The First Black Woman To Own And Conduct An Orchestra Hails From South Africa
By Kelsey Marie
Born in Mabopane, South Africa, Ofentse Pitse is a believer in dreaming big and that nothing in this world is impossible. Growing up in a single-parent household, her mother noticed at a young age that she was extremely skilled artistically. While children her age were drawing stick figures, Ofentse was drawing detailed cartoon characters. Her mother then enrolled her in art school and there she learned the importance of her individuality in art.
The now 27-year-old then went on to study and pursue a career in architecture but music kept calling her. After all, it’s in her blood — her late grandfather, Otto Pitse was a jazz band and choir conductor.
Ofentse decided to answer music’s call in 2017 and started a choir called Anchored Sound. That choir has now grown to be a full orchestra after much research and mentorship, making her the first black woman to own and conduct an orchestra.
When speaking of classical music on the continent, Ofentse says, “I would like for people to know that the classical music world in Africa is very much alive. Unfortunately, there is little or no support or even exposure for composers and arrangers.”
She hopes through her orchestra, Anchored Sound, will be given a “much-deserved seat on the throne.”
We had a chance to talk to Ofentse about her childhood, musical influences and where she sees Anchored Sound in the next five years.
What is your earliest memory of music?
My earliest memory of music has to be when I was about 8/9 years old. My mom loved old school soul music and would take me everywhere she went because she was quite the people’s person. At these weekly get-togethers, my mom would take me to, there would always be The Spinners, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, and Lenny Williams.
I obviously had no idea who these artists on the record were but I always remember how they would change the tone and mood within the space we were in. Old school Mo-Town greats had a way of meaning what they sang.
What drew you into classical music?
What first drew me to classical music was a “Fetti’s & Moni’s” ad with Pavarotti, which used to play all the time on television back in the day. I was intrigued by how well put-together the Italian language sounded.
Even though I didn’t understand one word they were saying, I would always feel what they meant.
I grew up in The Salvation Army church which is well-known for its brass band. I had ambitions of trying my luck when I became old enough. So when I turned 12, I was told I was ready. I attended my first lesson on a Tuesday afternoon, played the cornett, and kept improving myself until I was told I could join the church band.
Classical music became part of my research, but I ended up falling in love with it far beyond the church.
Music runs in your family and your grandfather was an orchestra conductor and trumpet player, how did this shape your view and taste in music?
My grandad was actually a jazz band and choir conductor. He used to conduct using a twig, and was known to be a very stern and well put-together gentleman; never leaving the house without tucking his shirt in. He was a very confident man who often took lead solos when he played the trumpet, which tells me that he was somewhat a leader.
The jazz music he would listen to was passed on to my uncles, who subconsciously passed it on to me. This allowed me to have a selective ear when it comes to music. With this gift being passed on from him to me,
further emphasizes the fact that classical and jazz music is a special kind of spiritual.
You’re also an architect, what made you decide to pursue being an orchestra conductor?
All these art forms are somewhat intertwined. I was born with the gift of drawing at a very young age. While my peers were drawing stickman at school, I was drawing full cartoon characters and painting Mercedes-Benz SUVs on my wall. From that, my mother took me to an art school.
During my History of Art class, we were taught about how art, music, literature, and architecture were intertwined and all created to depict certain eras in history. With that, I used a lot of principles I learned in architecture, in music, and vise-versa.
My pursuit of being a conductor is greatly influenced by the leadership skills I got from the built environment. The reality of architecture is that it is such a male-dominated and caucasian field. It made my transition quite smooth because I was already well-accustomed to breaking prejudice and constantly fighting forward.
Are you still practicing architecture? Have you found that your passion for music helps with your work as an architect?
I am still practicing architecture, but more from an organic, freelancing point of view because I wanted to focus a bit more time on music. I now spend most of my days with my conducting mentor and teacher, Mr. Gerben Grooten.
My passion for music has always helped me in the architecture field because of how it would open my mind and psyche to more than what meets the eye.
Can you tell us what exactly goes into being a conductor? What training did you have to do…etc?
I was actually having an insightful conversation with my mentor the other day, who has had many years of being one of the best conductors in Europe and South Africa. The few important points we unpacked about being a conductor include the following:
- Leadership – When you are a self-assertive leader, your orchestra will be more secure and at ease while you conduct.
- Preparation – If you take a glance at a good conductor’s score, there are a lot of pencil and highlighter markings. As chaotic as it may look, this is part of the preparation. You need to know what you are conducting thoroughly.
- Understanding – Orchestra’s are not the same, it is hardly a “once size fits all” environment. You always need to try to adapt. So learn to read the room.
- Consistency – If you have created a certain standard, always work on being better than the previous time. It really takes about 10 years to be a great conductor. So always constantly put the work in.
I don’t have any formal training besides what I was taught by some of the best musicians at church, plus the guidance and extensive lessons I received from my professional conducting mentors.
You started a youth choir in 2017 where every member was handpicked — what did you look for in the youth members that you picked?
When it comes to how I got to choose the members of the choir, I attended choir competitions which comprise of High School students who were trained to compete. It was from there that I got exposed to this talent. I then went further and sat down with them in order to gather more of their story. I was intrigued to know that there were actually more of them who wanted to be part of this movement, that’s how the selection process started.
What I looked for was not only young exceptionally talented individuals, but I needed young people who would dream and be willing to build with me.
The choir has now become the first all-black orchestra in the world, what challenges have you faced on the road to transitioning from choir to orchestra?
The choir is still there, I just added the element of the all-black orchestra. The challenge with this transition is being able to execute both with the same level of understanding and approach. I had to learn to view the voice as the instrument and vice versa.
Also, being able to lead/conduct both at the same time takes more work.
What do you want people to know about the classical music industry in Africa?
I would like for people to know that the classical music world in Africa is very much alive. Unfortunately, there is little or no support or even exposure for composers and arrangers. With that, I have dedicated all of Anchored Sound to showcasing the music of great composers such as Professor Mzilikazi Khumalo, Mr. Phelelani Mnomiya, Sibusiso Njeza, etc.
These are just some of the African music storytellers who are on the same wavelength in terms of creativity and writing, with the likes of Stravinsky, Haydn, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky.
We need more opportunities to showcase our work in theatre spaces.
What is your goal for the orchestra in the next 5 years?
My goal for Anchored Sound in the next 5 years is to showcase works that we will be collaborating with a few artists on. The focus will still be centered around giving Africa a much-deserved seat on the throne. We will also be received on big stages such as The Sydney Opera House hopefully.
With investments and sponsorships, we should be able to rehearse regularly and get to that level. But before we shine, we have to polish.
Kelsey-Marie is an NYC girl who currently lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. You can keep up with her on Instagram at @kelseydashmarie