The Compositions

Concerto for an African Cellist – Hans Huyssen (2013)

Concerto for an African Cellist for solo cello, orchestra and African instruments combines Western and African instruments and merges European and African musical elements through an exploration of musical encounters of different cultures and of discovering the unknown. Heleen’s own story forms part of its dramaturgy and the performance and recording became a metaphorical enactment thereof.

The concerto deals directly with identity as a relational quality that acknowledges the abundance of differences in a multicultural context. It is a metaphor or mechanism for establishing mutually relational identities and a call for the deliberate and necessary engagement of building bridges, negotiating conditions for true encounters and nurturing the integrity of our identity by investing it in meaningful and enriching transactions. In a quest to reconcile the here and there and the self and other, the outcome of the Cello for Africa project and musical journey embedded in the musical score, is revealed in the words sung by the orchestra in the concluding passage of Huyssen’s concerto:

You hold the other within

The four-movement work takes on an explorative journey from the known to the unknown, the ‘Western’ to the ‘African’. It explores different idioms and styles on the way, and finally reconciles these to form a unified whole. The soloist represents the curiosity-driven explorer, who, though inevitably burdened with excessive Western baggage (in this case a convention-laden Western symphony orchestra) is adamant in the desire to discover something new. The notion that the baggage of preconceptions and the aptitude for discovering something new do not go together, and that the one will sooner or later demand the sacrifice of the other, forms the formal dramaturgy of the composition.

Huyssen’s extensive research into African music is evident in terms of the extensive use of orchestral effects, polyrhythms and percussion. He succeeded in creating orchestral colours through the wide range of instruments from many cultures, including mbira, marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel, hosho, double bell, shakers, a variety of drums, congas, tom toms, tam tam, woodblocks, temple blocks, cymbals, flute, piccolo, oboe, bassoon, French horn, and strings. The virtuoso cello part gives the soloist opportunities to be expressive within soaring melodic lines, dynamic tone-colour spectrums and, by using the cello’s capacity in all registers, to sing, to be powerful, intimate, soulful, dramatic and groovy.

The movement’s titles, Partida, Passacamino, Mahororo, and Mapfachapfacha muMhembero, proceeding from Spanish to Shona (Zimbabwean language), reflect a musical journey and transition from the European to the African. The curiosity-driven explorer departs from a familiar, well-defined point to the arrival of discovering something new, magically in a work that begins in Europe and ends in Africa.

In the course of the work the soloist encounters a wide variety of different musical elements, and challenged to respond and engage with. As these influences increase, the soloist is gradually freed from the dominance of Western musical conventions as embodied by the orchestral forces. When the opportunity arises she ‘elopes’ with the mbira, crosses a cultural threshold and from that moment on allows a different set of musical parameters to determine the outcome of the journey. In the end all forces come together and materialize as a huge festivity.

I. Partida

The word ‘Partida’ is a Spanish term that implies a departure, an excursion, search or a party undertaking a journey. It also means, a consignment, an item to be accounted for, or part of something else, thus relating to the nature of this explorative part of the concerto. It also refers to parting, as in leaving.

The first movement is about the seeking of identity, of being ‘Western’ but at the same time African. The music is therefore motivic, fragmented, melodious, tonal, dramatic and dense. The cello starts with a lengthy solo with parts played “sul ponticello” or close to the bridge, resulting in a mysterious, creaky sound in tense anticipation of what lies ahead. There is a kind of internal dialogue taking place with interruptions from within. The solo cello gradually meets with other familiar and exotic instruments and intertwines with more elements. Huyssen explains, “The cello-explorer is clamped down by the very conventions it wants to escape from, the first tutti-entrance of the orchestra almost suffocating the solo cello, which constantly struggles to take everything along or get rid of it all.”

II. Passacamino

In the style of a “Passacaglia”, which means ‘strolling through a street’, the explorer-cellist starts with an ostinato pattern in a Baroque style. But because the journey passes in this context through the bush with rapidly changing ever more unfamiliar environment, it is called “Passacamino” instead. In the words of Huyssen “the western musical devices are still in place and the expedition in full swing, bulldozing its way through the jungle!”

The movement comes to an abrupt halt with imitations of bird calls played by the piccolo and answered by the cello in an improvisational way. With motifs in a high register and flageolets the cellist is literally entering unknown territory! The themes are in reality based on and inspired by a bird call, which the composer encountered in the Bushveld. It developed into a long conversation when he imitated the bird by whistling back. Responding to the call is a decisive moment and turning point in the piece. It opens a dialogue, deliberately entering into a relationship between the self and the other. Here we leave the secure territory of Western forms and prepare for the 3rd movement where the mbira player plays and sings a song called Mahororo.

