Malunga follows the music

A classically trained pianist and cellist who has put in years as an entertainment lawyer, Unathi Malunga is adding new notes to her score. She is studying orchestral conducting, and plans to be the first black African woman to conduct a professional orchestra.

unathi 1 Unathi Malunga found success as an entertainment lawyer, now she is working to be one of a handful of women orchestral conductors. (Image: Gavin van Haght)


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Sulaiman Philip

There is a photograph of Unathi Malunga, taken on a plane, the score of the Magic Flute open in the cramped space between rows of seats. She is conducting an orchestra only she can hear. It captures so much of who she is: committed, enthusiastic, passionate and engaged, but most of all, a dreamer.

Her laugh is musical, charming and self-effacing. “It’s a skill a conductor needs,” she says, “to be able to read the music notes, musical line and know what it will sound like. I can hear the music when I read a score. I can auralise it, hear the whole orchestra in my head.”

Malunga will become the first black African woman to complete the orchestral conducting course at Stellenbosch University. She is on track to become one of the few female conductors and, as far as we know, the first black woman to join the ranks of professional orchestral conductors.

Conducting an orchestra is about leading a team. It is the art of combining the interpretation and experience of many musicians, guiding that diversity to create a single harmonised experience. “What turns a score into a performance is not the notes. It’s the shaping of the notes. Do you want to highlight the call and answer between the flute and the clarinet? The musicians can play the notes; it’s the conductor who has a vision of how a particular performance should be interpreted, how to make it beautiful. It’s about that team making the music.”

Her personal story is a compelling one. In front of our bedroom mirrors is where most people’s musical dreams begin. It is also where they usually fade. Not for Malunga, whose mother chose the schools she attended based on their ability to nurture her musical ambitions. She is a classically trained cellist and pianist, but she found success as an entertainment lawyer before answering the call to return to music.

Malunga began playing classical piano at six, the cello a little later, and knew early on that classical orchestral music was always going to be an important part of her life. “I love the way instruments blend together. I love the way composers blend instruments. I just love the sound those instruments make.”

It was always in her, this love of classical music. And she says it has everything to do with being exposed to it from an early age, and the way that the music is able to touch on eternal themes such as love, friendship and tragedy.

She – and she laughs as she says it – bought into the myth of the starving artist. After finishing matric (with two music subjects, subject music and cello performance) she chose to study law at Rhodes. “I’m ashamed to say I bought into the starving artist myth. I chose law and entertainment law was the perfect way of blending the two.”

Despite success as a lawyer – she worked on the opening and closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup, on the African Union 50th celebrations and the movie Blood Diamond– she was beginning to find music more compelling than the law, a score more interesting than a statute. Music, she says, is visceral. You can touch the emotion.

Something was missing from her life. “My friends were saying it was babies and I would say ‘No, it’s not that.’ It was music that was missing in my life. That was the call that was growing stronger every day.”

Malunga went back to Rhodes to study music education and to retrain what she calls her ear, although she points out that she did not retrain her ear at Rhodes. “I’m retraining my ear now at Stellenbosch.” It is a most important tool for any musician. One of her electives was conducting, which is when her path became clear.

She wants to be the first black African woman to conduct a professional orchestra, but would be just as pleased if another stole a march on her. She speaks passionately about widening the audience for classical music, about diversifying the voices and widening the conversation about its place in society. She wants to prove it’s not an exclusive, restricted club.

She mentions a recent, well-supported performance by renowned soprano Pretty Yende sponsored by Wiphold (Women’s Investment Portfolio Holdings Limited), the many orchestral programmes run in townships and the classical music heritage of some black families such as the Nkuna and Masote families. There have always been black people who have loved classical music.

“I mentor young black women as an entertainment lawyer – not past tense! I still am one – women who now have someone to show them the way. I have seen the hunger. I have seen what it means to have someone show you it’s possible. So if I am the first black African woman conductor, great; if not, at least my journey, and it has been a painful personal journey, shows other women it is possible.”

One day, Malunga hopes she will get to conduct all the Beethoven symphonies – there are nine of them and just over six hours of music. Along the way she will discover new composers and be reminded old favourites. She will still continue to jive to kwaito or Motown, but it’s not the kind of music that really moves her. Asked whether she “sees the music” when listening to other genres, she answers: “I don’t see the music; I just feel the beat. It doesn’t get into my soul. It has purely entertainment value for me.”

Not like orchestral music. When they fly, when they take off together, an orchestra is truly moving. “I had to make choices when I was growing up. While my friends played, I practised. As a child it’s difficult to see the end result of that sacrifice, but I see it now. And I wouldn’t change anything.”