The Universe in a Musical Chord

interviewneomuyanga

OH, the things you can do with a keyboard: Johannesburg Mozart Festival’s Composer in Residence for 2017, Neo Muyanga. Photograph courtesy panafricanspacestation.org.za

MUSIC WASN’T THE first life choice of this year’s Composer in Residence for the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival. It was physics. Indeed, Neo Muyanga (b. 1974), calls music the mistress he serves under duress. He told My View about music’s grammar, 14th century madrigals and what ‘folk’ means, as well as his two works which debut in Johannesburg on February 5.

“I generally wanted to think outside of boxes that were on offer to me …” he describes the trajectory of his life, spiced by his bravery to experiment and hunger to learn, and punctuated with his ability to listen to silence. During the 1990s, he worked as a journalist for Radio 702. At the time, in collaboration with Masauko Chipembere, he formed BLK Sonshine, an acoustic duo. “It was a huge stress relief because in the daytime, I would spend my time covering protest marches or being shot at; at night I would work it all out through harmony and be back the next day for more bullets.”

Born in Soweto, Muyanga grew up singing in choirs. He elected to study madrigals at a college in Trieste, Italy; his career path was never predictable. “I started learning music theory with someone who was my history teacher in high school; I spoke to her the other day and she referred to me as ‘self taught’,” he remembers how this teacher opened doors for him that he didn’t know existed.

He learnt music theory on the piano, but not how to play it. “In Italy, I joined an avant-garde rock band – a strange place for a Soweto boy to be – and there was an amazing guitarist in it, who was also a talented economist. At some point, he decided he wasn’t going to make it as a guitarist, so he gave up the guitar and went with economics. I was so upset about this, I decided I would never ever need a guitarist in my life again. So I started playing guitar myself. I practiced like a demon for some months and became good, quickly.”

Muyanga describes his gravitation toward playing the piano as the fruit of a dream. After leaving journalism, he worked in production, where he developed his chops as a sound splicer. In the transition between reel-to-reel and digital, there was much to learn.

“While I was doing that, at some point, I dreamt I could play the piano. The next morning, on the keyboard, I thought ‘Let me just try this …’ It worked.” A miracle? “No,” he says. “I understood how chords work. Something in that dream connected what I had as chord theory with a melodic impulse I was developing as a song writer. That’s the thing about music’s language: it contains the whole universe. Once you learn the grammar, you can apply it and learn other languages by applying your linguistic skills.”

Being composer in residence for this festival doesn’t bring Muyanga to self-consciously self-identify as such. “I think I’m always becoming, and I will remain, I hope, ever young. I am always a beginner at whatever I try to put my mind to. I don’t think one can be taught composition,” he adds. “You can be taught music theory. You can be taught about taste and proportion, but you become a composer through life experience … it doesn’t just happen because you’re a genius,” he laughs quietly.

In being composer in residence, he is “stretching the confines of this conversation about folk music,” he refers to the theme of this year’s festival ‘That’s All Folk(s)’. “In Europe and the west, ‘folk’ talks to Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger … there’s a particular kind of activism, rhetoric and personality that belongs there. We don’t have that as a comfortable space in southern Africa. And I work from the premise of Soweto, which gave me voice, which gives me perspective, constantly.

“Even though I don’t think what I write is ‘Sowetan’, I happen to be from there. It is my lens. And I like to look at what this peri-urban modernity, hipness under duress means over the colonial period.”

This year’s festival closes on a high, with Mozart to Muyanga, a concert featuring Tata and Qukezwa by Muyanga.

Based on Hade Tata, a work he developed with pianist Renee Reznek, which enjoyed its world debut at the festival in 2015, Tata “started out as an orchestration of a piano work but it got the better of me and I started recomposing. So it’s a different piece to the Hade Tata Renee performed, but it relates to the conversation I had with her; it developed out of a commission from Sandra de Villiers at Opera Africa, to write an opera based on the life of Nelson Mandela, using Themba Msimang’s libretto, a dramatisation of A Long Walk to Freedom. I refused: there seemed little reason for me to replicate it. The movie was out. The book was in the world.

“I was more interested in replicating a platform to explore Mandela’s psychological terrain. So, the piece is not specifically to do with the man; it’s about who he was in society and history.”

Qukezwa is based Muyanga’s opera which is based on Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness and first saw light of day in 2015 at the Fugard Theatre. A revised version of it is on this year’s Grahamstown National Arts Festival – Muyanga is this year’s featured artist for that festival, too.

