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‘Zulu Mass’ food for the soul
01 Jul 2010
Clare Taylor

WHILE South Africans and soccer fans worldwide were warming up for the collision between two major ­European soccer rivals on Sunday ­afternoon, a different type of historic encounter between Europe and Africa was taking place in the Durban City Hall.

The first Zulu Mass was being ­performed — a musical encounter between Western orchestral traditions and Zulu choral rhythms.

Composer and a former student at the University of Zululand, Qinisela Sibisi says he was influenced specifically by Joseph Haydn — the Austrian composer who spent extended ­periods of time in England and was one of the most important figures in the development of the classical style in music during the 18th century.

“Music,” says Sibisi, “is food for the soul. We don’t just need jobs. And this is music that will last and become part of our Zulu heritage.”

The Zulu Mass in B flat is written for massed choir and full orchestra, plus four solo voices, soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. It was composed under an initiative of the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra (KZNPO) to bring top orchestral composers ­together with top vocal composers and produce major new musical works within the province.

Speaking at this first performance of the work’s final version, KZNPO chief executive, Bongani Tembe said the joint initiative had been sparked by concertgoers. “People kept asking me why the orchestra only played music in the western classical tradition and not music culturally relevant to KZN. So I told them, well, ­unless the music is there the orchestra can’t play it.”

Sibisi, who comes from the south coast, has been singing in, training and conducting church choirs since he was 15. He studied music under Professor Khabi Mngoma at the University of Zululand, then took a teaching diploma there before going on to teach music and English.

He says his Mass was inspired largely by Haydn’s Creation and the last six masses that he wrote. The first movement, the Kyrie, was written in 1989 for the school choir he was conducting and the final movement, the Credo, in 2001, which was when the first version of the work was performed.

Since then Sibisi has revised it several times with input from the KZNPO’s resident composer, John Simon, conductors Naum Rousine and Lykele Temmingh, and others.

“I thought the original performance might be the only one that would happen,” said Sibisi after Sunday’s concert when Tembe also promised to produce the Mass again before too long. “Choirs love it, but it is difficult to organise the orchestra.”

Earlier versions of the Zulu Mass have been performed twice overseas, at the universities of Liverpool, England, and Massachusetts, United States. But Sunday’s performance was the first of the completely ­revised version.

Taking part in the performance were the Clermont Community Choir, the Durban Symphonic Choir and the East Coast Choristers. The soloists were Nosipho Ntuli (soprano), Khumubuzile Dlamini (alto), Mhlaba Buthelezi (tenor) and Melusi Kubheka (baritone).

The second part of the programme was the world premiere of the ­dramatic narrative for praise poet and orchestra, Siyakhulekela (We are pleading). Composer Robert Maxym describes the work as “the founding statement of a new genre in South African serious music.”

The narrative was written by Themba Msimang, who chose a real- life situation from his own experience — the marriage between an Msimang bride and an Mkhize groom bringing together two prominent, historically significant Zulu clans. It was Msimang’s poetry that was put to music to form the first Zulu oratorio, uShaka

Maxym asked Tembe to tell the ­audience to feel free to shout, ululate and even dance as they felt inclined throughout the performance — which is what they did in another first for the music of the new Western classical-Zulu tradition.

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