III. Mahororo

The sound of the indigenous mbira song lures us into a different world. It tells just as much my own story as that of the original Karanga text and represents the principal theme of what the project Cello for Africa was about …

Tinashe Chidanyika who contributed this song to the concerto explains the interpretation of the lyrics:

“Something has happened, giving the singer reason to believe that he has been harmed or treated unjustly. Yet nobody wants to admit this or accept the responsibility for the circumstances. Eventually he confronts the others and accuses them of their betrayal, as the matter is not resolved. He calls on them metaphorically, stating that if he were an ancestral spirit, he would

He invokes Mahororo – a beautiful place, where there is peace and harmony, a place which is uncontaminated by what has happened, where a new beginning is possible”.stay on to cleanse the community and reinstate justice. But as he is only human, there is nothing he can do but to move on and elsewhere claim a better place for himself.




O yerere iye wo (Yodelling)
Ona vakomana mandiregerera (See folks, you have let me down)
Ndaive mudzimu ndaigarapano (If I were the ancestral spirit, I would stay here)
Vano reva nhemha vakomana (Folks, someone is holding back something, you’re not speaking the truth!)
Mahororo aherere ona regai nditaure kufa kwaBaba vangu (Mahororo please listen to me; grant me to speak to you about the death of my ancestors)


The cello responds by means of miming, accompanying, commenting, and improvising. In performing the song with the mbira player and singer, I had to forget my Western musical training. Contrary to what I am accustomed to, my instruction was to use the score vaguely as a guide. While in our western training we aim at staying as true as possible to the indications in the score, I had to let go of the very skills I relied upon so heavily, including following a conductor, listening and counting. The mbira part consists of thematic cycled patterns typical of indigenous African music that could be different every time, played in a free order, as many times as the moment inspires and varying according to mood or occasion. While I had to free myself from a score, the mbira player had to follow a relatively structured order by means of a few indications written on a piece of paper. The composer and conductor, knowing both our perspectives tried to indicate mutual ground, which we both found difficult to follow.

I felt ill-equipped, with my technical and musical gear for the journey seeming completely redundant and useless. Sensing my feeling of insecurity and despair – lost without the conventional musical structures that I am used to rely on, including the conductor – Tinashe told me:

“Heleen, I hear you, and you hear me… we don’t speak the same language, but we understand each other… you know what: just let it out!”

In the concert, as we turned to each other, the performance became a literal enactment of an inter-cultural connection through a musical conversation, of not only the cello and mbira but a magical moment of a true, captivating human dialogue.

According the Huyssen, “to invoke a shared Mahororo, the other must have caused a resonance within“.

IV. Mapfachapfacha muMhembero

Wanting to imply a rhythmical, flamboyant African party in the title of the 4th movement, it was named “Mapfachapfacha muMhembero. ‘ Mapfachapfacha’, similar to the expression for Africa, means  ‘a lot of ‘ and could in Zezuru (Shona) also mean ‘the sudden arrival of many’. Party celebrations are called ‘mhembero’, in Shona, where people drum, dance, sing, play music, drink traditional beer, women ululate (producing high pitched yodelling sounds) and men whistle out ‘miridzo’. Apart from the happy mood of this movement, the composer wanted to signify a successful transformation – that of things coming together.

The cello joins in a rhythmical ostinato figure, imitating the African instruments with a typical ‘groove’ and unconstrained rhythmic drive underneath the improvisatory solos of the double bass and marimba – a dance, cradled by a relentless lilt.

We finally arrive at the end, discovering the answers the investigating explorer looked for. The other, is discovered within. After a fortissimo tutti conclusion the whole orchestra, as a summarising and self-referential afterthought sings:

You hold the other within

A Sense of Place for Cello and Marimba – Peter Klatzow (2012)

The Mask and Shaka by Cecil Skotnes. (Photos with permission of Pippa Skotnes).

From the choice of the title to fittingly choosing woodcuts as artworks that resonate in the sound of the marimba and being based on a famous historical narrative with an accompanying poem, to creating a composition that explores each instrument’s individual capacity brilliantly, this composition suited my objectives perfectly. Wanting to pay tribute to Cecil Skotnes (1926 – 2009), a pioneer of modern art and legendary South African painter, Klatzow based the composition on two of his painted woodcuts. Skotnes lived in Europe as well as South Africa, and was therefore familiar with cross- cultural connections. Being one of the original members of a group called The Amadlozi Group, which means “the spirit of our fathers”, (1963) he sought ways to reflect ‘Africanness’ or capture the African spirit. Through the medium of combining woodcutting with painting, often symbolic of narratives of South African history, he developed a style unique to South Africa.

Both artworks form part of the portfolio The Assassination of Shaka (1973), a series of 43 prints attached to a poem by Stephen Gray about the great Zulu king Shaka, who was assassinated in 1828.

The artwork that The Mask is based upon is dark and austere. The vacant eyes are represented in the music by tense silences, sombreness and atmospheric sounds. The wooden mask, a disguise, a front, resonates in the sound of the marimba and is echoed by the cello, its hidden soul revealed in the melodic parts. The self (cello) is reflected in the other (marimba), yet their sameness is concealed behind a stern veneer.