“In Qukezwa, I’m trying to understand what opera can be in a South African voice. South Africa is the world’s premier training ground for opera singers. We train young black singers from marginalised communities. Everywhere else, opera is a preoccupation of the elite, but in South Africa, it’s the beloved thing to do for the poorest; something about that speaks volumes about South Africanness. I’m trying to find where this particular voice relates to our colonial contingency and how it might have valuable things to say to South Africa and to the world about making community.”

“Mozart to Muyanga” is on February 5 at 3pm at The Edge, Waverly. Performed by Muyanga (piano), Florian Uhlig (piano), Miseka Gaqa (soprano), Noluxolo Jebe (alto), Vusumuzi Nhlapo (tenor), Joshua Pule (bass), and the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra, it comprises Mozart’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major (K 452), Muyanga’s Tata and Qukezwa and Beethoven’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major (Op 16). Visit www.join-mozart-festival.org

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One puff and all resistance crumbles into hell

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CAUGHT between the devil and the deep blue sea. Zenzo Msomi is Sipho. Photograph courtesy http://www.ulwembu.net

LIGHT FROM HAND-HELD torches tears striations in the theatre’s darkness, causing great big unfriendly shadows to loom against the walls as the police take the suspect down. Stage smoke is choreographed to rest and swell with a discomfiting energy as the dealer and his ‘victim’, the ‘cheese boy’ smoke. The stage is crafted in red, white and black, with the frame of a metal bed and several red plastic chairs comprising the set. The tone of Ulwembu is cast with fierce focus and unrelenting directness. It is a tale of street drugs told in the context of community values, that is crafted to soar amongst the most noble of theatrical constructs.

Directed with a muscularity and sense of conviction, this beautifully researched and deeply felt performance takes advocacy theatre which talks to the man on the street to a level that is considerably deeper and theatrically more developed than convention dictates. Normally, you might hear the words ‘community theatre’ or ‘advocacy drama’ and shrink away from the product’s aesthetic value, understanding it to be a mere one-dimensional extrapolation of bald ideologies.

But the adjective ‘mere’ doesn’t fit in any understanding of this poignant and hard hitting play about Sipho Mthembu (Zenzo Msomi), the 16-year-old son of a woman police lieutenant (Mpume Mthombeni). Painting a portrait of the South African street drug commonly known as whoonga or nyaope (a lethal concoction of various substances including rat poison, soap powder and antiretrovirals, it is often mixed with tobacco or dagga and smoked), the play is subtle and not gentle as it crafts a web of horror connecting the need of the dealer with a vulnerable youngster, a police officer and everything from xenophobic terror to the nauseating splay of addiction, which starts as one small experimental puff that opens a chasm of pain and destruction. And the more pain there is, the more the need for yet another puff. It’s a tale of money and torsion, of blackmail and the agony of a mother.

It’s a beautifully cast piece and arguably the standout performance is Mthombeni’s. She’s a woman with a very photogenic physical presence. She’s tough and she’s disciplined, as a cop, but when she’s confronted with the most horrendous nightmare that any mother could contemplate, she doesn’t resort to histrionics. Her sense of shock is so rich with realness that your mouth goes dry in empathy.

Told in both English and isiZulu, the work is magnificently constructed to tell a tale with piercing clarity. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand either language, the momentum of the work is crafted with nuance and heart but without allowing itself to sweeten the edges of this bitter reality.

Ulwembu, a spider’s web in isiZulu is an immensely significant piece of South African theatre. Not only because it takes advocacy material up many notches in the theatre construct, but also because, similar to initiatives conducted by Benoni-based theatre company Sibikwa, it melds an understanding of the people and the play. Set in KwaMashu, an area of KwaZulu-Natal, Ulwembu is performed by several professionals who call KwaMashu home. This is their story – or the story of their loved ones. And it must be heard.

  • Ulwembu is co-created by Ngcebo Cele, Neil Coppen, Vumani Khumalo, Dylan McGarry, Zenzo Msomi, Mpume Mthombeni, Phumlani Ngubane and Sandile Nxumalo and directed by Neil Coppen. It is performed by Ngcebo Cele, Vumani Khumalo, Zenzo Msomi, Mpume Mthombeni, Phumlani Ngubane and Sandile Nxumalo at the Hillbrow Theatre, 14 Kapteijn Street in Hillbrow until January 26 and on January 27 at Wedgewood Gardens. Visit ulwembu.net

Broken values, smashed dreams and theatre with devastating balance

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DECISIONS, decisions: Christiaan Schoombie (foreground) with Warren Masemola and Mpho Osei-Tutu deciding upon his fate. Photograph courtesy comarochronicle.co.za

SELDOM DO YOU get to feel privileged enough to experience a play with not only electric relevance to the brokenness of our current global society, but one which also brings together such a rich collaboration of skills that it shines from every direction. Mike van Graan’s latest play, When Swallows Cry is an extraordinary and brilliant essay on the pain and complexity of migration.

