Read – Mike Bathande Bhayibhile: Master Voice

By Was Lemul

Just over a year ago, leading up to Plett ARTS Festival in 2020, baritone Mike Bhayibhile made contact with pianist, voice coach and soprano, Dr Lisa Engelbrecht who happened to be locking down in Plett. Rehearsals followed for what became two double-bill, live-streamed concerts of classical works from the St Peter’s Anglican Church to audiences at home, and two superb concerts on permanent record, hosted on the Plett Tourism website.

Writer and poet, Was Lemeul, who will be performing at the 2021 Plett ARTS Festival, took some time to talk to Mike, who will be in concert with Lisa once again this year, to get some insight into this extraordinary performer.

I’ve often heard it being said that music is the language of the soul. If I had an inkling of doubt about that then my scepticism was wonderfully dealt with by the heart-stirring opera baritone singer, Bathande ‘Mike’ Bhayibhile. At a women’s empowerment event that was hosted by Anelisiwe Mnyaka and the Phakamisani Primary School Choir in Kwanokuthula, I personally witnessed the power of his entrancing musical command. As he serenaded our souls, I beheld how he (with a single note) turned a seemingly callous crowd into an attentive audience. The chit chattering ceased, fidgeting faded and all you could hear was Mike and the momentary moans of the mesmerized audience. I was hypnotized, moving from the back of the hall to occupy one of the seats in the front row. Music was speaking to our souls – and, somehow, we understood

Mike fell in love with music at church sometime during primary school. He left his native city, East London, and relocated to Plettenberg Bay in 1998 after his father’s passing. His enthusiasm for music found expression when he enrolled at Murray High School where he resuscitated and led the school choir – to the point of being the runner-up in a national schools’ choir competition. He was coached by Gwyneth Lloyd, a venerated vocal trainer from East London, and the internationally renowned opera giant, Luthando Qave. “I count myself very privileged to have been taught and inspired by Luthando. Being from the same place as someone who was a BBC Cardiff Singer of the World finalist is no small thing. This is what keeps me motivated and reminds me that I’m destined for the stars, regardless of the struggles I now face,” discloses Mike.

In 2014 he enrolled at Fort Hare University and pursued a Bachelor of Music diploma. A few years on, through Operatunity (a school of opera music run by a former student of his, Xolani Mkwena) and on submission of the recorded Plett Arts Festival 2020 concerts as an audition, Mike was contacted by the Berlin Opera Academy in Germany and was offered a full scholarship that was to commence in 2020. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 lockdown regulations, his trip was postponed until the next year, 2022. That same year he was also sent a contract from Turkey to explore his career in opera music abroad but that too was sabotaged by the lockdown. As frustrating as this must have been, Mike has kept a cool head as he keeps his eyes fixed on perfecting his craft and looking forward to the Plett ARTS Festival. “Challenges and setbacks will always be there,” he said, “but a positive mental attitude is what carries you through and helps you see opportunities in the midst of those challenges. I feel a void within me when I don’t perform. But with the Plett ARTS Festival coming up I have an opportunity to express myself and touch lives the only way I know how, through music.”

As positive as he tries to be, however, Mike has his fair share of disappointments as an artist. He confided about how stressful it is to get recognition as an opera artist in South Africa. He attributes this to the lack of education among the people and their lack of support for what they don’t understand. “There is a dire need for music education in our schools. I have an incessant desire to run a school of music where I would teach modules such as music theory, music history, vocal performance, etc. This to me would mean more than striking it big because sharing my passion and knowledge with the South African youth would be most fulfilling. If I would receive funding, then God would have answered my earnest prayers,” he intimated.

Being a singer wasn’t what Mike initially aspired to though. He grew up thinking that he’d be a policeman. For him, the safety and security of women and children was a burden that wasn’t carried well in some situations he witnessed in the townships. Even today that dream hasn’t truly faded, but the opportunities to teach music and perform obviously didn’t give way to those of joining the police force. He mentions that sometimes he wonders how things would have played out if he’d gone along and joined the police.

In spite of the struggles and setbacks he faces, Mike still soldiers on and upholds his pride in his choice. To quote his words, “This is all I know, all I ever truly dedicated my time to. This is my life.” With less than a month before his concert at the Plett ARTS Festival, he prepares his soulful voice to connect with us once more and he urges his supporters and avid opera enthusiasts to pull through and be graced.

Mike Bhayibhile and Dr Lisa Engelbrecht will be performing Boskey Dell Pastorale at the Plett ARTS Festival. Was Lemuel will be performing two poetry sessions at the Plett ARTS Festival.


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