She’s the first black female conductor in SA and on the continent – and she’s on a mission to tell African stories through classical music.
The slender baton glides through the air as the conductor gestures, sometimes furiously, sometimes gently. The baton moves as though it is a wand conjuring music out of air. Her right hand opens, closes, and a finger points, and all the while the musicians seated before her concentrate intently, one eye on her, the other on the sheet music in front of them.
For Ofentse Pitse (27) being the conductor of the all-black Anchored Sound orchestra is far more than a job, it’s a calling which has given her life purpose and meaning.
It all began in 2017 when she started a youth choir after meeting young people who were taking part in musical competitions.
“I’d see all these amazing young people and wonder who they were. I wanted to spend time with them and find out more about them. “
They all had one common denominator – they all had dreams. Some wanted to be on world stages, some wanted opportunities and others just wanted to go to school.”
Ofentse found sponsorships to help fund their education, and the idea of an orchestra took root soon after. She did a lot of research. That, coupled with her zeal to always challenge herself, saw her set a goal of forming an all-black orchestra.
“We started small with just 22 musicians. We grew to 32 because more and more people wanted to join, to the take more people’, so we agreed to make it 40. Now we’re on 44!”
All the profits made from their performances are used to help members, especially those who need assistance with tuition fees and education expenses.
“When it started, a lot of them thought I was crazy, and some of them were like, ‘We are eager [to work with you] as we definitely see you as a leader and we want to follow what you’re doing’.” S HE wanted Anchored Sound to be more than just an allblack ensemble.
“We had to be that and something else. We’ve given the world a very ‘khumbaya’ version of Africa, so it’s time we give them a very royal and dignified version of Africa using a very Eurocentric concept such as that of an orchestra,” Ofentse explains.
This meant hand-picking and headhunting the best musicians to build up her orchestra. “They are some of the most illustrious and sought-after musicians from the best orchestras and bands, including the SA Navy band and the SAPS. All of them are soloists and that is what I wanted to build,” she says.
Ofentse’s next task was finding an identity for her orchestra. “I didn’t want it to be a case where you could put a European orchestra and my orchestra in a theatre, switch off the lights, have us both play and not tell the difference.” The orchestra has committed to telling African stories through music from African composers such as Mzilikazi Khumalo and Phelelani “SBP” Mnomiya.
“Even the people we collaborate with, such as Mbuso Khoza and Nduduzo Makhathini, these are African storytellers within the jazz space. Collaborating with a legend such as Judith Sephuma was me saying, ‘Let’s use this European concept for our African stories’.”
She credits her family’s support for getting her as far as she’s come, especially her late mother, Pearl Tshidi Pitse Matjila, who passed away in April. “She was very supportive of me. I failed a lot before getting to where I am, and at times she would spend her money on our rehearsals and on other things which we needed.”
They’re working on a theatre project about late jazz great Bheki Mseleku and will be performing the soundtrack for a new animated film about Shaka Zulu with music from Mzilikazi Khumalo.
The job of a conductor is to guide the orchestra and to bring music to life. Women conductors of classical orchestras are still a minority, as are black conductors. This is gradually changing, but the world of classical music has long been dominated by men and misogyny, said Marin Alsop, the first woman to lead a major American orchestra. Earlier last year she told the New York Times she has “been the first woman to do a lot of things, and I’m really proud, but I also think it’s absolutely pathetic [it’s taken this long]”.
Ofentse is no stranger to this kind of discrimination, even from musicians she admires. Her journey to becoming Mzansi and Africa’s first black, female classical orchestra conductor hasn’t been easy.
“I’ve been asked by people in the industry, ‘Who do you think you are?’ It’s been heartbreaking hearing this from people I looked up to,” she tells us. After completing her architectural studies at Wits, Ofentse didn’t have funds to study further so decided to explore music.
“The music bug found me and in the past year I was like, let me pursue this whole thing of purpose because that is what I felt music was,” she says. She cut no corners when it came to honing her skills.
Her teachers are Thami Zungu, head of music at the Tshwane University of Technology, and Gerben Grooten, the conductor of the Pretoria Philharmonic Orchestra. Music is in her blood. She grew up in Pretoria and attended church in Mabopane, where she learnt to play brass and woodwind instruments. She played the trumpet, cornet and the English horn. Ofentse’s late grandfather, Otto Pitse, was a teacher and conductor at several schools.
“Whenever my mother and uncles would see videos of me conducting, they’d say I was him, reincarnated. That’s why I feel like what I do is a gift and I can’t mess it up.”