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PATRICK NGCOBO (article first published : 2004-07-26)

Carnatic music normally takes years of patience and dedication to learn. Few would have thought that the Zulus of South Africa would have much interest in southern Indian classical music. But South African Patrick Ngcobo has proved that ethnicity and language are no barriers when it comes to learning about music far from home. When he decided to learn southern Indian classical music, better known as Carnatic music, his African friends in Durban ridiculed him, and his Indian neighbours were sceptical. For them, it was abnormal for a person from the warrior Zulu tribe in Natal province to take up Carnatic music.

Ignoring insults and sniping remarks, Patrick single-mindedly persisted. Today, the 34-year-old sings in seven Indian languages. He can slide from one Indian raga, particular melodic scales, to another with ease his diction is remarkable. His perfect pitch, whether high or low, and fantastic range of voice and ability to sing in different languages is clearly the result of dedication, toil and hours of continuous practice.

It all started when Patrick happened to listen to a song of the famous South Indian classical singer, Dr KJ Jesudas. "I have never heard such a melody before. The mesmerising voice took me to a different world. That was it. I wanted to learn the style and it became my dream to meet KJ Jesudas," recounts Patrick.

Luck favoured him when Jesudas performed in Durban in the early 1990s. Impressed by Patrick's musical talent, Jesudas offered to teach him Carnatic music if he could go to the city of Madras, in southern India.

With poverty knocking at his door, Patrick went from pillar to post to find resources to go to India. But it was not easy. "I had no money, no relatives or no friends in India. Thanks to some sponsors I finally set foot in Chennai (Madras). That is it. I had no contact with my family for three years, they did not even hear my voice," says Patrick. He was also fortunate when Jesudas offered him a place to stay at his residence.

But life was not easy in Madras. From food to clothing everything was alien and the rules were rigorous. He abstained from alcohol, meat and relations with women. With all his time occupied by learning Carnatic music, socializing was minimal. "It was so difficult for me to sit cross-legged for hours. Because of our food habits in Africa, our bones have become tight and I could not sit for long. I managed, but even now I use a cushion while performing," says Patrick.

KJ Jesudas (left) is extremely happy with his African disciple. Carnatic music normally takes years of hard work, patience and dedication to learn. In addition, a student has to get the pronunciation right while singing the songs either in Tamil, Telugu or Malayalam. As a beginner, Patrick first had to sort out the language barrier and pronunciation difficulties, which all took time. "Sometimes it was too frustrating. I used to practice from five in the morning till midnight. It took six months to learn one verse from a particular keerthana, or a song. But eventually, I got there."

Talking to the BBC from Madras, KJ Jesudas is extremely happy about his African disciple. "Right from the beginning, I was impressed with his hard work, perseverance and devotion. His observation is remarkable. He is a classic example of what dedication can bring to a person irrespective of his or her background," he said.

Patrick returned to South Africa in 1996 and started performing in public. The black Carnatic singer naturally drew attention and made headlines. To satisfy his local audience, he even started composing songs in Zulu based on Indian ragas. The Zulu singer believes because of his ethnicity he is being sidelined in South Africa.

With a huge Indian population (1.2 million) in South Africa, Patrick thought he could be a professional singer and also teach Carnatic music. "Being the first black person to learn Indian Carnatic music, I thought I would be encouraged. I am disappointed to say that I rarely get opportunities to perform in South Africa," he laments. The Zulu singer believes because of his ethnicity he is being sidelined in South Africa. While he gets chances to perform in places like Botswana, it is not sufficient to satisfy his musical thirst.

Being the eldest in a family of seven, Patrick has other responsibilities. Now he specializes in gardening services and also runs a taxi outside Durban. But he continues to practice his music while cutting trees or driving the cab. One day, Patrick believes his chance will come to prove his mettle. "My dream is to perform around the world and show the greatness of the Carnatic music," he said.




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