renowned prophet, and Nokutela Dube who was a music pedagogue, are but some of the composers highlighted by the project.

Dr. Thokozani Mhlambi, cellist, composer and cultural innovator is on a task to revive interest in the work of early African intellectuals, who actively practiced as composers of music as well. This used to happen in the context of the church or school-hall in the mission stations across the country, where the music was performed. But gradually this shifted with technology, towards more gramophone records and radio broadcasts, as people moved to cities and towns. Rueben Caluza for instance, sold like hot cakes in the 1920s and 1930s, in his ragtime-inspired tunes for vocal groups; which crowds of people danced to through the night in the concert-and-dance events that would happen in places like Durban and Johannesburg.

The project’s work is to awaken the African to their early musical and intellectual brilliance. By taking a look back into the past, contemporary Africans get an opportunity to peek into what the pioneers of previous generations were able to innovate.

The Early African Intellectuals as Composers music project will be launched in a seminar on the 15th of May 2019 at the Urban Futures Centre, at the Durban University of Technology. The project will run a three month long archive and digital campaign, which will eventually lead to a live exhibition concert. The Durban edition of the exhibition concert will be held in July at the Killie Campbell Africana Library and Museum in Morningside. The Cape Town edition takes place in September.

The compositions of these musicians are among those that will be performed by Dr. Thokozani Mhlambi, who is also Artist-In-Residence at the Mazisi Kunene Museum, together with a string ensemble, UKZN Music School opera students and award winning jazz pianist Lonwabo Mafani, a student at the South Africa College of Music, at UCT.

“I believe that more than ever we need to celebrate and honour African excellence,” Dr Mhlambi said, who is also a recipient of the National Research Foundation Post-doctoral Fellowship in Innovation—one of the few to be given to someone in the artistic disciplines.

The project is supported by the following partners: National Arts Council, Mazisi Kunene Museum, Durban Music School, Afropolitan Explosiv, Urban Futures Centre at DUT and the Killie Campbell Africana Library, a part of UKZN.§



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