By ALYSSA HARRISON
The moment I sat down with Asakhe Cuntsulana, I felt immediately at ease. He showed me to the auditorium at St. Andrew’s College, the school where he teaches voice, marimba, and choir and, as we spoke, his passion and enthusiasm for music shone through.
Cuntsulana grew up in the Eastern Cape, in a small village called Qwaninga. He started singing in 2002, in primary school, and joined the senior choir in 2006. In grade nine, he had to decide whether to continue with music or commerce. He had been set to study mathematics, accounting, physics and life sciences, but then heard of Cowan High School in Gqeberha, which offered music as a High School level subject. He chose to study there instead, where he completed Matric, and is now studying for his Master’s in Music.
Apart from teaching music, Cuntsulana is a self-published author of Ikhwezi Eliqaqambile, a poetry anthology written in isiXhosa. He is also a composer. In 2019, he bought a Ugandan harp, called the adungu, which he learned throughout the lockdown period. He composed several songs in 2020, playing them mostly on the piano but then transcribing them for the adungu. His songs draw heavily on his spirituality, and are purposefully written for worship and praise. However, they are also influenced by his social context and are rich in his culture, and history. One of his compositions, for instance, is called ‘Isingqala’, which translates to a moan or a sigh. It explores the reason behind black people’s fear of dogs, exposing the trauma that black people faced during apartheid, for dogs were trained to attack black men and women.
“I’m a composer of music and the music that speaks to the soul. So if you listen to my music, it sort of triggers something within your own being intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally,” he said, before delving into the creative process of how he begins to build his compositions. He composes most of his songs orally, accompanying them with the adungu or the piano. He explained that he usually works best in the mid-morning, but that inspiration can strike anywhere without warning. Once, while he was at an airport, part of a song he had been writing came to him from nowhere. “Space influences any writer, any composer,” he said.
Cuntsulana’s eyes lit up when I asked if he is inspired by any other artists, “Yes, always!” he exclaimed. He emphasised that we are always influenced by our social context, “by culture, by tradition, by norms, by customs, by languages, by space, by environment.” They all are hugely significant in what we write about or compose, and so he was definitely influenced by a lot of people. Among these are artists such as Ballake Sissoko, Seckou Keita and Toumani Diabeté. He himself has been likened to Asanda Lusaseni Mvana (Msaki) and does a lot of covers of her songs.
Cuntsulana spoke about his journey as a composer with raw honesty. “As people, we sometimes desire and strive to be better, right? And better is always measured in terms of competition.” This mentality, he said, is what causes some people to get stuck in the creative process, because they make these unfair comparisons with other people who are not on the same level as them. He always keeps three things in mind to avoid getting pulled into this spiral. Firstly, the main purpose of his music is for worship and praise. Secondly, he always tries to put together a music programme with a specific aim in mind. For instance, he held a concert at LA Café in Makhanda’s Provost, exploring African history before colonialism. The venue was significant because it was a jail during Apartheid. Having a central purpose, therefore, helps to guide the creative process. Thirdly, he said it helps to play with other people, for instance in an ensemble or a band, so that everyone can learn from each other.
For Cuntsulana, an integral part of playing any instrument is that it demands to be performed. I mentioned that I did not pursue music as a career because stage fright had always been so overwhelming, but he stressed that this is a psychological barrier and that it is important to overcome it. “We are so fixated on being perfect musicians,” Cuntsulana said, “which sometimes robs us of the joy that music brings. It also robs your audience of what you can bring on stage.”
He spoke about easy ways to overcome stage fright, such as making sure that you have enough water with you, and that you are dressed properly. However, he also tries to create an atmosphere on stage with his performances, to have fun there, and to create a relationship with the audience by engaging with them. For instance, in his recital at Rhodes, he spoke to his audience, acknowledging the people who had played a part in his musical journey as well as explaining the meaning behind the songs he was going to perform, quickly easing the tension. But this approach is distinct from classical music performances, where performers are more detached from the audience.
Cuntsulana plans to continue teaching music in schools, and eventually to teach at the University of Fort Hare, so that he can continue to encourage and inspire other people to reach their full potential. Cuntsulana has more than inspired me to keep practising, to keep playing, and to keep trying. Because, as he said, “Sometimes we’ll say practice makes perfect. No, I think practice makes better.”