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Timeline: Neo Muyanga (1974 - )

Timeline: Apartheid Sign
South African composer Neo Muyanga was born in Soweto, in 1974 during the era of apartheid; a system of institutionalized racial segregation.

Since the dawn of the Romantic era, composers have used their music as a means to express their individual nationalities and their hopes for their culture. Consider the nationalism evident in the music of Mikhail Glinka or the activism in the works of Jean Sibelius. Today, composers are still finding new ways to incorporate their ethnic identity and cultural heritage in the tradition of classical music; as evident in the works and influence of contemporary South African composer Neo Muyanga.

Neo Muyanga was born in Soweto, South Africa, in 1974 during the era of apartheid; a system of institutionalized racial segregation. As a child, Muyanga observed the militant crackdown of the National Party government. In the 80s, thousands were killed or imprisoned as the people of South Africa stood against apartheid. The oppressive system was finally repealed in 1991, leading to majority rule of the country.

Neo Muyanga showed early interest in many styles of music, from the rich heritage of South African songs to traditional choral music. In the early 90s, he traveled to Italy to study Italian madrigals with choral master, Piero Poclen.

In the mid-90s, Muyanga was co-founder of blk sonshine, an internationally recognized acoustic pop/jazz duo. He’s toured the world extensively as a solo artist, with blk sonshine and also with various other bands and ensembles.

In 2008 Neo Muyanga co-founded the Pan African Space station which is a web-based platform for sharing contemporary music, art and thought online across the continent. Muyanga has expanded his interests into the worlds of philosophy and physics. He’s a fellow of the Wits Institute for social and economic research, or W.I.S.E.R. for short. However, music as always been his main means of expression. Muyanga defines his work as “revolting music” or “music of sociopolitical unrest.” You can hear this political bent in his operatic works, like the 2012 The Flower of Shembe or The Struggle is My Life a dramatic depiction of the life of Nelson Mandela.

Neo also mentors young composers, encouraging them to “re-mix music” or blend together the traditions of indigenous African and Western music. In 2017, Muyanga was the composer-in-residence at the Ninth Johannesburg International Mozart Festival. Here he focused on chamber works that use traditional string quartets with South African instruments.

The reason for this blending of culture goes even deeper than music creation for Muyanga. In his words, “The primary conversation about how you make community is how we first have to accept that we are all different. We’ve all got a different outlook and [have] to set a playing field that feels equivalent and level for the people who are the players. But it’s also a way to find compromise so that you’re able to share a platform with a different intention, a different volume, a different technical make-up. And I think it’s the ultimate lesson that we need to learn as human beings.”

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James Stewart is VPR Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.