Neo Muyanga. Picture: Supplied

I’m sitting across from composer and performer Neo Muyanga at a neat little restaurant in chilly Grahamstown. He’s soft spoken, but that cannot conceal his passion for his craft.

National Arts Festival featured artist Neo Muyanga is particularly soft-spoken.The composer and performer cannot conceal the burning passion he has for his craft.

“Music is all I do. That’s it. Everything else is kind of peripheral,” he says, smiling delicately and warmly. “The music happens by itself. It’s not a choice, to either make music or not. It’s a compulsion.” The principle of openness is the premise of his solo show at this year’s festival, Solid(t)ary. Solid(t)ary simultaneously reads solid, solidarity and solitary.

He explains: “The conceptual frame is protest music. Music played in solidarity with a cause, with a protest, with a history. But what I’m doing is abstracting it and playing it as a solo performer, which is anathema to the culture of communal songs. They’re not music. The songs for protesting in South Africa are not music, they’re acts, material objects designed to crack windows and frame conversations."

"So what I’m performing is a kind of meditation on the meaning of acting in protest, acting in solidarity. What I’m hoping to do is to articulate my discomfort with how protest becomes co-opted by us who do it in the natural cause of the protest.”

This composition is also an attempt to think in solidarity with other movements that he knows of or has associated with through his studies or in his travels across the world. It’s about contemplating what this means to him, and to expose himself in meditation in front of an audience. 

Muyanga has no real recollection of growing up, but he often finds himself having a sense that he remembers something (even though he doesn’t know exactly what it is he remembers) whenever he hears a certain kind of musical sound. 

Sounds that make him feel a certain way, even though he can’t quite put his finger as to the origin of this feeling. It is this experience that inspired the conception of Solid(t)ary.

Muyanga has not performed at the National Arts Festival in a while. This time around, he has the distinction of being the featured artist. Apart from his solo show he’ll also be performing with a band and working with young composers.

 Neo Muyanga. Picture: Supplied

He’s feeling happy and positive about his return here but he’s also nervous and quite frightened, he says. It’s a nervousness which will escape as soon as he starts performing. Although he’s more than adept at the art of performance, he admits he’s much more comfortable elsewhere.

“The place I enjoy being the most is composing. The making. Because the making for me is always an experimental and experiential journey and it’s always full of surprises. I always investigate new questions through the act of composition. 

And I find lots of things by chance, even when I have an agenda and I’m working out a particular kind of score. 

I have a particular set of guiding principles for how it’s going to go. Even if I can hear it in my head, there are always chance happenings that take me somewhere else. The act of the making, and playing through what I’m making is my happiest place.”

Muyanga shares his process of preparation for his solo show. He explains how he has piles and piles of notes that he will be running through right until he plays his first note. These will form part of his attempt to figure out what piece to start with and what to play next. 

“The attempt is going to be to give a long and multi-layered statement. To state a number of multi-layered questions, and not give space for too much answering - neither for me nor from the audience - and to see what feelings come up. 

And when I get tired of a particular mode I’ll stop and move to a different instrument and I’ll do something else. So it’s not going to be just based on how I’m feeling. It’s going to be based on mode, technically, which is what the music commands me to do.”

It’s about feeling. There’s no way of knowing in an accurate fashion how the show will unfold from point A to point B. It takes a great deal of courage and vulnerability to attempt to perform the kind of free-form performance Muyanga will perform.

“What I’m attempting is the act of standing at the edge of a cliff and committing to leaning over and seeing what happens. And having the faith that whatever occurs will cause an upsurge of air that will draw me up, and I will fly magically.”

@ShingaiDarangwa