30 August 2021

Vocal Art student strikes a chord with international audiences

Tshegofatso Khunwane (23), an Advanced Diploma: Performing Arts (Vocal Art) student at the Faculty of Arts and Design, has recently returned from Spain where he has performed in a theatre production, Broken Chord, written and directed by renowned South African choreographer and dancer, Gregory Maqoma. It was Khunwane’s first time abroad and performing before international audiences – quite an achievement for a student.

Tshegofatso Khunwane (23).

This unique opportunity came about when Mhlaba Buthelezi, Vocal Art lecturer, in his capacity as vocalist, notator, and assistant music director, worked alongside Maqoma, Thuthuka Sibisi (Broken Chord’s composer and music director), as well as Shanell Winlock (dramaturge) during the research and development stages of the work.

“After an extensive search for a choir for the final preparation of the work, before its world premiere in Spain, we secured thirteen vocalists from the Vocal Art programme who worked with the entire production team at the Market Theatre between 26 and 30 April. During this period, Maqoma and Sibisi were blown away by the singing and vocal prowess of our students, which led to a request on the last day for three students to audition for one of the only four major roles in the work,” says a proud Buthelezi.

“From this audition, Khunwane was selected and given a contract on the spot.”

On 25 July, Khunwane returned from Spain where he did six performances after a dress rehearsal in France.

Speaking about the opportunity to perform in the show and to work alongside music greats, Khunwane says: “Working with Gregory Maqoma was truly remarkable as I’ve learnt so much from him. I’m fortunate to have had such an opportunity. Performing before an international audience is so great as some, if not most, of what we were performing was done in South African languages. Having them understand the story regardless of the language barrier was beautiful.”

Khunwane hails from Mahikeng, North-West, and was introduced to opera and choral music by his high school choir conductor, Mr Simelane, when he was only fifteen. “From there, my interest in Vocal Art grew stronger each year, to this day as a graduate of TUT. In fact, it is still growing,” he says.

Asked about his long-term career plans, he adds: “I want to continue with theatre performances both nationally and internationally, create content for theatre, as well as teach and give artistic direction in the Arts.”

  • Broken Chord tells the story of the first Black South African Choir which, towards the end of the 19th century, performed in Great Britain and North America, and inspired choreography that talks of African identity, migrations, and closed borders.

    Between 1891 and 1893, shortly after the end of the first Boer War, a South African choir made up of young Black singers of both sexes embarked on a long tour of Great Britain, Canada, and the United States to raise proceeds to create a technical school in Kimberley. The tour started in the colonial metropolis and was a great success. They performed before Queen Victoria and for many of her subjects in Great Britain, who were keen to see and hear them, and did the same for the citizens of Canada and the United States a few months later. That journey, in fact, enabled them to establish ties with North America which would be key to the subsequent development of South Africa's intelligentsia.

    Unfortunately, the choir’s performances never got to be recorded, although photos of its members taken during that long journey were found a few years ago. This is the material used by South African musicians, Thuthuka Sibisi and Philip Miller, to create a photographic and sound installation (The African Choir 1891 Re-Imagined) that was exhibited in London and at Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum, where Maqoma became fascinated with the story.

    On discovering the story behind that tour, the choreographer imagined the show we now see, which mixes references to colonial policies with the personal stories of the choir's members.

    Maqoma began his training in dance in 1990 and created his own company, the Vuyani Dance Theatre, in 1999. He has received international awards of every kind, both in South Africa, the United States, and France (where he was awarded the Chevalier d l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2017). The latter means Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters. It’s an award in recognition by France for significant contributions to the Arts and Literature.


Scenes from Broken Chord.

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