Iphupo l’ka Biko: Songs of past, present and future

Nhlanhla Ngqaqu’s ‘Iphupho l’ka Biko’ mixes historic and popular melodies with risk-taking experimental music to nurture community.

The stage of the Wits University Theatre is crowded – much more than usual. It is not only occupied by the seven musicians of Nhlanhla Ngqaqu’s Iphupho l’ka Biko project and their guests. About three-quarters of the predominantly young audience are also on the stage, all making music together. For bassist Ngqaqu, it’s the right ending to his July concert at the venue: “You can’t separate musicians from their audience.”

Drawing inspiration from the community, taking it to the stage and returning it to the community to build “spirit” (a word Ngqaqu uses a lot) is central to his project. He’s emphatic that this is not the politics of party slogans and Parliament.

Iphupho began three years ago, when Ngqaqu, who grew up in Kagiso on Johannesburg’s West Rand, was studying music at Wits. “Coming from the townships into a space like that was formative for me. I was listening intensively to the late Moses Molelekwa, and I loved his song Biko’s Dream  … My prof, Carlo Mombelli, encouraged original composition, trying out stuff and not compromising, so I had written a few songs. And then, during class practicals, I started learning who I could work with.” Alto saxophonist Godfrey Mntambo and trombonist Athamacwera Ngcaba, among others, have been regular bandmates since those days. 

Ngqaqu’s affection for music started much earlier. The music of the Seventh Day Adventist Church was the soundtrack to his childhood as he grew up in his grandmother’s house with a mother and aunts who were all choir singers. During his Xhosa initiation, in 2005, he was moved by “how people in those communities engaged with song as part of life”.

And then, attending a gospel church in Soweto, “we sang a lot of African-American gospel. Those harmonies made us feel like we were playing jazz!”

The politics were just a natural process. We’re living in a world where things need to be decolonised.

By the time he started at Wits, all the ingredients for Iphupho were in place: tradition, spiritual sounds, jazz, risk-taking experimental music, and ideas about identity and change. “But I had to personalise it. The politics were just a natural process. We’re living in a world where things need to be decolonised, and it fitted to put the title into isiXhosa.”

The material was assembled over time. The song Umhlaba Wethu was conceived before Fees Must Fall, “but the movement gave us the push to work with material like that”. It’s a song that morphs, blending original ideas with references to historic and popular melodies.

The voice of mezzo-soprano Miseka Gaqa powers hymns that reflect not only on Ngaqu’s musical history, “but speak to the role of the church in South Africa. Miseka sings Thina Sizwe,” he says, “and then in comes Die Stem to talk about the erasure of tradition and the preaching that ‘your ancestors are demonic’.”

Gaqa blurs and twists her voice through Die Stem, and that “takes us back to 1976, when things had to be taught in Afrikaans that black students and teachers weren’t fluent in. It’s like: ‘What are you singing?’” On the band’s Hymn for Queen Sandra, guitarist Nkululeko Khumalo employs the distortion pedal to represent “the ugliness of the police brutality when Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and the Marikana miners were murdered”.

 This kind of carefully worked meaning in the sound calls for intense empathy between band members. There’s politics in that process, too: “There first has to be a good connection of the spirit before you even touch your instrument or show how you treat the craft. We talk a lot about the content of the music. If we don’t have those conversations, you lose that oneness on stage of everybody being present in the song. There was a lot of discussion about introducing Die Stem before we did it. I was remembering Zim Ngqawana’s comment that the anthem isn’t how Africans sing.”

Muhammed Dawjee is the band’s tenorist, and Dawjee’s own trio, Kinsmen (with Druv Sodha on sitar and Shailesh Pillay on tabla), sometimes guest. “I enjoy Muhammad’s spirit”, says Ngqaqu.

“I’ve guested with Kinsmen, and eaten and talked with them. On Abaphezulu, the song about the ancestors, there was a certain sound I couldn’t get with piano or guitar, and I found it in the sitar. Tablas? Well, drums are always important in calling up the spirits.” 

Not all Iphupho’s songs are originals. “When you say jazz,” reflects Ngqaqu, “people think it’s old stuff they can’t connect with. They consume only what the media feeds them, which is very limited.” So the repertoire always includes original tunes such as the classic Afro-jazz of the band’s Braam Streets, or popular covers. 

“In the townships,” the bassist recalls, “every Sunday was jazz, and it was often the Sinakho Jazz Band. It’s special if we can play their music again in a township.” 

But township performance opportunities are scarce. Although Ngqaqu relished his show in the intimate space of the old Afrikan Freedom Station, and opening for Barney Rachabane at the Soweto Jazz Explosion, he’s more ambivalent about high-priced jazz clubs in the city centre. “Jazz in the South African context started in the shebeen space.

Now it’s become a commodity of the privileged. We should be taking the music – and the arts and the theatre and the galleries – to townships and villages where young people get the chance to sing and dance to our sounds as well as pop music.”

Iphupho l’ka Biko’s next outing is again at the Wits Theatre on 28 September. The performance will be used to raise funds to assist in the student food crisis. Ngqaqu sighs. “You go to primary school and there’s a feeding scheme. Secondary school and there’s a feeding scheme. Now you come to Wits and there still has to be a feeding scheme … You’d expect things to be better and different here under a black government, but … I think about how people like [bassist] Johnny Dyani went into exile. Now, we don’t have to go abroad – we have to infiltrate here in South Africa!”

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