The lesson of the turtle and the dove
The South African musician known as Madosini passed away in 2022. She was one of the last of a generation who learnt to play traditional Xhosa instruments, in so doing sharing the spirituality, dignity, and joy of Xhosa culture through her inimitable song.
- Interview by
- Riason Naidoo
Born near Umtata in the Eastern Cape, South Africa on December 25 1943, the musician known as Madosini passed away in 2022 just two days before her 79th birthday. From humble beginnings and considered a prodigy with the uhadi (bow), umrhubhe (mouth bow) and isitolotolo (jaw harp), Madosini gained international stardom in the world music community. If you have ever listened to a live concert by the musician you would’ve understood why. Madosini was one of the last of a generation who learnt to play these instruments in the traditional way, like the many who came before her.
The Xhosa composer and storyteller performed with the likes of Brazil’s Gilberto Gil, British rock singer Patrick Duff, at the Medellin International Poetry Festival in Colombia and at numerous WOMAD festivals around the world. Madosini was also the first musician to be recorded and documented in the latter’s Musical Elders Archives project.
The multi-instrumentalist collaborated with local artists Thandiswa Mazwai, Ringo, Derek Gripper, Jonny Blundell and Lulu Plaatjies, and released an album entitled AmaThongo, regularly playing with Hilton Schilder and Pedro Espi-Sanchis, the latter who also acted as her manager.
Back in 2016 Madosini performed four concerts in Cape Town for the public art project Any Given Sunday, curated by Riason Naidoo. Three of these were organized concerts at Moholo LiveHouse in Khayelitsha, Institute for Creative Arts (ICA) at the University of Cape Town and Straight No Chaser Jazz Club at The Drawing Room in Observatory.
In this series the Xhosa musician invited musicians Schilder (melodica), Dizu Plaatjies (talking drum), Glen Ahrendse (mouth bow), Espi-Sanchis (ixilongo flute), Mpho Molikeng (sekgankula, lesiba), Nothembele ‘Vuma’ Maka (“fluit” mouth organ), among others. They played to full and diverse audiences.
In keeping with the random and covert nature of the interventions in the public art project, an impromptu performance took place at the square opposite Langa taxi rank, barely one 100 meters from where Madosini was living in the township.
This rare interview with Madosini was done on August 22 2020 and gives intimate insight into the background, music and philosophy of an eminent South African musician who shared so much of the spirituality, dignity, and joy of Xhosa culture through her inimitable song.
Where was Madosini born?
The name that I was given at birth is Latozi Mpahleni. The name of the village in which I was born is called KwaDlomo and sometimes it is called eMpekwe. When you take a taxi you would ask for KwaDlomo; I was born there.
How did you come to be a musician, how did you learn to play the instruments, who were your teachers?
To be the kind of singer that I am, I can say that I was born for this because as a child I grew up herding livestock like cattle and sheep and never went to school. During the time of the rite of passage for the young initiates into manhood we [the young girls] would go hunt for indigenous medicinal herbal plants that would be used on the initiates in the initiation school. We knew where to find these medicinal plants.
I was taught how to play these instruments by other girls. Ordinarily you would learn such instruments from your older sisters. You would pick up the instrument and learn from them as they play and that is how I learnt from my older sisters, those I come after. I learnt how to play the mouth bow [uhadi] from my mother. Since I grew up as a sickly child, I would sometimes cry when other children left me behind to go to social gatherings and my mother whose clan name is MaNzuza and name NoTshakazi would comfort me and say don’t cry over them, let them go to social gatherings [eMtshotshweni]; I will teach you how to play the mouth bow, something that they don’t know how to play. My mother taught me how to play the mouth bow. Traditionally, the mouth bow is only played by either the mother or the father, not by young girls. Young girls who were still attending umtshotsho [a pre-initiation ceremony], as well as boys who had not gone into initiation school, were not allowed to play mouth bow [uhadi].
Storytelling is a unique aspect of your concerts. Between your songs you tell stories of your childhood and your life. Is this part of a longer tradition?
The storytelling that I do, speaks about us; they are lessons and warnings: particularly the one of the little turtle and the dove. It teaches you to be cautious of your close friend because sometimes your best friend can destroy your marriage and kick you out of it. All this time you are with your friend you think that she/he loves you to an extent that you even tell your friend all your wonderful things until one day when your friend becomes jealous of your good fortune. The good things become the basis upon which your friend will become jealous of you and kick you out. And you will be surprised because you would not expect it to come from the friend you love. This is precisely the lesson behind the story of the dove and the little turtle.
As you know the dove flies and the turtle crawls on the ground, the meaning behind this story is that, you may have a friend who is different from you. In this context the dove has many family members and friends who are jealous of the fact that the dove is about to take a journey with the little turtle and leave other family members and friends behind. The dove’s friend becomes jealous and tells others not to cry over the dove as she/he will come back and she/he will not be able to fly. And, indeed, it happened that the dove could not fly, because of the friend; that is the meaning of that story.
Your instruments and music are a link with an ancient past that continues to the present day. How do you see your contribution to Xhosa culture and to South African music?
My contribution to South Africa is our Xhosa tradition. It is a fact that Xhosa cultural tradition was created long before we were born, before even our mothers were born. Likewise the mouth-bow and the harp were there even before our mothers were born, and today I contribute with the understanding that young people should be taught mouth-bow in schools. My contribution is with the mouth-bow and harp to the youth so that they can continue with it.
As a part of the Any Given Sunday series of public art events in 2016, you performed with jazz musicians. How did this collaboration first come about?
Because of my being a yellow ochre person or uneducated I don’t know how many years [exactly] but it has been quite a while since my connection to the spirits, but Pedro [Espi-Sanchis] is the first one I collaborated with. When he arrived I was still living at my flat at E location [Langa township in Cape Town]; he was accompanied by Vuyo Khatsha and it was the first time Pedro and I met. I told Vuyo that I needed to go back home [to the Eastern Cape] because I don’t have money and as an outcome of that I cannot put food on the table and it is at that point that Vuyo promised that he would come around and when he came, he brought Pedro along and it was the first time I met Pedro. When they arrived, I was in tears with no money and Pedro arranged work for me and I was on my way to Pretoria with Pedro and Vuyo.
What are some of the highlights that stand out in your career?
Because of my being uneducated I don’t know how many countries I have visited, but the one I visited more than once is London. I have attended many festivals in London, probably four times. I have also attended festivals in France.