Humans of SOAS: Notes Edition

In conversation with Thandeka Mfinyongo

This series seeks to highlight the talent and stories of women musicians of colour at SOAS.

By Sasha Patel,  BA History and South Asian Studies

Tell us a bit about yourself.

My name is Thandeka and I’m from South Africa. I play two indigenous instruments, the uhadi and mhrubhe musical bows, which I’ve been playing for five years. Before SOAS, I was at the University of Cape Town studying African music where I chose to focus on those instruments because I’m very passionate about indigenous music, especially because I’m Xhosa. There are these notions that African music is dying and as a young black person, it’s very important for me to be part of the people that are preserving this music, so I took up studying Xhosa instruments at university. 

Describe your music.

I play my bows, but I try to play with other instruments like with my band, including piano, vocals, guitar and percussion too. That’s basically my sound, just to keep it more African you could say. We also practise a lot of call and response just to root it. But I’m still learning, you never really get there. 

Are there many students of indigenous instruments in Cape Town?

No not at all , it’s the smallest department, so small. When I left, a lot of people began coming, I guess after the whole decolonial project with people trying to find themselves in some way. The student demographic is a mix, definitely a mix. 

You mentioned coming back to indigenous music as a way of decolonising,  how would you see music as a political tool?

I feel it is a tool, it’s not just music, it’s a history and where you come from. There’s so much history, like during apartheid people sang as a form of fighting against what was happening at the time. Personally, music is a way of learning more about me, my roots and my people. We’ve all gone with the western wave, so if more people want to know more about their backgrounds and where they come from then music is a good force. With more people having an interest in it, we’re also showing that it’s worth studying and knowing more about.

Who are your  influences?

I’m not gonna lie, I love the older generations; Nina Simone, I love her, her politics and everything she stood for. Also, Miriam Makeba and Busi Mhlongo. Busi passed away but she was a pioneer in Maskandi music which is mostly dominated by men. There’s a message in all of their music, so during times of struggle they’d use song. If you’re told to keep quiet, then you’re going to sing. It was their way of protesting because it was the toughest time back then. They didn’t have much of a voice. But now it’s different because we do have a voice, and I know my rights. Now, If you’re doing nonsense, it doesn’t matter what colour you are, because I’ll tell you. 

What’s been your most memorable musical experience?

I had the privilege of spending time with Madosini, a legendary bow performer. She encourages young people to come and learn so they keep the tradition after she dies. We did an intergenerational conversation and song with her at the YoungBlood in Cape Town. It was mainly improvisation meaning we had to figure it all out, the bow and the guitar. It was crazy, it felt like a spontaneous thing but so amazing. It felt so great to be next to her because people were engaging and remembering which is very important. It was beautiful though, with a lot of people asking questions. But we felt so bad about ourselves because of the language barrier. We were trying to translate and then we realised we didn’t know as much about the language (Xhosa) as we thought we did. The language is deeper, much deeper than we thought. 

On that note, how do you navigate this space as a woman?

I guess in any music, it’s male-dominated, then you come with a strange indigenous instrument and it’s like two battles now. You know when I go somewhere carrying my uhadi, men will feel entitled to touch it, saying what is this but when it’s a guy carrying it no one will question it. That just shows you it’s not as normal as it should be for women to be playing. We just need to show up, we have to work extra hard as women, that’s the thing. 


If you’re told to keep quiet, then you’re going to sing. 

How do people react to your music?

That’s the beautiful thing about it. At first it was really hard because you’re fighting against the wave that’s coming this way. There’s a lot of genres, a lot of music but the beautiful thing about it is the connection. People remember things they didn’t know they know. You know the nostalgia I see in people when I play with the bows. You just see people yearning. It’s that connection, that remembering, they engage in that sense. Previously, a mother would use the bow to tell old stories to the kids. But now we don’t have that any more. Things that make us happy don’t exist anymore, but once someone does it you remember how you felt

I’d say it really is a struggle and I won’t romanticise it. It’s really really hard, this kind of music isn’t popular. But, it’s the curiosity of people that makes things easier. It’s nice if you have someone come up to you and ask because they want to learn. If you come up-to me after the show, of course i’ll tell you. I won’t make my truth nice or whatever just because you’re a certain colour. That’s not gonna stop me from sending my message. If you’re interested and want to know what I’m about, just interrogate me and ask. What are you saying, what does this mean. We’re not just musicians who play instruments, we’re human beings who are aware about what is happening in the world.

What would you say to anyone looking to preserve and learn their own indigenous instruments?

If it’s your passion, something that you love and want to do, nothing should stop you. I think just keep remembering why you’re doing it, otherwise you’d forget and have no motivation. And remember the people you look up to, and know it wasn’t easy for them and it will be hard for you. With the wave of decolonisation we’re in now, we’re shaking grounds everywhere. People were sure of how life was supposed to be but now, you’re coming and disturbing it. So that’s not gonna be easy because everyone likes their comfort zone. But you can’t come and shake my comfort zone and think I’m not going to retaliate. 

Follow Thandeka here:

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Thandeka Mfinyongo (Credit: Yousef Abughazaleh)

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