Almost crafted like a filmed hostage drama, the work is forced out of actuality clichés and holds its own as a stage play thanks to beautiful energies conveyed by the set, lighting and audio-visual elements, as well as the choreographed staging of the work as a whole.  Comprising three vignettes, it sears into an understanding of blood-curdling xenophobia, and bleeding heart humanity in a way that is absolutely riveting, as text and performance are made to suppurate in concert with the poison of historical hatred and anguish.

Casting iron-hard laughter at the idea of ‘saving people from their poverty’, and unflinchingly describing the kind of crude racism that circumscribes the possibilities for refugees, the work is uncompromisingly cynical and hard hitting, but it doesn’t lack deeply woven nuances. It is the manner in which each vignette – be it in Somalia, America or Australia – gives flesh and dimension to each of its characters, lending them balance that makes this such a show stopper. Each character has been superbly crafted, but more so, each man embodies the several roles which he performs with such an impeccable intensity that you may well forget to breathe, as you watch.

When the room seems to rock and swirl as the lights sway, when the space is calibrated with light, when a stretch of sea rocks so lugubriously, it seems to do so amidst the stolidness of oil, you get a sense of myriads of other untold stories within stories. Of voices that don’t get heard in a refugee crisis. Of farms in Zimbabwe that were abandoned. Of mines near Mogadishu where men were shot. You understand how immigration control might be doing its job, but also what it must feel like to have a country’s doors closed in your face. Because of the colour of your skin. Or your religion.

It’s an immensely fine cast comprising Christiaan Schoombie, Warren Masemola and Mpho Osei-Tutu who each splay out a range of deeply disturbing social realities. While each of the three shine with a fierce intensity, the cast is arguably headed by Masemola, who evokes the character of Simon Adebisi in the HBO prison series Oz. This extraordinary character, played by British performer Adewale Akinnyoye-Agbaje,  lends a sophisticated sheen of malevolence and unbated violence which has a real heart. And like the HBO prison series Oz, When Swallow Cry is a work that enfolds  valid perspectives with grit and toughness, but with a pen that forces itself into all the crevices of the scenario and a speculum that sees into all the sides of the situations. You weep for the villain’s tragedies as you understand why he is the villain. You hear the diatribe of the wannabe teacher in Africa, and hear also the puniness of his liberal dreams. In short, nothing is left one sided.

The work is an open-ended essay: it doesn’t promise to give answers to deeply wrenching realities which reflect on how history and the brutal and crude struggle for power turns in a ghastly and repetitive circle. But it is an important theatre gesture which will move and horrify you, as it will haunt you.

  • When Swallows Cry is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Lesedi Job mentored by Megan Willson. Featuring design by Jurgen Meekel (audiovisual), Mandla Mtshali (lighting), Nadya Cohen (set), Noluthando Lobese (costumes) and Ntuthuko Mbuyazi (sound), with incubates Lerato Masooane (costumes), Tsholofelo Ramospele (set), Mosibudi Maggy Selebe (sound) and Tanele Dlamini (audio visual), it is performed by Warren Masemola, Mpho Osei-Tutu and Christiaan Schoombie, in the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre comples, Newtown, Johannesburg until February 5. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

A man, a suit and a bottle of brandy

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THE weapon of the journalist against untruth: Can Themba (Sello Maake kaNcube). Photograph courtesy Cue.co.za

FIFTIES SOF’TOWN BLUES has a very particular texture; its rhythm gets your foot beating, its history gets your heart trembling in tune with the ebb and fall of a small gem of a place which saw its golden years under the thumb of apartheid. Siphiwo Mahala’s House of Truth does something similar to what Khayelihle Dominique Gumede did in Crepuscule: it takes apart elements of the colourful life of Sophiatown educator, poet and editor, Can Themba and splays them into a cohesive reflection of the man and the period, effectively looking at his life as though it were a compilation of his stories. And by and large, the work succeeds.