The second movement, Shaka’s Victory Dance is based on the image of Shaka, the Zulu King and warrior, depicted by Skotnes as a heroic figure legendary for his leadership, strength, courage and vigour. Klatzow describes it as “a great energetic artwork with intense rhythm in the image, very powerful legs and torso”, reflected here in the lively, threatening Zulu dance rhythms. The cello often imitates ululating sounds of African women celebrating victory. The music reminds of traditional Zulu warrior dances accompanied by energetic high kicking movements and pounding feet, vigorously coming to a victorious ending.

The theme of inter cultural and self-other relations and identity played itself out in our rehearsals and recording as we had to negotiate our way in blending our sound, especially adapting intonation, sound colour and vibrato, mirroring back in dialogue or creating a texture of contrasting individuality between the two instruments.

Such interplay can only come about through empathetic listening and willingness to compromise. Each instrument retains its individually while at the same time it merges to form a new sound combination. Klatzow, being internationally renowned for his marimba writing and lyrical approach to the cello succeeded in bringing out the best in both instruments and find a way to combine them in a way that resembles the diversity of cultures living together in one nation in South Africa.

“A Sense of Place for cello and marimba was a pleasant surprise. It is not tonal, but exceptionally listenable. Klatzow’ s understanding of the marimba was expressed by Magda de Vries’ skillful performance in dialogue with the cello.  The artists did justice to the work with exquisite ensemble playing, both in terms of rhythm and interpretation”
(Volksblad 2013).

“The performers ensured that the progammatic elements stayed within a suggestive and subtle ambiance. The ensemble was more than a duo – it was rather a charged unit where free conversations or interactions created tension, enhancing the performance with greater depth”
(Beeld 2014).

Sonata for Cello and Piano – Peter Klatzow (2010)     

Immediately relating to and associating the work with colours, the atmosphere, and images from home, I decided to record it as part of my project. It is an attractive, charming piece with lovely singing melodic lines, showing off a range of sonorities and registers of the cello. Although extended, there is a strong sense of tonality, which makes it appealing to a broad audience.

The Allegro moderato opens with a broad declamatory statement. Melodic singing phrases in the cello interact with playful motives of the piano. The ending of this movement reminds of rustic African landscapes and the typical colours of dawn and dusk.

My favourite part, Andante tranquillo, with its asymmetrical meter, opens with a tender theme concealed in the piano chords, then emerging lyrically in the cello part. For me this movement exemplifies parting – a manifestation of loss and longing. After a dramatic cello cadenza, the theme returns after a kind of a question, a wish, a sigh, … but this time only resembling a distant memory.

The contrasting exhilarating Vivace is a Scherzo and has an African feel to it. In a meter of 2/4 + 6/8, the principal theme alternates between the piano and the cello in a typically African call-andresponse dialogue. While changing into various different figures, it always retains the same character.

The Adagio opens with a strong, contemplative cello solo. Tensions develop in the rhythmic patterns of the piano, later dissipated in the lightly double-dotted patterns of the following passages and faster energetic runs in the cello. There is a final reference to the opening statement before the finale moves to a triumphant conclusion. (Because I wanted it changed from the original, Klatzow called it “Heleen’s ending”, hopefully referring merely to the context of the composition!

In combination with reflective research methods associated with autoethnography and other methods associated with practice-based research, the body of artistic work in the form of the CD is combined with reflections that frame the work in the special context in which the project took place, where it originated from, what inspired it, and what artistic processes were followed until its successful completion. The critical reflection provides a philosophical and psychological explanation about matters such as artistic intuition, feeling, and the connection between the self, the other, and the world in a wider sense.

In an additional three-year investigation, the entire project became the subject of an autoethnographic investigation of my doctoral thesis based on the themes of music and identity, a sense of – and a connection to – place and intercultural connection. I was then required to also answer additional political related questions that surfaced as a result of that the investigation, including questions around South Africa’s history, power relations, appropriation, my Africanness, and political reconciliation.

In my next project, Cellists Aotearoa, I expanded this notion and that of multiple belonging, by exploring, in a multimedia theatre production, the combination of landscape photography, legends about Aotearoa and music by New Zealand composers. The completion of this project is the exemplification of how people are able to fulfil their lives and create what and who they are, wherever they are. Connectedness and rootedness can cover infinite distances. My project addressed the question of who we are in relation to where we are. The answers in this project lay in the space where people connect, and where their identities come into proximity and overlap – where they discover that the ‘other’ is a resemblance of the ‘self’. In a quest to reconcile the ‘here’ and ‘there’ and the ‘self’ and ‘other’, the outcome of the project and musical journey is revealed in the words sung by the orchestra in the concluding passage of Huyssen’s concerto:

You hold the other within