Preserving traditional music

Thandeka Mfinyongo

Thandeka Mfinyongo believes in celebrating and preserving indigenous music through African instruments.

She’s hard to miss. With her green hair and afro-centric dress sense, she’s bound to stand out in any crowd.

Thandeka is proud of her roots. She grew up in Nyanga East, sings indigenous Xhosa songs and plays instruments such as umrhubhe and uhadi. It was while she was at university that she realised she wanted to help preserve traditional Xhosa music.

“I was part of the church choir. After high school I wanted to do law because I had always dreamt of becoming a lawyer. I grew up being very involved in theatre and music and that’s why I decided to pursue it as a career. I started learning the guitar around the same time.”

In 2014 she decided to enrol at the University of Cape Town (UCT) to study music and that’s where she was told by lecturers that African instruments were dying out. She decided to be part of the musicians that preserve them and Xhosa music.

“My aunt used to play umrhube when I was younger and when I was at UCT I started remembering that my aunt would sing and play instruments. I grew a desire to know how Xhosa people created music and with what instruments. I try to archive the music as best I can. More than anything, I consider myself someone who wants to capture the sounds of my people.”

She has built a bond and relationship with Madosini, whom she sees as an inspiration and an important treasure that people can look to for in-depth knowledge of the Xhosa culture.

“I have come to appreciate artists such as Mam Nofinish Dywili and Madosini. I felt like I need to meet Madosini personally with the hopes that she would pour all she knows into me. She is living knowledge, our relationship started in 2018 when I visited her home in Langa and she was kind enough to welcome us. She told us stories and started playing for us, we bonded, and it was beautiful. While I was doing my recital in UCT I incorporated her sounds and stories in it, I am grateful that I have worked with her. We have built a sweet relationship.”

Thandeka recently came back from completing her Master’s degree in music at the University of London.

“My time in London was a great experience although it was cut short because of coronavirus. Just being there and meeting other musicians from other countries… I specialised in playing khora when I was there, and it was fun to learn the instrument. I did experience a culture shock while there, but I really enjoyed my time, and the weather was colder than Cape Town weather.”

The stage is her escape as she becomes a different person when she is on stage and after the show is done and dusted, she hardly remembers who she became to her audience, she says.

“I get nervous sometimes, but I love being on stage, sometimes when I watch videos of my performances, I do not remember doing certain things. It’s a liberating feeling to be on stage.

“I want people to find joy when they encounter me but I also need them to understand that I am shy and reserved sometimes. I struggle to take compliments. I don’t want people to separate me from my art. I would like people to accept me with all my flaws because I am here to serve the people.”

She hopes that one day she will be successful enough to build a music school accessible to all people who wish to learn and become indigenous Xhosa musicians.