Musa Ngqungwana: A different musical journey

BD: You grew up in Zwide Township, how was the experience?
MN: My experience growing up in Zwide was a peculiar one, though not unique. I was raised by my grandmother and my mother, a domestic worker who struggled to make ends meet as a single mother. She worked different jobs and we lived paycheck to paycheck. This is an experience shared by many black boys in the townships of South Africa and inner cities of America. The life of poverty, crime and violence is not something I’ve read about in books or heard about from distant narratives broadcast on television or radio, but one which I know first-hand, having experienced its debilitating effects as a child.

BD: It must have been tough to be raised in an environment like that by women only. What are some of the challenges you faced?
NM: I had tremendous support at home from the loving women in my family, but as a young boy, I always felt that something was missing. I kept trying to find a masculine identity model outside the house in the neighborhood. No matter how much our mothers or grandmothers love us, they always fall short in bridging the gap between feminine and masculine roles in the upbringing of a male child. Thus through instinct, I was inclined to search for worthy role models outside my home. I followed a need from my gut to identify with my own gender. In my case, the intermittent presence of the men from my mother’s family, who lived elsewhere, was never going to be enough in bridging that gap. Boys who grow up in a single parent household often replace their missing fathers with older boys in the ghetto. Therefore, I learned male conduct through trial and error, by imitating what I saw on the streets, rather than being taught by a loving father.

BD: There are dangers and opportunities in such circumstances!

MN: It became increasingly important for me to be accepted by the neighborhood boys. These older male figures conveyed to me slanted information and training, because they too had had no positive father figures and, therefore, lacked an understanding of what it is to be a man. Consequently, the whole scene was a misguided one that over-emphasized machismo and ignored the responsibilities men bear in the community. Due to these conditions, I loathed my father because he left a huge hole in my life with no male figure to steer me in the right direction and teach me the proper role of manhood. But as I matured, I realized that such anger is wasted energy and it only hurt me. I quit dwelling on what might have been and focused my thoughts on what was at hand.

BD: Always a massive challenge to have a missing parent but at least you had your grandmother too.

NM: Thanks to the support and love I received, especially from my grandmother, I found ways to channel and finally let go of that anger. I also found the male support from the elderly males at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, who taught me the role of manhood. I write about this extensively in my memoir.

