Music helps me realise how real the world is. And that I can change the situation in my heart and the hearts of others just by listening to it or playing it. Because music heals. And that is how I heal.
It is not often one comes across a performer with as much passion, soul and innate talent as Ntombe Thongo – a musician and traditional healer, born and raised in a small village near the Ntafufu river mouth in Port St John’s in the Eastern Cape. His electrifying stage presence, colourful beaded costumes, commanding singing voice and incredibly skilful instrumental work have been engaging audiences around the world for over a decade and one cannot help but feel somehow connected to the magic of his music both during a performance and long, long after. After witnessing this for myself at his magical performance at TEDx Cape Town last year, I simply had to meet this eccentric, bold yet gentle human being who had touched my heart through his musical genius, and hear his remarkable story.
Born in 1977 in the small village of Mthambalala, Ntombe Thongo (who then went by the name of Dibanisile), was immediately identified by his entire family and the people in the village as having something quite special about him. Even as a baby, there were clear features to those around him of a unique calling and signs that were felt by all in his presence. And so, the villagers and the family merely observed this special child, waiting for answers that they were confident would be revealed in due time. In 1983, at the tender age of six, the little boy that had captured everyone’s attention, started speaking of strange dreams – dreams that were clearly marked as callings from the ancestors. His older sister, who was already in training to become a sangoma after hearing the calling herself, immediately took Thongo under her wing as a Khankatha – an assistant to someone who is in training to become a traditional healer.
During this time, Thongo attempted to attend school but unlike the other children in the village, his calling had come early and the training to become a sangoma was of greater importance. After a series of dreams during his training in which a number of things were revealed to him such as different animals, medicines, people and beads – all of which were teaching him about his future role as a healer – he had a dream that changed his life forever. “At around 10 or 11 years old, my great grandmother came to me in a dream with something that looked almost like a saw. With one stick on the side. And she said, “Here! Play it!” I mean, I didn’t even know what it was and I had no idea how to play this thing. And then she said, “Ok.” And she grabbed it back from me and she started to play it for me. She played so beautifully. And then she gave it to me again and said, “Here. And this is only the beginning.” I didn’t know what it meant,” he recalls. After telling his teacher about the dream, she explained that the instrument was a uMrhubhe, a traditional mouth bow. She made Thongo his own mouth bow and he started to play, making funny noises at first, but within four days, he was playing like he had been practising his whole life. “I believe that is where my musical future began,” he says.
In 1994, Thongo graduated as a traditional healer and was the youngest sangoma in the whole of the Eastern Cape. He attempted to go back to school, but it was difficult for him. Not only was he ostracised by the children because of his traditional dress of beads of animal skins, he also found that his connection to the ancestors and the spirit world hindered his ability to focus on what was being taught. “As a sangoma, I am a sensitive person. I sense and feel and get visions about the things around me. So it was a hard time. To be surrounded by all these children from different families and backgrounds now sitting all around me. I would sense all their energy and it would affect me. It was very, very intense. So I gave up. I stopped going,” he explains.
Thongo stayed in the village for the next few years, immersing himself in the culture and learning more and more about his role as a healer. He was particularly impressive during the gatherings of the sangomas, where he would dance with vibrant energy and rhythm like no one else and would always attract large audiences – he was a natural performer. Then, on Christmas day in 1998, while walking down the road in the village to go and visit his brother, Thongo passed a group of young men who were playing music. They called out to him and invited him to join them. “I had no idea what a guitar looked like. I had never seen one in my life. I’d never seen a keyboard either. I mean, the place I grew up didn’t have music at all. So I went to join them and I looked at these foreign instruments and they looked nice but I had no idea what to do with them,” he recalls.
One of the men, affectionately referred to by his peers as Zero Wally, started to teach Thongo how to play the instruments and, after noting an incredible talent in the boy, started to buy him instruments of his own. Shocked at how Thongo could pick up an instrument, spend a few days with it and then be able to play as if he had been practising for years, he gave him everything, from guitars to a keyboard and even a seven piece drum kit. “I was learning very fast. Once I created one song, I just knew. It was like it was in my heart. I had ever learnt from a musician. I would just listen to records and cassette tapes and then I just picked it up from there. Once I had learnt all the instruments and could play them all well, I realised that I could start teaching others. So I got some young boys and girls from the village to come and join me and learn. I started with two young guys teaching them to pay bass lines and drums for me. I had no idea what I was doing but this all made sense to me,” he says.
Thongo and his newly-formed band started to perform all over the Eastern Cape and he was soon spotted by renowned Cape Town playwright and artist, Brett Bailey who asked him to come to Cape Town and share his music with others. Before he knew it, Thongo was performing in major festivals around Cape Town and even went on to play in large theatres in London. “It was crazy! It was so, so crazy! And so beautiful,” he laughs. Separating his role as a sangoma and a musician was a challenge at first as Thongo would find that, because of the nature of his songs, his ancestors would appear to him during his performances which was somewhat of a distraction. “So, I asked my ancestors if they could allow me, and us as a band, to use this platform as a career you know?” And they did. But that didn’t stop Thongo from using his talent and role as a healer in conjunction with one another. “Seventy percent of the things which I sing about come from my dreams”, he explains. “Music and healing go together. I am healing those who listen to my music.”
Ntombe Thongo has achieved major success and has touched the hearts of all those who have had the privilege of seeing him perform. His debut album, Thokozile, which was released in 2012, went on to win the South African Traditional Music (SATMA) Award as best isiXhosa album of 2012. He was also nominated for a South African Music Award (SAMA) for best Maskandi album in 2013. His musical style, which he refers to as “Transkhanda” is a traditional type of trance music from the Transkei. His style is completely unique and his incredibly beautiful, captivating voice, bold dance moves, colourful beads and, on occasion, mini skirt and heels, have captivated audiences in South Africa, Europe, Asia, North America and South America. Exceptionally skilled at a number of traditional instruments such as the uMrhubhe (mouth bow), uHadi (a bow attached to a calabash) and 12-string guitar, Ntombe Thongo is a force to be reckoned with. One of the most gentle, kind men I have ever met who is capturing the hearts of audiences worldwide and healing the souls of all who hear him play.
For more information, contact Ntombe Thongo on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Text © Julie Graham | Images © Julie Graham & TEDx Cape Town