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Jazz, musical bows and a baritone enthrall at music concert

- Wits University

A standing ovation for the Khaya Mahlangu Quintet at the inaugural Wits Vice-Chancellor’s Music Concert, which also featured Wits’ own Mombelli's Chamber.

A standing ovation and encore for the Khaya Mahlangu Quintet at the inaugural Wits Vice Chancellors Music Concert

The flagship concert, set to become an annual event, took place in the iconic Wits Chris Seabrooke Music Hall on Thursday, 19 October 2023.

Wits Vice-Chancellor Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, a patron of the arts and of jazz specifically, welcomed the packed house: “I want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to the incredible artists who will grace this stage tonight. They have poured their hearts and souls into their craft, and their dedication to their artistry is nothing short of inspiring. I am especially grateful that we have two legends performing at this inaugural VC’s Concert – Carlo Mombelli and Khaya Mahlangu. We are blessed tonight!”

The concert featured a veritable soundscape of musicians and performers, many of them in Wits Music in the Wits School of Arts. Dr Donato Somma, Head of Wits Music, set the scene: “Wits Music works in three closely related musical traditions: African music, jazz, and traditional. But blindly reproducing tradition is not what we do. To paraphrase a quote from the composer Mahler, ‘Tradition is not in saving the ashes, but in tending the living flame’. And what you will hear tonight is that living flame.”

Dr Donato Somma Head of Wits Music department

The first of two Wits Music students performing to “carry the flame forward” was Lesedi Masela, a student in the foundation phase of his Bachelor of Music at Wits. Masala sang an aria from Don Giovanni, Act 1 in an astonishing baritone that both enthralled and entertained. In addition to training as a classical bass singer, Masela is a conductor and an aspiring composer and teacher.

Accomplished pianist Andrew Duncan, currently completing his master’s in music at Wits, accompanied Masela. Duncan is a respected accompanist at several South African universities and opera organisations, and also coaches and accompanies several Wits students.

Classical bass singer and Wits BMus student Lesedi Masela right accompanied by pianist Andrew Duncan Wits masters in music student

Musicologist, musician, and composer Dr Cara Stacey joined Wits Music this year. She holds a doctorate in African music, specifically the makhoyane musical bow from Eswatini. Stacey took to the stage with Mpho Molikeng, a Lesotho-born multi-faceted artist who plays a range of southern African traditional instruments but specialises in those of the Basotho.

Dr Cara Stacey in Wits Music holds a PhD in African music and the makhoyane musical bow from Eswatini

A highlight of the duo’s performance was Molikeng’s demonstration of the conversion of an oil can into a bow instrument called a mamokhorong, an innovation of the Basotho and favoured by shepherds wiling away the hours while tending their livestock. The mamokhorong emits a haunting sound, reminiscent of an elephant’s call.

Mombelli’s Chamber was met with rousing applause immediately on alighting the stage. Comprising world-renowned and iconic jazz icon, Associate Professor Carlo Mombelli (electric bass), Kyle Shepherd (piano), Sisonke Xonti (woodwinds) and Jonno Sweetman (drums), the Chamber performed music from Mombelli’s latest recording called ‘Lullaby for Planet Earth’. Nandi Zulu, the second of the two BMus students performing, delivered haunting vocals.

Mombelli's Chamber are LtoR Kyle Shepherd Sisonke Xonti Carlo Mombelli and Jonno Sweetman, which performed at the inaugural Wits VC's Music Concert

Finally, the much-anticipated Khaya Mahlangu Quintet performed compositions by veteran jazz composer and saxophonist, Khaya Mahlangu. With a career spanning more than four decades, Mahlangu is revered and respected, having performed with luminaries including Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Caphus Semenya, Abdullah Ibrahim and Carlo Mombelli. When not performing, Mahlangu teaches the saxophone at Wits University.

His Quintet, comprising Mandla Mlangeni (trumpet), Sanele Phakathi (piano), Dalisu Ndlazi (bass) and Sphiwe Shiburi (drums) – and Mahlangu himself on tenor sax – brought the house down with lively, emotive, and provocative renditions including ‘Feya’s Dance’, ‘Visions’ (written for a world without war and famine), ‘Nobelungu’ (for Mahlangu’s late wife), and ‘Enkosi Jabu Xhosa’ (for the pianist Jabu Nkosi).

Somma said that in the coming years, the focus of the Vice-Chancellor’s Music Concert will shift. “Next year, a concert showcasing our classical lecturers and teachers and the year thereafter, an African music focus.”