The musician bucking convention with traditional performance


Sometimes the best ideas are afterthoughts. The Plan Bs, the second choices and, in the case of Nhlanhla Mahlangu, the options that weren’t even considered. He never completed matric – dyslexia had him thinking he was stupid. He never got to go to music school like he wanted to either. But today, he is one of South Africa’s most talented musicians. His claim to fame is isicathamiya music, a type of a cappella developed by migrant Zulu communities that combines voice and dance.

Mahlangu knew he wanted to make music for a living from a young age. Despite having his eyes set on music school, the fees were always beyond reach for the grandmother who raised him – a domestic worker living in a shack. But the music-lover had a voice. And when he happened upon an audition at Moving into Dance Mophatong, a dance school in Johannesburg, he discovered he had some moves too. Having never danced before, he displayed a natural talent that impressed the school. Still, they couldn’t accept him without a matric certificate. The ambitious performer persevered until they agreed to give him a chance, after which he excelled as a student and progressed to coordinating their educational programmes. But Mahlangu’s greatest achievement was joining and directing Phuphuma Love Minus, an internationally-recognised ensemble which was formed in 2002 in a KwaZulu Natal village. It was here that he realised his singing and dancing talent as an isicathamiya performer, which does not require the knowledge of instruments.

Today, with almost two decades of experience in dance and music, Mahlangu has not only made the most of his opportunities for himself, but also for performers under his wing. He curates the Centre for the Less Good Idea, founded by renowned artist William Kentridge. The centre encourages independent thinking and artistic experimentation without the pressure of immediately developing the perfect idea. Mahlangu is also the director of his own company, Song and Dance Works. He has collaborated with music aficionados like composer Richard Cock and his recently choreographed Workers’ Chant opened the 2017 Dance Umbrella Festival of Contemporary Dance. Rather than going the route of conventional music, Mahlangu’s unintended foray into and ensuing success as an isicathamiya performer is bringing the value of these traditional sounds to the contemporary South African music sphere.