BD: You sang in choirs from primary school, how did that influence your love for music?
NM: I joined the choir at first for the wrong reasons. I was enamored, or I thought I was, with a girl in middle school. The choir seemed a feasible place for me to be close to her, but when my attempts to date her failed, I ended up in the choir nonetheless. My initial entrance in the choir was influenced by my relationship with women first before anything else.
BD: It is a familiar story! Was there a defining moment?
NM: It is when I was in high school and sang with the choir at Khwezi Lomso Comprehensive School, as well as being a member of the Viola Men’s Chorus, a local male choir, that I was influenced to really love choral music, and through the Viola Chorus, learned what opera was. When I saw a video of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, produced by the Glyndebourne Festival in the UK, I began to take an interest in opera. In it, Sir Willard White, a black bass-baritone from Jamaica who now resides in the UK, was performing the role of the speaker. Having never witnessed this genre of art before, I immediately became smitten with it. That a black man did an important role in it convinced me that perhaps we as black men in Zwide and elsewhere could aspire to be part of the worldwide movement.
BD: Your grandmother wanted you to become a doctor or engineer, has her perception of your career choice changed?
NM: My grandmother sadly passed away in the winter of 2008. Nonetheless, her perception had changed from one of indifference about what I do with my career, to that of acceptance and support even though she didn’t fully comprehend my world. In fact, none of my family members actually understand what it is that I really do! It’s still a foreign concept unfortunately, as it still is for many black South Africans. I do hope that over time, opera and classical music will transcend the barriers and legacies created by Apartheid and Bantu education. I hope at some point acceptance can be fostered by all South Africans, as they realize that there’s nothing “Eurocentric” about African opera or classical art forms. Over 90% of choral or opera musicians in South Africa are black, yet people still consider it a foreign concept.
BD: You studied building science at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, how did that come about?
NM: At the time the Merger between the University of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth Technikon and Vista University had not yet taken place. The then Minister of Education, Professor Kader Asmal had recently introduced the bill that would eventually enforce mergers of a number of institutions. I was an academic student at Khwezi Lomso Comprehensive School, and had been doing well with math and physical science and I had decided I would register at PE Technikon for Building Science, with an objective to either choose Civil Engineering and Quantity Surveying as my major. But I never finished the program and I dropped out after a year due to financial constraints. This experience haunted me because I like finishing things I start, but it was also an opportunity for me to learn how to achieve things on my own.
BD: Before you arrived at UCT, you could not read a note of music, but you graduated with Honors in Performance (Magna Cum Laude), how did you achieve this?
NM: I actually graduated first class/Summa Cum Laude, an error I have never fixed on my resume. Call it humility or laziness to make a correction, it is probably time to do so now!
BD: We all know what can go wrong with that!
NM: I could not read or write music when I got to UCT; I learned music through listening and mimicking what I had heard from a CD or cassette player. To me music notation might as well have been Christmas decorations. But when I got to the University of Cape Town, they enrolled me for a Foundation Class—a year course that sought to redress the music educational imbalance by teaching me the basics. The challenge with the program was that it sought to do six years of high school music in only one year with two or three classes of music theory in a week. I had to study very hard to catch up, because in the ‘first year’ course I would study with students who had been playing violin and trumpet since age 3 and had had private school music training.
BD: No pain, no gain?
NM: I worked as hard as I would have done in my engineering classes. I am a quick learner so I was able to incorporate the mechanisms I had learned at PE Tech as well as in my science and mathematics classes to devise ways of breaking the problem from macro to micro and learn how to reassemble it, so that I could see where the sources of difficulty emanated from. Call me cerebral, but I love reading and learning. Music was no different matter, I spent extra time, even on weekends, studying. I was enthusiastic about tutorials and even requested extra ones if a need arose. I’m finicky about details, so if I don’t understand something, I work until I understand it. Personal life and partying took back seats. My studies and enhancing my vocal production took a precedence and first priority, with no exceptions. Lastly, since I had dropped out of engineering school because of the lack of financial support, I vowed that if I would get another opportunity to study, I would delve deeper into my work with no compromises. Moreover, the notion of being on the Dean’s Merit Award List motivated me greatly. I ended up being on that List four times and getting eight additional academic awards and medals during my tenure as a student at the University of Cape Town.
BD: Bravo! At what point did you decide that Opera was what you wanted to do with your life?
NM: In 2004 when I had dropped out of the PE Technikon, I helped found an opera ensemble. It is when I was invited by the late South African Stage-Director Mr. Niels Hansen and international soprano, Ms Mimi Coertse, to audition for their Black Tie Ensemble, that I was fully motivated to follow a career in opera.
BD: We know that you have won many awards throughout your career, which ones are most memorable?
NM: All of them are memorable as they came at different times and parts of my life and all hold important meanings to me personally. However, the crowning moment was winning the Grand Finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and singing on the Met Opera stage in 2013.
BD: What inspired writing your autobiography? Many people would believe that writing an autobiography at age 30 is still early, what are your thoughts on this?
NM: To answer your question, I have to quote from my memoir and let you in on my thought process because I had gone through the same mentality in believing that one should only write memoirs or full autobiographies when they are old or have achieved great things spanning great lengths of time. That also can be subjective because success varies from person to person. I soon discarded that idea and self-doubt, as I fervently think it’s antiquated and short-sighted. Here are two quotations from my premise and afterward from my memoir:
“When I approached my 30th birthday in 2014, I could not quell a burning wish to chronicle chapters of the life I have lived and experiences I have had. Thus, I started writing. My desire
to write knew no bounds, but I faced a quandary. I, being a private person, had reservations about sharing my most intimate moments and my impoverished childhood. At times, I found it embarrassing to reveal myself when well-meaning people wanted to know more than I presented at face value. But, I was reassured when I realized that “memoir” means a record
of events written by someone who has intimate knowledge of them and has a touch of personal observation as a result. Who better to record my stories than me? Moreover, I realized that, through writing and talking about them, I would have to confront all my emotional turmoil and face those buried emotions that have kept me in limbo. The writing, then, became therapeutic, and, as a result, I have managed to internally balance things and once more have the freedom to live life without regrets. I realize that in my life, I have had a number of important transitions where I have headed into unknown territory. I do appreciate and realize that no one, including me, likes to be uncomfortable or confronted with the world he or she does not understand.”

BD: We have to document our stories and not simply complain about how we are portrayed by the West or on CNN. This is one of the major reasons for Black Diamonds Online Magazine’s existence.

