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Talking migration with Thanda Gumede

As a Theatre of Sanctuary, Opera North works with many people who have lived experience of migration, whether as performers, participants or audience members.

Thandanani (Thanda) Gumede is a vocalist from KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa who is now based in the UK. He specialises in an eclectic blend of singing styles informed by his dual Zulu/Xhosa heritage and Western music. Here he discusses his experience of working with the Company on a variety of projects over the last few years and shares his thoughts on making his home in this country.

Thandanani Gumede © Lucy Gwen Williams

What inspires you most?

A genuine love for music – it’s like a ministry in a “spiritual” rather than a bureaucratic sense. The stories that must be told and the authenticity of doing something you’re passionate about. My true north is behind a microphone.

When did you first start working with Opera North? 

My very first work with Opera North was nearly five years ago. Rommi Smith (poet and performer) was hosting the Liberty Lecture by Nicholas Wolpe at the Howard Assembly Room, and she invited me to sing as an opening to the proceedings. I was not aware of the company before then, but that experience was particularly special. Two years later, I was awarded the first Resonance residency which led to a more intensive and closer working relationship with Opera North.

Thandanani Gumede performing at Slung Low in Holbeck © Tom Arber

Tell us about your Resonance residency and what it helped you achieve.

It meant more to me than I can express. I had moved from South Africa to Huddersfield and I wasn’t doing well. My experience there involved working in environments where I found myself being transported in the boot of a car while transportation was docked from my pay – and I ended up not receiving said pay after nine months of work and a lot more afterwards. So I eventually moved to Leeds to work for myself.

The Resonance residency was an incredible stepping stone in establishing me as an individual artist in the city. In collaboration with Kenny Higgins (Bassist) and Dave Evans (Pianist), we created a Zulu Jazz song cycle using a migrating bird as a metaphor for my life as a migrant worker. We also worked with Steven Manthorp (Graphic Designer and Games Developer) who wore a VR Headset to paint the story of the bird as I sang the lyrics. The painted story was projected onto a specialised screen in live time.

Thandanani Gumede performing as part of his Resonance residency with Opera North

You later worked with groups of refugees and sanctuary seekers as part of the People’s Lullabies project – what was that like?

It was a humbling experience to see the sheer scale of work that different organisations were doing to help the refugees and those seeking sanctuary and I felt privileged to have the opportunity to play some small role in that. Since then, Dave and myself have continued to partner with other charities that try to mitigate the life experience of refugees and sanctuary seekers, but it never feels anywhere near enough.

When I was working on the project, the atmosphere in the room somehow reminded me of South Africa. Music came easily to the people during the People’s Lullabies session in Bradford: Thomas’ performance in particular has stayed with me to this day.

You often reference the theme of migration in your music; what special perspective do you think being a migrant gives you?

To borrow a phrase from the South African comedian Trevor Noah, “Travelling is the antidote to ignorance”. I can’t help but see life differently. It’s like having a second piece of a puzzle that can offer a more panoramic perspective when combined with other encounters. As a migrant worker on a temporary restricted visa, simply being allowed to be here is something I cannot take for granted. I have no choice but to try and make the most of every year here in case it is my last. I don’t have a lot to fall back on.

Can you explain what a temporary restricted visa is?

Before you apply for a visa, you have to have a sponsor who can guarantee that you have work and that you can sustain yourself without claiming any benefits. You must also have a minimum of approximately £1000 (this figure rises annually) in your account for three months or have your sponsor tick maintenance for you. You must prove that you are not displacing any UK workers and, as an artist, I can only do art: I am not allowed to supplement my income by getting a job in say a supermarket or bar. If I do, I could be fined, deported and banned for entering the UK for 10 years. I can renew the visa every year but only once in this country. The following year has to be a fresh application from South Africa with all the additional costs and tests that entails.

Thanda Gumede and Dave Evans perform at an Arts Together/Opera North event, 2019 © Tom Arber.

What have you worked on most recently with Opera North?

The most recent was a songwriting project called Writing Home. The Company will be moving in to their redeveloped home in Leeds later this year and we hope to use the songs that the participants composed in a sound trail that people will be able to access throughout the new building.

What are your future plans?

My hope for the future is make this type of visa situation a thing of the past. With that distraction gone, I want to continue pursuing my passion and to leave a lasting mark not only in Leeds but further afield. With the restrictions in place, I have got further than I imagined. I am excited to see what I can achieve when the restrictions no longer limit me; time will tell.

Opera North's new home, the Howard Opera Centre, is due to open later this year © Tom Arber

Please share your thoughts on Opera North being a Theatre of Sanctuary.

Sanctuary is a befitting adjective in the description of Opera North. They are not about merely meeting quotas and ticking boxes. They go beyond the art to create real connections with the artist – protecting the person and creating an environment to counter all the hurdles without compromising on merit.

My eyes get glossy at the thought of all they have done for me. If I started naming names, the list could rival a phone book! One of the managers reached out to me during her maternity leave to continue mentoring and helping me. Years after my residency, they are still here so, yes – Theatre of Sanctuary is definitely befitting.

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