Music: Ushaka

The Zulu King Shaka (1787-1828) is recognised worldwide as a military genius, nation-builder, and leader of his people. Without dealing either in positive or negative specifics of his life or acts, historically opinions on Shaka have been based, one may also say biased, on a primarily European perception of the Zulu king. The composer Mzilikazi Khumalo and the poet Themba Msimang, through their epic collaboration on "Ushaka, KaSenzangakhona" (1979-1995) attempted by means of music and praise poetry to correct misconceptions in this perception, presenting "the Zulu people's history from the Zulu people's point of view." In doing so, they have also presented a moving mosaic of the traditional Zulu world view, from the ancestors of creation unto implications for Zulu society of the present day.

On another plane, Khumalo's quest for "equal treatment" as a creative artist must be appreciated in the context of South Africa's recent past, both culturally and politically: his own epic search for an appropriate orchestral version to UShaka began in 1981 and culminated, several experimental orchestrations and fifteen years later, in the 1994-1996 collaboration with Maestro Robert Maxym resulting in the creation of the final version of the work with orchestra.

This version premiered on Heritage Day, September 24, 1996 (formerly Shaka Day, the anniversary of his assassination in 1828) at Johannesburg's City Hall and was broadcast live nationwide by SABC 3. UShaka has been performed in Durban, Pretoria, and Capetown numerous times in the interim. It was been signaled out as a presentation work by the South African National Government and by Provincial Government(s), specifically, the XII. Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Durban in 1998 (President Mandela's gala banquet), and the KwaZulu-Natal Government's Freedom Day Celebration in 2002. At the 1999 State Theatre Pretoria performance, President Mbeki and a large delegation of foreign diplomatic guests were in attendance. Ushaka toured six European countries in 2004 as part of South Africa's "!0 Years of Democracy" celebrations, and had its US premiere at the Ravinia Festival in 2006.

As an artistic work, UShaka is simply unparallelled in the history of African music, indeed in the history of music as a whole. It is the single most extensive musico-dramatic work for orchestra, chorus, and soloists by an African composer and his librettist. It is the only "Epic in Music and Praise Poetry" (UShaka's official subtitle) in the history of music, and the only symphonic/choral repertoire work in Zulu. In performance, it presents a breathtaking musical challenge to the vocal and instrumental forces performing, and it has moved audiences to tears, exultation, ululation, whistling, dancing, and other spontaneous expressions of deep involvement.

Finally, it is not only musically, but also in a distinctly spiritual/social sense that UShaka is significant, for it is self-evident that great music can bring great healing. The poet Msimang and the composer Khumalo, two giants of the modern South African cultural stage, perceived that the Zulu people, indeed many African peoples, have suffered greatly under Shaka's "curse". Thus in the final chorus, "Siyashweleza, Nodumehlezi", they call upon the entire Zulu nation to go down upon their knees at Shaka's grave in Stanger. In an act of collective contrition, they are to implore Shaka's forgiveness, that he may revert upon his words and revoke the curse, freeing his people from the cloud which has darkened their way for the last 175 years. Msimang and Khumalo know that UShaka is a work intended not only for the Zulus, but through its message of inner reconciliation, by extension for the entirety of the peoples of South Africa. Taking this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, the message of UShaka should also prove to be a message of reconciliation for the world.

Maxym Music CC publishes the complete pianovocal score to UShaka, and during the course of 2009, will release the publication of a suite of seven excerpts from the work arranged for concert band, soloists and choir. The orchestral material, score and parts, are available on hire from SAMRO, the South African Music Rights Organisation.

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Most recent update: December 2009, Webmaster