NM: When I decided to write my memoir, I shared this idea with some of my friends. They immediately shot it down, saying, “You, a writer? You are a singer.” One dared utter, “Do you write? I would not have thought of that.” I assume they may have been baffled by the very thought of this jungle prince writing anything. “Can he articulate his thoughts?” “Can he formulate a narrative?” “Can he justify his reasoning?” “Does he have a research methodology know-how of a subject?” “Why would he write a memoir when he is this young and hasn’t achieved anything substantial in life?” “What prerogative has he assumed to suddenly think others may want to read his book?” Unbeknown to them, these are all questions I struggle with myself. Moreover, I was apprehensive about sharing my most intimate and personal background, which would make me vulnerable to everyone, including those who might find opportunities to judge me. Nevertheless, I did it, for me, for my sanity, and for the help it might offer to others.”

BD: Bravo again. Why should someone go and buy your book?
NM: I’ve dealt with doubt and have had numerous occasions of second-guessing my work, talent, my body, my culture and a sense of belonging in my life. I know I’m not alone in this. I know about a life of poverty and growing up in the townships, and being raised by a single mother, absent a caring father. For my readers to see that, I as a person who come from a similar place such as they have, and to know that it’s possible to break those chains, is an important message I hope people reading my book will understand. I’ve written about these experiences extensively in my book, which I’d encourage any young and/or aspiring person to read about how I overcame my struggles. My book is available on Amazon and Createspace.com and is entitled “Odyssey of an African Opera Singer: From Zwide Township to the World Stage”.
BD: Any plans to do any more writing or was the memoir it? do you write only about music or do you write about a variety of topics?
NM: I have a memoir, with first and second editions, and within them are detailed variants of my personal life, recollections and lessons I’ve learned, as well as a number of topical issues including music. I’m currently working on a historical novel which deals with socio-political and socio-economic issues. In graduate school I wrote a research paper on music, using a focus group at the University of Cape Town. I’m continually evolving and becoming interested in other themes to write about.
BD: You are an inspiration! What are some of your greatest career highlights?
NM: I’ve received many awards from vocal competitions spanning from Cape Town to New York, and these include the Schock Music Competition for Singers (Cape Town), Turandot Singing Competition (Verona, Italy), Hans Gabor Belvedere Competition (Vienna, Austria), Licia Albanese International Competition (New York), Giulio Gari International Vocal Competition (New York), Gerda Lissner International Singing Competition (New York) and Opera Index (New York). And being a Grand Final’s Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions as mentioned above. I have made a series of important house and role debuts since then, including Washington National Opera, Los Angeles Opera and Norwegian National Opera etc. But amidst these highlights, I think publishing my memoir and being able to tell my story for the world to see, has been the greatest and most humbling accomplishment yet.
BD: What does success mean to you?
NM: My definition of success and its meaning to me has evolved over the years significantly. I would like to think that at this point in my life, there’s a stark difference between the opinions I shared in my early teens versus now in my young adult life and professional life. In my teens, my idea of success was equated with owning material things and showing them off in the township
In my young adult life, it has now transcended owning or wanting material things. I’m more concerned with career goals which I work on daily and break down larger goals into smaller pieces. These daily goals may include dividing up a larger opera or musical work into small pieces and learning a set number of pages each day. I apply this approach to everything I need to accomplish.
BD: Who and what motivates you?
NM: My love for art, culture, nature and the understanding that God has given me a gift to entertain and to share art with others. I have always loved performing on stage, and conversing with people about young artistic talent. These are the fundamental things that drive me.
BD: What are some of the greatest lessons you have learnt in your career?
NM: Hard work takes time but pays off in the long term. An average opera singer spends a minimum of ten years at school before venturing to professional work. I’m still learning even though I’ve completed formal studies. Nothing happens overnight. I’ve received many rejections and been overlooked for many things, but I’ve never given up. I will never give up! To me, success is a ‘day at a time’ venture.
BD: Are you where you would want to be in your life right now?
NM: I’ve achieved much already, and for that I’m grateful. It has even gone beyond what I thought I would have by now or where I would be. With that spirit of humility and the drive I have, there’s still a lot more ground to cover for me to get to where I finally want to be. But even when I get there, work never stops. Because to remain at the top, one still needs the tools to keep him there.
BD: How do you want to be remembered?
NM: The legacy that I hope to leave would be one that leaves people talking or studying about it many years later and would bring meaning to people’s lives through the arts. I hope my writings can help foster meaningful dialogue in how we can best improve our lives and inspire young and old alike.Musa Ngqungwana

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to our Newsletter