The first composer-in-residence of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, Mokale Koapeng, is on an artistic journey to discover new things.
HUMILITY is not a trait one normally associates with world-renowned musicians. For Mokale Koapeng, though, it seems to come naturally. Either that, or the conductor, director, lecturer and composer just doesn’t have the time to fit it into his schedule.
Mokale KoapengMokale Koapeng, first composer-in-residence for the JIMFNot only does Koapeng lecture at Wits University, but he is also the first composer-in-residence of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival (JIMF), among all his other projects.
Born in Orlando West, in Soweto in 1963, he was exposed to music at a young age. His father was a chorister and gave all seven of his children the opportunity to study music. Koapeng was the only one of them who asked to learn music, though, and he began by asking to be taught how to play the piano.
“I took the initiative, but I was in a musical environment,” he says. His favourite quote is by Leonard Bernstein, the famous American composer and conductor: “I didn’t choose music, music chose me.” It sums up his attitude to what has become a successful career. “I feel like I was destined to be involved in music,” Koapeng says.
“I find playing music to be an outlet for expressing my thoughts, emotions and state at any given time,” he explains, “but I also find listening to it soothing and good for redirecting my energy.”
However, he is quick to point out that there is a big difference between good and bad music, describing bad music as “something that the creator didn’t put much effort into”.
Koapeng has worked with a wide variety of national and international musicians and groups, including Sibongile Khumalo, Hugh Masekela and British vocal group I Fagiolini. He has also composed music for the National Symphony Orchestra; University of Pretoria Chorale; Musicatreize, the French instrumental and vocal ensemble; the Sontonga String Quartet; and the Unisa Foundation Youth Orchestra.
He considers I Fagiolini his favourite collaboration. “It was the first association that put South African indigenous music and Western music on a par. It was wonderful working with a group specialising in Western music that embraced indigenous music, so much so that they started commissioning pieces after the collaboration was over.”
And if he had to select one thing to be remembered by, it would be this partnership and the resulting work, the internationally successful CD, Simunye.
Another career highlight was composing and conducting the world premiere of Cantus in Memoria ’76 at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising of 16 June 1976.
“The issues around 1976 are emotional for all South Africans, but blacks in particular. Because I was there at the time, when it was commissioned, it was not just an academic exercise or artistic enterprise,” he says. “I had flashbacks of running from the cops and being in Uncle Tom’s Hall in Orlando West, hearing gunshots and realising the struggle was a matter of life and death.
“I just hope that the music did justice to the poetry of what happened that day.”
The challenge of making his compositions accessible is one that Koapeng regards philosophically. He has found that people not involved in music have embraced his work more than musicians because “musicians have to discard their own emotional baggage before they can enjoy the songs”.
“It is not a popularity contest, though. It is my artistic expression on a journey to discover new things.” This, he hopes, stems from his admiration for Mozart. To him, the Austrian artist was an innovative composer who always looked to discover the new and unexplored.
This similarity may have contributed to his appointment as the first composer-in-residence of the JIMF, though he certainly does not see it this way. “I don’t subscribe to being a ‘first’ for anything; it’s an accident of history,” he says of his appointment. “There is nothing unique about me being the one chosen. It’s more a possibility of being in the right place at the right time.”
He is looking forward to what opportunities may come from this role, which already include “new things tried in the commissioned work [Dipesalema tsa Dafita]”. This piece will have its world premiere on 27 January at the Linder Auditorium, as part of the opening ceremony of the JIMF. The festival will run until 13 February at the auditorium at Wits’ Education Campus in Parktown.
He says his role as composer-in-residence will be a challenge he will enjoy, but which he will happily pass on next year as he has “no intention of being the Mugabe or Gbagbo of the JIMF”.
The multi-tasking musician does not make music for recognition, but rather focuses on what he considers to be his lifelong project: “to be a good teacher, composer and human being. I am a project on my own, trying to get myself right as a father, neighbour and artist.”
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