When the spirits move him: Meet the Zulu king's praise singer
His gift of praise singing was quite literally handed to him on a plate. It now takes him all over the world
Buzetsheni Mdletshe fell in love with the art of praise singing when he was a little boy.
Now 63 years old, he says his young self, with no opportunity to go to school, never thought his dream of becoming a praise singer would come true.
But today he is the official praise singer of Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini, a job he has done since 2001. He would not call it a job though. For Mdletshe, it’s a gift.
“When I sing the praises it’s like a sangoma who is entered by the spirit of ancestors. A spirit needs to enter you. Anyone can read the praises in books, but you need to have that gift that is given to you by the spirits that guide your praises,” he told Times Select.
His gift of praise singing was quite literally handed to him on a plate.
“My love for praise poetry started when I was very young. I remember when my brother brought home a commemorative plate that had all the praise names of king DinuZulu and King Solomon. I was instantly hooked.”
Mdletshe has been the official praise singer for the monarch for well over a decade and is tasked with introducing the king at events and public gatherings.
“The praise names of the old kings never change. You always introduce the king with the praise names of the kings who once sat on his throne,” explained Mdletshe.
“Once he is done speaking, you can then sit him down with his own praises and could also add something about what you saw during the journey,” he added.
Although he was officially given the title of praise singer in 2001, Mdletshe first recited the king’s praise publicly in 1974 during the wedding of the king’s daughter in the absence of his then praise singer.
“It was very difficult for me to be silent since I knew every single word of the king’s praise songs, and on His Majesty’s arrival to the wedding, I saw an opportunity and grabbed it with both hands. Since then I never looked back.”
One of the highlights of Mdletshe’s career was his first trip overseas to Coker College, in South Carolina, US, where the king received an honorary doctorate in law. “In 1999, he took me on my first overseas trip to America, where he was receiving an honorary doctorate. When I did his praises in a room full of American students, everyone was very impressed even though they couldn’t understand what I was saying, they knew it was important and that’s the power of praise poetry,” said Mdletshe.
Praise poetry is deeply rooted in African culture and is practised to praise the character of kings and chiefs as well as to call upon and give thanks to past kings. Mdletshe described praise singing as a trance-like state.
“When I sing the praises it’s like a sangoma who is entered by the spirit of ancestors. A spirit needs to enter you. Anyone can read the praises in books, but you need to have that gift that is given to you by the spirits that guide your praises,” he said.
Having grown up in KwaCeza, a small community in northern KwaZulu-Natal, the 63-year-old never thought he would ever be able to share his gift on an international stage.
“Being a praise poet has been a huge blessing for me. Who would have known that someone who didn’t even go to school would one day end up singing the king’s praises from the top of mountains across the world?”
Mdletshe will be one of the headline acts at the 22nd annual Poetry Africa festival in Durban, a platform he wishes to use to pass on his knowledge of praise poetry.
“I want to pass this down not only to my children but to the entire Zulu nation because back in the day there was not a single man who couldn’t praise the kings. I want to highlight that, wherever you are, if you have a passion and the gift of praise poetry you must also give praise when you enter the royal house,” he said.
“We need to instil in generations to come the importance of singing the king’s praises. They need to be perceived and spoken like the days of our ancestors so that when we sing these praises the kings who are no longer here can hear that we are their great-grandchildren,” he added.
The festival will be taking place from October 15 to October 20 and will include the likes of South African legend Gcina Mhlophe, Malawian storyteller/author Upile Chisala and award-winning writer and actress Lebo Mashile.