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Pretty Yende: The Wealth Music Gives Me Is Priceless

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Operatic soprano Pretty Yende is arguably one of South Africa’s greatest cultural exports today.

The Milan-based opera singer has performed alongside music heavyweights such as Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion and graced the stages of major opera houses such as the La Scala Opera House in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and Liceu Opera in Barcelona.

Yet, Yende’s musical beginnings were in a world far away, around a humble bonfire in the small timber growing town of Piet Retief, in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.

“I remember every night after supper, we would gather around the fire and sing hymns, which was where, I believe my solo career started.”

Although she developed an interest in music as a child, it was not until much later, in 2001, that she heard about opera music.

Yende was at home watching TV, when she came across a British Airways commercial featuring Flower Duet, a famous duet for sopranos from Léo Delibes’ opera Lakmé, first performed in Paris in 1883.

“That was the moment that changed my entire course as far my career was concerned. I was touched by something so supernatural that I truly never believed was humanly possible,” says Yende.

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In high school at the time, as “one of the smartest, competitive students in class”,  Yende was well on her way to becoming an accountant. But she couldn’t shake the “supernatural sound” that continued to linger on, long after the life-changing commercial.

She made it her priority to find out more about that distinct sound. Her high school teacher advised her to join the choir. But she was told she didn’t have a singing voice.

Yende was convinced she did.

“I never give up on anything that feels right. I couldn’t say no to the deep desire in my soul for I knew that if I were to be taught, I could do it. I didn’t quit… and the rest is history.”

Determined, Yende enrolled at the South African College of Music in Cape Town where she received a scholarship. She was taught and mentored by Professor Virginia Davids, a trendsetter who was also the first black woman to appear on opera stages during the apartheid years in South Africa.

“It was very challenging at the beginning, like anything unknown to the mind,” says Yende.

She was guided by her instincts and intuition as well as support from her family and what she calls the entire ‘prettyarmy’, encompassing individuals who played a role in making her dreams come true.

Her successes also led to an offer to join the prestigious young artists’ program at La Scala. She performed at the opera house in 2010, but by then had already performed in Berlin and Latvia.

Yende has received accolades including at the International Hans Gabor Belvedere and Operalia Competitions. In South Africa, she was conferred the Order of Ikhamanga by President Jacob Zuma.

The 32-year-old is the only singer to have ever won all the main prizes at the renowned Belvedere Singing Competition in Vienna. She is also the first black singer to play the lead in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Paris Opera.

“I learned from the beginning that I was in competition with no one, and that has taken away a lot of pressure and expectations that come with this career,” says Yende.

Yende has traveled the world, and spends some of the year in New York and Paris, which are quickly becoming her “artistic homes”.

Ever since she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 2013, playing the lead role of Countess Adèle in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, she hasn’t looked back. The opera house has become one of Yende’s favorite places to perform in. She has had numerous performances on that very stage, one of the most recent being The Barber of Seville production.

‘My Family Thought I Had Lost My Mind’

The work is never-ending for opera singers as it calls for utter dedication and versatility. Most operas are written and performed in foreign languages, so they have to act and perform in them.

Yende speaks four South African languages, is fluent in French and Italian, and is currently learning German. In September 2016, she released her debut classical album A Journey.

A journey that has taken her across the globe, she has now come full circle, as she was honored at the South African Music Awards in May with the International Achiever Award.

“I want to be remembered as a girl who never gave up on anything that felt right in her heart,” says Yende.

“Failure is a big fat lie; I don’t have it in my vocabulary. I triumph always, if it doesn’t look or feel like triumph is it a lesson well learned and I am never the same as I was before a challenge.”

When she performed Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Paris Opera, the 3,000-strong Parisian audience were on their feet in the middle of the production.

“It was overwhelmingly historic and thrilling,” says Yende.

She prides herself in championing opera music through the Pretty Yende Foundation launched in 2013, which has been able to donate music instruments to a few schools in her community. Yende hopes to help cultivate classical music in South Africa and the rest of Africa.

“The dream is to have a music school and an opera house in my home town as well as every village in Africa.”

Music has given her a deeper meaning in life, but it is universal and has to be accessible to all. Yende is encouraged by the opera music scene in South Africa.

“It’s growing immensely and I look forward to see the incredible wealth of my country being graced on the world stage.”

Otherwise, she sees herself as a normal girl who enjoys life, constantly enriching it with experiences.

“Rest is a very big part of that and I enjoy cooking very much and I always say that if I kept my quest to be an accountant, I would have been a very successful one but the wealth that music gives me is priceless,” she says.

Yende also adds that if she hadn’t been an opera singer, she would have been a chef. At the moment though, her diary is packed until the second half of 2018. She is also excited about the release of her second album, Dreams, in October this year.

“Pretty awesome for someone who never thought she could ever sing professionally,” she says. – Written by Zikhona Masala

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Celebrating Women With Monumental Strength

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Sixty two years ago, on August 9, 20,000 women of all races, classes and creed marched, singing and chanting, babies on their backs, to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city, to deliver a petition to then Prime Minister J.G Strydom against the introduction of the apartheid pass laws.

This meant black women were not allowed in urban areas for more than 72 hours unless they possessed a pass with the holder’s details, including payment of taxes and permission to be in these urban areas. The march was led by the struggle stalwarts: Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu, Sophia Williams-De Bruyn and Rahima Moosa.

