Philippi has been in the news for all the wrong and most tragic reasons recently. In that context of media stereotyping, it’s too easy to forget that – despite longstanding neglect, unemployment and desperation – the people of Philippi continue to survive, live and create.
One remarkable example is Philippi’s Samora Machel resident, 86-year-old uhadi (resonator bow), umrhube (mouth-bow), isitolotolo (jaws harp) virtuoso and composer Mantombi Matotiyana, who launched her debut album as leader in June. Songs of Greeting, Healing and Heritage is the first CD on the label of the Africa Open Institute of Stellenbosch University (https://aoinstitute.ac.za/launch-of-cd-songs-of-heritage-hope-and-healing-by-mantombi-matotiyana/ ).
Look for Songs of Greeting…(the title is both descriptive and an allusion to her clan name) on the shelves or in the online stores of South African music retailers and you won’t find it. Look for reports of the launch on media ‘arts and entertainment’ pages, and you won’t find much beyond this breathtakingly disrespectful and patronising reference from IOL on 6 April. Headlined “Philippi gogo to release her debut…” the story continues: “She may walk with a stick every day but when the music hits, 86-year-old Mantombi Matotiyana can jive and groove with the best of them…” Apparently un-fact-checked, the story confuses a debut as leader (which the album is) with a recording debut (which it isn’t) and within two short paragraphs gives the musician’s age as both 83 and 86.
That’s pretty typical of the treatment the musical traditions of black communities and their players receive from the media those communities are expected to pay for and read.
Matotiyana was born in Jenca location, Tsolo District, in the Eastern Cape in 1933, learned her instrumental skills from her mother and other senior women of her community, and was a regular participant in traditional divination ceremonies and other gatherings. She says: “These instruments were played by women. Uhadi was played at night. Players would wait for people to sleep before playing but we were woken up by those sounds. This one (pointing to umrhubhe) was played even by us children. In order to come back from shops immediately when we were sent to buy sugar and tea, we would be asked to play it on the way. It was important to come back quickly as our mothers would be waiting for tea.”
She moved to Cape Town in search of an economic future, settling first in Nyanga and later Philippi. She ran a small butchery, sold craft-work, but eventually found that beer-brewing provided a more reliable income than music – although she still sometimes played and sang for neighbours.
In her own words to her launch audience last month; “I started brewing mqombothi (traditional beer) for a living. I was not playing the instruments anymore and I had forgotten about them… I had a feeling that [music] was not going to give me quick returns, it was going to be a long process and yet with my beer, I knew I had food every day… Dizu (Plaatjies of Amampondo) approached me and asked me to play, something I flatly refused because I enjoyed and was satisfied with brewing the beer. He persuaded me, and I finally agreed and stopped brewing the beer… I stopped selling the beer. I started travelling the world on an airplane – an exciting adventure!”
As the partnership with Plaatjies developed, as well as South African and international tours, Matotiyana featured on Amampondo’s 1992 album An Image of Africa https://music.apple.com/bm/album/an-image-of-africa/214535858 and the Dizu Plaatjies Ibuyambo Ensemble 2009 album African Kings https://music.apple.com/lu/album/african-kings/327528676 as well as with the Danish Nightingale Quartet in The Bow Project tour in 2009. (She had participated in the project’s 2003 pilot.) The Bow Project had been conceived as a tribute to the music of another virtuoso traditional musician, the late Nofinishi Dywili. Its originator was composer Michael Blake. Matotiyana also featured as soloist on Blake’s 2013 composition Ukhukhalisa Umrhube, which premiered in France, and Blake was executive producer for Songs of Greeting…
The album has 13 tracks, a dozen songs plus a five-minute interview with the artist. The songs mix traditional refrains, her own original lyrics and melodies and one, Majola, by Plaatjies. The sound foregrounds Matotiyana’s voice and instruments, empathetically augmented on some tracks by the voices of Plaatjies, Ernie Koela and Hope Mongwegi. The lyrics are grounded at once in lived experience and metaphor, as in Wachiteka Umzi Wendoda – about a burnt house and homelessness, or Wen’useGoli, about the ‘cold love’ faced by the migrant worker away in Johannesburg.
The lyrical themes – as informative sleeve notes by Ncebakazi Mnukwana explain – deal with ‘home’ as a physical place layered with home as a place of spiritual bereftness or healing.
And the sound is gorgeous. Often, the recording equipment finds singers like Matotiyana only as their vocal prime is fading. But her voice remains strong, her phrasing clear, and her sense of ornament – that “salt in the song” that characterises and energises Xhosa music – entrancing. “These instruments,” she told the launch, “make me happy. I started playing them when I was young and grew up playing them. Even when something is bothering me, I play and they uplift my spirit. I am very passionate about them. (lit: they come from my heart.)”
Fans of ‘world’ music or roots South African sounds won’t need any urging to seek out Songs of Greeting, Hope and Heritage. But if you don’t know the genre yet, it is worth exploring simply for its musical beauty and capacity to move you. It offers a counter-narrative to stereotypical notions of community music as ‘simple’ (“grooving and jiving with the best of them”, as IOL put it), in the risks it takes and the complex musical intelligence it embodies. Like the music of Magogo ka Dinizulu, it also reminds us that once you step outside the white, male academy, some of the most inventive of South Africa’s musicians were – and are – women. One antidote to the harsh horrors of Philippi may be found here, although, as Matotiyana says: “it seems that our children don’t like this music that much. They will say, ‘Grandmother, this is outdated. We want to watch TV.’ It is my wish though that they learn this music, that there be places to teach them because we are aging now. I want them to learn the music, without abandoning the new things they are also studying.”