Contamination is often part of contemporary African musicians’ work, but few – if any – have taken this word in the sense Pumeza Matshikiza has.
Her artistic background, in fact, is different from that of most budding or established African music stars: the 35-years old Eastern Cape-born artist is an opera singer, namely a soprano. Having starred in productions such as Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème for Stuttgart state opera, or Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and having even performed at the famous Teatro alla Scala in Milan, did not bar Matshikiza from trying to reach a larger public. She did it in the same way in which artists such as the Italian-born Andrea Bocelli did: by entering the mainstream circuit.
In Matshikiza’s latest album, Voice of Hope, however, there are few concessions to pop music: opera singing is as present as it has been in her mind since, as a teenager, she listened by chance at a radio broadcasting featuring the great Swiss soprano Edith Mathis. “After that – she recalled later in an interview – I listened to that station almost every evening”. Although fascinating, opera could then only be a dream for the young, black South African teenager, whose first years were apartheid’s last. Apart from the poor social background she came from (during her childhood, the family moved from one Cape Town township to another, living in neglected areas such as Langa and Khayelitsha), that kind of music was – and partly still is – seen as ‘a white business’. “Opera – Matshikiza herself stated recently – is a luxury in a South African context, when people have no clean water, people live without sanitation – these are basic needs. That’s why South African opera singers have to leave. We have some fantastic voices, but there is not enough work for singers to make a living”.
Leaving was what the University of Cape Town graduate singer did herself, after winning a part in The Confessions of Zeno, written by South African composer Kevin Volans for the Handspring Puppet Theatre, and taking part in the subsequent tour. It was Volans himself who convinced her to audition for British conservatories, also paying for her flight. She immediately won a full scholarship at London’s Royal Opera House. Years later, Matshikiza has symbolically repaid her debt with Voland, by including his song Umzi Watsha in Voice of Hope: the work of the South African composer stands at the centre of the 15 track album of which Matshikiza’s outstanding voice is the most remarkable feature. The 35 year-old artist shows that she can range from African music classics such as Malaika and traditional songs in Zulu, Xhosa and Swahili to, naturally, opera arias, from W. A. Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.
Despite that the singer tried to find a way of performing which, in her own words, was intended to be “not quite operatic”, her background is inevitably detectable in every track, which is almost reinterpreted in order to stress the characteristics of the soprano’s voice. This makes the result vary greatly from case to case. Leaving the arias apart, for instance, Matshikiza’s versions of Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata and of The Naughty Little Flea (which ‘Mama Africa’ Makeba also covered) obviously fall very short of the original. On the other hand, nevertheless, the rendition of the Scottish protest song Freedom came all ye (which Pumeza also sang in July 2014 at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth games) gives this well-known song a new appeal.
In the end, it can be said that the young soprano’s attempt to bring “something different” to the market is half-successful. Nevertheless, Matshikiza’s presence on the musical scene is significant for at least two other reasons: it has shown for good that opera, in South Africa is no longer a forbidden field for black people and – if success will follow – she can pave the way for other emerging voices in the same field, who are already growing in the background.