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Thursday, June 24, 2021


(Above: Mzilikazi Khumalo. Image by Peter Mogaki)

Icon of choral music and acclaimed composer, Prof James Stephen Mzilikazi Khumalo, died on June 22, 2021, after a long illness. He had turned 89 the previous day.

Known for his exceptional composing skills, Prof Khumalo was born on June 20, 1932, on the Salvation Army farm, KwaNgwelu (known as Mountain View in English), in the Vryheid district of Natal, South Africa. As a school-child he began his life-long involvement with choral music and developed a deep love for African traditional music.

In 1969, Khumalo became a tutor in the Department of African Languages at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, where he rose through the ranks to become Professor and Head of the Department.

Since 1989, together with SAMRO composer-member, Richard Cock, Khumalo was a Music Director of the annual Sowetan Nation Building Massed Choir Festival for a considerable time After 1980, he rekindled his interest in traditional African music and stopped composing for a while in order to study the genre, concentrating on collecting and arranging black folk music.

In 1983, he was honoured for [his] persistently high-quality output as a composer, and [his] magnificent Zulu idiom in some of [his] best compositions”, and his works have won him several prizes. In 1986, he wrote Intonga YoSindiso for the enthronement of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and he has received several commissions. He is the composer of the large-scale epic cantata, UShaka KaSenzangakhona, on the life of the Zulu king, Shaka, as well as the opera, Princess Magogo.

Khumalo was, inter alia, an Emeritus Professor of African Languages of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors of SAMRO. He was the Chairperson of the committee appointed by the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology to produce – at the prompting of then President Mandela – the official version of the South African National Anthem, and served on the Music Committee of the National Arts Council.

Khumalo’s works are frequently performed both at home and abroad, and recordings of many of his compositions have been made.

Bongani Tembe, Chief Executive and Artistic Director, of the Johannesburg and KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestras, paid tribute:

“Prof Mzilikazi Khumalo was one of the most talented African composers. We were very proud of him and his work. I am so delighted that the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra played his music more often than any other institution in South Africa. We did uShaka KaSenzangakhona so many times and we also premiered one of his operas, the first really Zulu opera, Princess Magogo.

“His song Kwadedangendlale for me is an absolute masterpiece right up there with any of the best compositions of Giuseppe Verdi. I remember in 1981 as a young soloist singing one of his masterpieces Izibongo Zenkosi uShaka and thinking “Wow – what great music. What a composer”.

May his soul rest in peace. Condolences to his dear family,” adds Tembe.