Maverick Citizen: Reflection 

Langa, healing, and the one who sings: A storytelling session with Yo-Yo Ma 

By Daniel Steyn 13 February 2020

Mam' Madosini Photo by Daniel Steyn

As the sun set over the Cape Flats last Thursday evening, a group of people gathered in Langa to share their stories. Among them were celebrities, artists and activists. Powered by Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Projects and co-ordinated by Zolani Mahola, this event brought together a wonderful cross-section of Capetonian society and reflected a turning point both in the national and personal history of those who attended.

Langa is Cape Town’s oldest township, established in 1927 as part of the Urban Areas Act. “A sacred space,” Zolani called it in her opening speech. When the opportunity to introduce Yo-Yo Ma to her culture presented itself, Zolani decided to bring him here to Langa, where her great aunt lives. As I left the venue that evening, an impressed passer-by celebrated: “She brought them here, to the kasi.” 

Mam’ Mahola Photo by Daniel Steyn

In her great aunt Nyameka Mahola’s backyard, Zolani welcomed friends, family and a few fans to share a moment of vulnerability. Nourished by chicken livers and amagwinya (vetkoek) prepared by Mam’ Mahola (despite load shedding and the water being cut off), an audience of 50 people settled in on concrete blocks, sheltered from the wind by a corrugated iron hut. Above us, only blue skies. 

The common theme of the stories was “turning points”, echoing the current moment in Zolani’s career as she embarks on a new journey to find an artistic persona beyond that of FreshlyGround. It occurred to me that there is somewhat of a parallel between the journeys of Zolani and Yo-Yo Ma – both find themselves needing to give back, to reflect on their music and the people they reach. After all, it is Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project – an exploration of culture around the world, supported by his sold-out performances – that inspired this event.

Poetess Siphokazi Jonas was the first to perform. Her poem reminded us of how the trauma inflicted by the apartheid government on her own parents cannot be forgotten, for it is genetic and runs through her veins. Her father, buried in a mine shaft, will not be mined. Her mother, planted six-foot deep, will not be harvested. Bringing historical context to our gathering in Langa, Jonas set the tone for the stories that followed. 

Jonas was followed by the trance-like, rhythmic beats of Mam’ Madosini’s mhrube musical bow. A cultural treasure and Langa local, Madosini Mpahleni is one of the last bow players in South Africa. She cannot speak a lick of English, but her music speaks volumes. As she said to Yo-Yo Ma, via interpreter, the next day: “I cannot speak to you, but I love you and I love your music.” He returned the sentiment. 

Gabe Gabriel Photo by Daniel Steyn

There were stories of transformation and change. LA-based writer Gabe Gabriel told of their ongoing gender transition and the integral link between gender and identity. Niclas Kjellström Matseke, the Swedish son of a South African man exiled during apartheid, imparted a message of hope as he explained his decision to come back to South Africa and work as an activist. 

Pregs Govender Photo by Daniel Steyn

Renowned feminist, HIV/Aids activist and former member of parliament Pregs Govender read an excerpt from her book, Love and Courage: A Story of Insubordination, remembering her fallen comrades and reflecting on her battle against cancer. Her soft, soothing voice engulfed us as she remembered a painful past with beautiful poetry. 

Listening attentively to the performers and hugging each of them after their stories, was Yo-Yo Ma. He took to the stage to reflect on what he had heard. “Thank you for your stories,” he said, “it takes tremendous courage”. He emphasised how important storytelling is to culture and community. Healing, he said, can only take place when we share in one another’s trauma. 

He then sat down with his cello and introduced his piece as a reflection on the stories he had just heard. An improvisation followed, during which he made eye contact with each of us, smiling as if to bless us with the magic of his music. His cello’s scroll pushing into his neck, he closed his eyes in silent prayer. Then, just as we were about to applaud, he faded into Bach’s G-major prelude, playing it with such delicacy and sensitivity I had never heard before. A tune usually too familiar for its own good, it became a unique composition, an ultimate rendering, here on the Maholas’ stoep. There were no dry eyes when he finished. 

Zolani Trio Photo by Daniel Steyn

Bach’s perfect cadence seemed like an appropriate ending to the evening, but Yo-Yo insisted that Zolani Mahola be the last to sing (he had jokingly christened himself Yo-Yo Mahola). Zolani, accompanied by her guitar, Sky Dladla on African drum and Sarah Blake on double bass, led us into the night with two unreleased songs. That voice, immediately recognisable, spilling on to the street, drew crowds who watched from outside the gate. Yo-Yo Ma sang along from his seat, entranced by music so raw and true. 

We left exhausted, yet whole. Healed by the stories of those who have suffered and seen hope, the cello of a man with relentless love and energy, and the breathtaking voice of the One Who Sings, Zolani Mahola. MC

Daniel Steyn is a film-maker/writer from Cape Town, inspired by stories of activism, change and courage.

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