This is a slice of Themba’s life, and it’s a very rich flavoursome slice that has all the brandy and spice, all the cherries and anecdotes that make it resonate and hum. But the work is a deeply textual one. And while it takes you through the abysmal injustice Themba faced under Native Education of the day, and feeds into the 1950s context regarding the media, the mayhem and the bulldozing of the area, it effectively remains a deeply textual play, which could well be a radio play. The writing is palpably beautiful and you want to hold and savour each turn of phrase, but it is the potency of Sello Maake kaNcube’s performance that makes it sing as a theatre piece, with all the requisite dignity and vulnerability that holds it together.

Similar to Blonde Poison, currently onstage, House of Truth is an essay about an historical period. It’s a one hander which is held together by the charisma of the central performer, which is the main reason you need to see the play.

But unlike works such as Sylvia Vollenhoven’s Cold Case, for instance – or If We Dig, directed by Megan Willson – the denouements and the fierce drama in the tales within the broad narrative of Themba’s life are very subtly handled. They’re elegant and never crude but sometimes they digress into a shade of dilettantism and while you’re subsumed by the texture of the period and the quirkiness and feistiness of the central character, occasionally you feel assailed by a ‘so what?’ moment. The slice of Can Themba’s life doesn’t convincingly take you from point A to point B in his life, but rather feeds you with his whole world in the space of 90 or so intense minutes.

And then there’s the brandy. It can almost be considered a separate character in its own right in this work. The inimitable late foodie, AA Gill wrote resoundingly and bitingly of how drunks used to be funny in a slapstick and curiously proud kind of way. The infiltration of alcohol through this play is articulated with the delicate hand of a seasoned director; it was something you might have seen in Dop, as well. As the work unfolds, the buzz and blur of alcohol creeps into Themba’s body language and tone of heart, lending the work a tragic counter-image which will seethe in its own quiet way, in your head and heart after you’ve left the theatre.

  • House of Truth is written by Siphiwo Mahala and directed by Vanessa Cooke. Featuring design by Bruce Koch (lighting) and Noluthando Lobese (set and lighting), it is performed by Sello Maake kaNcube at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, until January 29. Call 011 832 1641 or visit markettheatre.co.za

Fiona gives Poison wings

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REGRETS, I’ve had a few: Fiona Ramsay plays Stella Goldschlag. Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

CAN SOMETHING AS thoroughly written about as the European Holocaust still engage a contemporary audience with a modicum of freshness? Or are we, as a society so limp with Holocaust fatigue in our histories and fictional accounts that another Holocaust play trotting out narratives we know well, has scant impact? This is a question you might ponder, with Blonde Poison. But unequivocally, as you watch the work, the authority Fiona Ramsay exudes across this tale of betrayal and hate, beauty and ugliness, is the ingredient that makes the work tick.

As it opens with the ripe and gravelly German accent of Stella Goldschlag and the story begins to elegantly unfurl, taking us back to Berlin in the 1930s under Janna Ramos-Violante’s expert direction and Ramsay’s utterly tight and masterful portrayal, you’re not quite sure of Stella’s identity. She’s blonde. She’s very German, but she’s too blasé in her condemnation of Jews and her knowledge of Jewish cuisine not to be a Jew herself. This self-assurance, this element of jazzy pizzazz gives her the edge and forces her over it, in the name of self-preservation.

The interface of sound and voice overs and the elements of the set, are tightly woven into the narrative, which casts an understanding of context that is sophisticated as it is descriptive and evocative, never leaning toward gimmick. The texture of the play is strong and the language powerful, but still, as the text teeters around that “parachute moment” in war when morals have to be cast aside in the name of saving your own life, you’re left feeling that you know this story. You know how it will end.

You know there will be a tremendous amount of loss and death on the way. And you know that you’ll feel your emotions pushed and pulled in different directions as anti-Semitism and the murder of Jews comes under the proverbial loupe. And in having this sense of knowledge, you lose an aspect of horror. You’ve been down these paths before. You’ve shouted and cried before. You might not do it again.

In short, the play casts a cardboard cut-out reflection on the morality of history. Ramsay is too sophisticated a performer to slip into this kind of one-dimensionality and she lifts and stretches the work, through her presence in it, way beyond its potential. So, what you get is an extraordinary theatre experience, premised on a fairly ordinary play, but populated with such astute performance and design skill, that any flaws in the predictability of the work become forgivable.

  • Blonde Poison is written by Gail Louw and directed by Janna Ramos-Violante. Featuring design by Alex Farmer (lighting) and Stan Knight (set construction), it is performed by Fiona Ramsay with voice overs by James Alexander, Janna Ramos-Violante and Tim Wells at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 4. Call 011 883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za