“I didn’t see much of Helen Joseph at the march, she was in front of the crowd. She was a big strong woman and she led the march with other strong women. They told us that women are holding passes and if we don’t demonstrate against [the government], we [too will one day end up] holding these passes,” recollects Ramnie Naidoo to FORBES AFRICA. She was only was 14 years old at the time, escorting her mother at the march.

Pictured here is Helen Joseph (1905-1992), founding member of the Federation of South African Women, and Rahima Moosa (1922-1993), union activist and member of the Transvaal Indian Congress, both co-leaders of the 1956 Women’s March.

They have been immortalized in the Long March To Freedom, a procession of 100 life-sized bronzes celebrating the pioneers of South Africa’s journey to democracy, at the Fountains Recreation Resort in the City of Tshwane, Gauteng, South Africa.

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Arts

Talking African Writing in London

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Africa Writes, the Royal African Society’s annual literature festival, dwelt on Afrofuturism and where black British artists see themselves in the burgeoning new aesthetic.

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Life

Kingdom Calling At The Bushfire Festival

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It’s an early morning in May and as the sun rises, red, orange and yellow hues bathe the swaying sugarcane fields of Malkerns, a small town in the landlocked southern African country of Swaziland.

Swaziland, renamed ‘the kingdom of eSwatini’ in April this year on its 50th birthday, awakens to the sounds of the rustling wind and chirping birds. Very soon, these natural notes will be replaced by the cacophony and camaraderie of thousands of guests jetting into the country for the annual Bushfire Festival, a three-day fiesta of art, culture, music and food in the last week of May.

It’s a busy time of the year for a kingdom that is one of the world’s last remaining monarchies.

Within the Bushfire Festival arena, djembe drums beat to the rhythm of the heartbeat of Africa. Revelers indulge in traditional feasts at the food markets as the musicians take center-stage.

The likes of South Africa’s Samthing Soweto, Brazil’s Flavia Coelho, Nigeria’s Yemi Alade and Mali’s Salif Keita are present, offering a profusion of sounds and melodies.

In the camping arena is a confluence of cultures, as over 29,000 guests who have traveled here to attend the festival make new friends and form unlikely collaborations.

Many stop to admire a hand-crafted grass hat worn by a young woman who has traveled from Lesotho. Anna Thai is originally from Memphis, Tennessee, in the United States.

“The people here are very relaxed and accepting of each other. There are so many from different countries, so many languages and so many different faces and I really enjoy the diversity of it,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

What started as a cultural meet around a small amphitheater, where artistes performed in front of a crowd of no more than a hundred, is today one of Africa’s most talked-about festivals.

 

Swazi-born Jiggs Thorne. Photo by Karen Mwendera.

“We started off as kind of a charity running a business and very quickly learned that it needed to be a business running a charity.” – Jiggs Thorne

Swaziland-born Jiggs Thorne, the founder and director of the festival, always had a passion for the arts, but admits he had to learn the business aspect of the festival the hard way.

“The important thing is I never studied to become a festival director and that’s the thing with entrepreneurs, you are driven by passion; the kind of passion that gets you up and creates that drive you need to make something work. And you have to be incessant,” Thorne tells us.

Born in Manzini, he was inspired by his parents who owned a restaurant. He went on to pursue a degree in drama and politics at the University of Natal in South Africa.

In 1994, when he finished his degree, he decided to return to his home country and apply his passion for the arts. Thorne wanted to develop the local arts scene.

In 2000, he set up House On Fire, the eclectic venue where the festival is now held.

However, its business model wasn’t sustainable, and Thorne realized that if he didn’t act quickly, his dream would slowly fade away.

“Well, I was very much an artiste and I think I’ve become entrepreneurial along the way and we started off as kind of a charity running a business and very quickly learned that it needed to be a business running a charity,” he says.

The Bushfire Festival came into being.

“It was always about a positive light, warmth, about celebrating diversity,” he says.

A majority of the funding came from sponsorships, and partnerships – the festival is called MTN Bushfire.

With his brother Shelton, Thorne fine-tuned the business model to keep its mandate as a creative arts platform and business at the same time. As Thorne came from an arts background, he had to depend on others to make his dream work.

Read More: Setting Fire To Swaziland

“There needs to be integrity in the way in which you deal with people so I think that’s kind of paramount in this equation where you are dependent on others to make it happen,” says the 48-year-old father of two.

The festival grew beyond what Thorne had imagined, he says, contributing over E50 million ($3.7 million) to Swaziland’s economy.

“When the king travels overseas, people ask him about Bushfire, you know. So it’s quite a surreal thing that the concept that came up all those years ago in a sense has become owned by others,” laughs Thorne.

This year, the local newspapers, radio stations and social media were abuzz with news on the festival.

Thorne owes its success to his team and his parents who left the legacy for him and the family to build on.

“It was kind of the fire they started and it’s a light that we’ve been able to follow. They are the legacy, says Thorne, who runs the festival with his siblings and extended family.

“Entrepreneurship is something that you don’t really study, you learn, and it’s something that takes over, and it’s kind of all-encompassing,” he signs off.

After the curtains come down on the festival, it’s back to the idyllic sights and sounds of Swaziland, until next year, when the little town of Malkerns will fire up again.

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