Passion for opera leads to overseas success
Growing up in Zwide, Musa Ngqungwana was so poor he sometimes went to sleep after having only a glass of sugar- water in an attempt to keep his growling stomach quiet.
Today, however, the United States-based opera singer is internationally renowned and this weekend returned to his hometown to promote his first book.
Released last week, Ngqungwana’s memoir, Odyssey of an African Opera Singer, chronicles his journey growing up in the Port Elizabeth township with a dream, despite poverty and an absent father, to sing on the world’s greatest opera stages. He left the Bay in his 20s after dropping out of engineering studies due to a lack of funds and “hustling” to make a living out of singing.
Now living in Philadelphia, Ngqungwana, 34, returns with a story aimed at motivating youngsters whose disadvantaged backgrounds threaten their dreams.
“As I mention in the book, I know poverty very well, so one of my first priorities has always been to take care of my mother and sister at home,” he said.
Ngqungwana squeezed the Port Elizabeth visit into his plans of promoting the book in Johannesburg and holding an official launch in Cape Town.
“If it were up to me, I would have the big launch in PE but I have a bigger following in Cape Town, and whenever we set up these kinds of events, we have to consider a lot of things like whether the event will be well attended and so on,” he said yesterday.
Ngqungwana grew up in the care of his grandmother, who died in 2008, and was introduced to music during his school days at Isaac Booi Primary School. He has since worked with various choirs including the Viola Men’s Choir and Port Elizabeth Technikon Choir.
The singer scored his big break when he won a scholarship to pursue his music studies at the University of Cape Town, which would later open doors for him to perform overseas.
In 2015, he won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for his solo performance at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, an achievement which he said remained his proudest to date.
Ngqungwana arrived in Port Elizabeth on Friday and leaves for Cape Town today to prepare for the official book launch on February 13. “Having grown up in a complicated system of segregation in South Africa, then finding myself introduced to – and thriving in – an opulent art form that clashed with my impoverished upbringing, I was moved to draft a story about my unusual background, ” he writes in the book.
He last visited his hometown in December to perform at the second annual Deon van der Walt Memorial Concert, which he said was not well attended. After the South African tour, the bassbaritone singer will return to Philadelphia before his other performances.
The former Port Elizabeth Technikon (now Nelson Mandela University) alumnus said he was not thinking of returning to this country permanently yet.
“I’m still too young for that to happen and I still need to build my brand so I can come back and give back to my community by helping with scholarships and whatever I can.”
He has already started this by working with the Amazwi Omculo Organisation, which provides master classes and competitions for upcoming singers.
The project, founded in KwaZulu-Natal by Njabulo Madlala, helps put competitors in contact with professionals from overseas, giving them a chance to audition there.
“So far we have had four or five people who have been to study and do master classes in England and Germany,” Ngqungwana said.