I first heard about Mthetho Mapoyi through various rumors drifting about Cape Town. People spoke of an opera singer with a scar stretching the length of his face who owned only one CD, a Pavarotti album which he listened to repeatedly while growing up. Having only this music soundtracking his youth in the rural Xhosa township in South Africa’s Western Cape, Mthetho taught himself to sing along – not only in Italian, but with similar richness and timber to the original. Mthetho, whose first language is isiXhosa, never knew the direct translations of what he was singing, but felt the meaning through the music. I asked everyone I knew if they could connect me with Mthetho, but no one seemed to know him personally and I began to wonder whether he was just a myth or an exaggerated story. Finally someone told my cinematographer, Bernard Myburgh, that we would find Mthetho in the township outside of Hermanus, so we embarked on the drive from Cape Town with only a name (and the wrong one, at that): Nthatho. (Many more mistakes have been made since then with the spelling of Mthetho’s name: TedxTeen calls him “Mteto Maphoyi” and BBC calls him “Mthetho Maphoyi” — Mthetho is content with all of these spellings, though Google is less so).
Three hours later, we were in the middle of a township we had never heard of and we hopped out of the car. We got plenty of attention, being two white folks driving up in a big white van in the middle of a sea of shacks and Xhosa pedestrians. We started asking.
“Molo, molo, kunjani, do you know a man named Nthatho? An opera singer, a man with a scar down the side of his face?”
Our attempts at isiXhosa were graciously ignored and we received a mixture of smiles, thoughtful silences, and invitations to go to the bar. We kept asking, walking up and down the street, driving to the school, and finally making our way to the bar asking anyone along the way:
“Do you know Nthatho the opera singer? He has a big scar across his face? Alright, enkosi kakhulu.”
No luck. There is a special sort of feeling you get when entering a strange town, trying to speak a foreign language and looking for someone that no one has ever heard of – especially when you stick out like the bright white colonizers who initially segregated South Africa, relegating the Xhosa, San and other loosely-defined black people to 13% of the country’s land. 75% of the population shoved into 1/8 of South Africa. Even though homes that used to look like this:
…now look like this:
…we received only friendly responses as we roamed through the streets. Finally we met Buli, a woman who seemed to know what we were talking about. “An opera singer? Nthatho? You mean Mthetho – with the scar on his cheek, yes. He taught my cousin to sing.”
And we were set. Buli invited us to brai (bbq) with her family that night and we met her cousin and several other neighbors who began singing in their early teens with Mthetho. We spent the evening listening to the most unique and original opera music that had ever reached our ears. It turned out that Mthetho himself was back in Delft, a township outside of Cape Town (where we had come from). We met up with him as soon as we got back, and followed him around The Waterfront (the ritzy tourist area of town, once a beach, now a harbor mall owned by whites) as he sang for tips with his friends. Mthetho uses the money he earns busking to support himself and his brother:
Watch more from Mthetho in his home in Delft (before his shack burned down in late 2010) and visiting his home in Hermanus (where he can no longer live because authorities have banned singing on the streets). Mthetho (also known as Mteto Maphoyi and several other spellings depending on the translation from isiXhosa) recently moved to a township outside of Pretoria to sing with the Black Tie Ensemble. You can watch Mthetho’s full story as part of The Creators documentary.