Mthetho Mapoyi (“Maphoyi”) on the BBC

Mthetho Maphoyi

“The music was alien to him and the language incomprehensible but for Mthetho Maphoyi the chance discovery of a CD by Italian opera singer Luciano Pavarotti led to a life-changing experience.”


The BBC chooses to spell Mthetho Mapoyi’s last name with an “h” – it’s not entirely arbitrary, as it’s a mistake made by those who processed Mthetho’s passport years ago.  He’s filed for a change, but he’s not holding his breath – in the meantime, surely the passport is more reliable than Mthetho himself, right, BBC?

Tedx Teen took their artistic license a little bit further, with “Mteto Maphoyi.”

Not to be outdone, The New York Times added their own twist on his name: “Mthetho Mayobi” – it has a nice ring to it, no?

Unfortunately our western media’s clumsy fingers make Mthetho fairly difficult to track down – hence a good number of kind-hearted philanthropists can’t find him (Google “Mthetho Mapoyi” and you get over 500 results – Google “Mthetho Mayobi” and you’re left with nothing but the Times).  Many reach out to us here at The Creators documentary, and many more undoubtedly give up.  Hopefully this post will help steer future Googlers in the right direction.

[Yes, journalists, we will connect you with Mthetho, but you have to promise to do three things in return: 1) spell his name correctly, 2) pay him adequately for his time and 3) include his contact details in your piece.  As wonderful as it is for Mthetho to feature in an oversized ad sponsored by Belvedere Vodka, it’s a lot more wonderful for him to have food on the table and a roof over his head.]


Mthetho Maphoyi at TedxTeen: Cape Town to New York City

Mthetho blew the audience away at the 2012 TedxTeen conference in NYC.  Check out his performance below:

And watch Mthetho’s TedxTeen Talk, “The Power of Listening,” here:

(Mthetho’s name was spelled “Mteto Maphoyi” at TedxTeen…it was mistakenly spelled that way in his passport.  Mthetho himself spells his name, “Mthetho Mapoyi.”  BBC chose to spell Mthetho’s name as a combination of the two – “Mthetho Maphoyi.”  Our SEO experts advised we follow suit so that googlers can find him, and Mthetho says he doesn’t mind.)

Finding Mthetho Maphoyi

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:

Homemade Opera from invisible sessions on Vimeo.

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.