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Sunday, June 12, 2011


(Nondumiso Tembe)

American-based Nondumiso Tembe, multi-talented daughter of two of Durban’s most prominent and longest-serving arts practitioners, has an exciting year ahead. Mercury Arts editor Billy Suter chats to her. (Courtesy of The

Dreams really do come true if one works hard enough, long enough and has talent to spare to make the magic happen. And if it’s proof one is after, one simply has to point to young dancer, singer and actress Nondumiso Tembe. The vivacious, amiable 26-year-old daughter of Bongani Tembe, chief executive of Durban’s KZN Philharmonic, and Linda Bukhosini, the Playhouse Company’s artistic director, realised her first big ambition, to release a debut album, a few months ago.

Titled Izwi Lami: My Voice, it was recorded in Durban over a month during last year’s World Cup, had a very successful launch in Joburg in January, and is now available at all Musica stores.

Come the end of this year, Tembe will see another dream realised when she fills the title role in the Playhouse Company’s lavish stage production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, Cinderella, originally written as a 1950s television special that starred Julie Andrews.

“It’s been my dream to play Cinderella since I was a little girl. So how beautiful for this opportunity to come along. I am thrilled and excited,” she says.

The realisation of Tembe’s first dream started to take shape in December 2009, when she was offered a record deal by the president of KZN Music House, a local recording label. Included on the album is the popular single Silver to Gold, as well as duets with maskandi legends Madala Kunene and Phuz’ eKhemisi, and hip hop artist Young Nations.

Adds Tembe: “I wrote a song that Mam’ Busi Mhlongo graciously agreed to record with me, but unfortunately, she passed away last year, just before we were about to go into the studio. I was heartbroken, but Madala Kunene, who was very close to her, stepped in and recorded the track with me. It’s titled Khala Nhliziyo Yami, meaning ‘cry my heart’.”

Tembe counts herself very lucky to finally have a platform to share her music with the world. “I am so proud of what we have created and that I stayed true to myself in the music,’ she says, adding that her work on the album is “a very honest and intimate reflection and representation of who I am”. She is now looking at potential international partners to take the music to the US and other parts of the world, including other African countries.

“I was recently approached by radio stations in Botswana and Zimbabwe. We’re also working on making my music available through digital download on the internet. As a result, it will be accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world.”

Tembe has been writing music since she was 14, and estimates that she has written more than 160 songs. And she is still hard at it. “Writing music is very cathartic for me. One thing I am very proud of is how truly eclectic my album is. There is a little somethin’ for everyone there.” Her sound is a mixture of traditional African music and neo-soul, with classical influences. It is a meeting of worlds – just as her life has been, growing up on two very different continents.

Tembe lived in New York, where both her parents studied voice, until she was 10. She returned with them to Durban and was schooled locally – appearing in the title role in a Playhouse production of Annie! when she was 12 – and then went back to the US when she was 17, to further her studies. She recently – and with great relief, she adds – completed seven years at university, and can now proudly holds a master of fine arts degree in acting from Yale University, and a bachelor of fine arts degree in theatre and political science, with a focus on Africa, from New School University in New York.

“I also studied musical theatre at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, as well as Classical Theatre at the British American Dramatic Academy at Oxford University in Oxford, England.”

And she has been studying ballet and African dance for more than 10 years, at the renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and at the Djoniba African Dance and Drum Centre in New York. She has had a very busy last few months abroad, highlights including having done “truly fulfilling” work in Los Angeles on a new musical called Witness Uganda. She was cast as a ferocious Ugandan woman who runs an Aids orphanage.

“Professionally, the highlight of my year were concerts last December in Durban, when I performed music from my album for the first time. That was a pivotal moment in my life and I am so glad I have it on tape, to remember forever,”

At what point in life did you know for sure you wanted to follow in her folks’ footsteps and carve a career in showbiz?

“It’s just my calling, and has always been in me. I’ve tried to run from it, but God keeps pulling me back to this path. Of course, when you come from a musical family and grow up in the world of the performing arts, it definitely becomes a world you are comfortable in.

“Like most artists, I have a compulsive instinct to create. Whether that is expressed through dance, music, acting or writing, the impulse and desire to create, tell human stories and connect with people comes from the same place.” Tembe’s first public performance came at the age of six, when she played the Miracle Child in a Juilliard School production of Suor Angelica by Puccini in New York.

“The great thing about growing up with parents who were music students constantly in production, was that any time the production needed a child, I was it. I played little orphans, angels, village children. It was great… and I was performing with my parents. I remember those experiences being fun and carefree. That was probably the beginning of my life-long love-affair with she stage.”

Tembe is particularly excited about Cinderella which is to be directed by Ralph Lawson and will run at the Playhouse Opera from November 19. Full casting has still to be finalised.

“It is such a wonderful musical, and I am looking forward to working again with Ralph Lawson, whom I respect and adore. He directed me in the title role in Annie! when I was just 12 – but we have kept in touch all these years.”

How challenging is the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella score and was Tembe familiar with the show when she auditioned?

“I have watched every recorded performance of the musical – from Julie Andrews to Lesley-Ann Warren to Brandy. I love every single song, and that is not usual for me to say about a musical. I think the writer and composer did an incredible job at marrying poetic, romantic, poignant lyrics with an equally beautiful and accessible score. Usually in musicals, one trumps the other. The characters are also so wonderfully distinct and the script is really funny!”

What will be her take on the role of Cinderella?
“Every actress will have her own take on a role. My Cinderella is not the typically weepy, damsel-in-distress waiting for her knight-in-shining-armor to save her. Uh-uh. My Cinderella is rebellious, spunky, determined, opinionated and has a great sense of humour. She just happens to be stuck in a really stinky situation. Then her luck turns when she falls in love with the man of her dreams… but she maintains a resilient, hopeful spirit through it all.”

As an actress, Tembe doesn’t believe in giving young girls role models who are spineless women looking for a man to save them, as many classic ingénues are written. “Women are smart, resourceful, resilient people and I want little girls to leave this show feeling like empowered little princesses who can tackle the world and make their own dreams come true as well… just like Cinderella.”

She travels the US a lot, and Los Angeles has been a base for the past 18 months because she has been working there in film and television, but home will always be South Africa, says Tembe. “My heart is always here. And I never feel as complete as I do when I am at home in Durban. I am fortunate to be able to work in both the US and South Africa, particularly since the journey of my album began. I’ve already been home four times over the last year and have several more trips planned this year. Can’t wait....

What is Tembe’s biggest career ambition?

“My overarching ambition is to make a meaningful contribution to my people and the world through my art, to tell the stories of my people through my work and to break down negative stereotypes about black people and Africans in the entertainment industry.”

Although she doesn’t like to name names, with some cheerful prodding Tembe lets it leak that she has some well-known friends and celeb acquaintances. “I am lucky to have several very successful actors as mentors and their guidance is something I am so grateful for, because Hollywood is a world that is very brutal to actors. In my industry I meet people all the time. I recently worked with LL Cool J on the popular US television series NCIS: LA. But meeting the late Henry Cele, who played Shaka Zulu, was a very profound and unforgettable experience for me. I also fondly remember meeting Bill Cosby when I was a little girl in New York with my folks. I had just lost a tooth and he was hilarious. He started looking for it!”