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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

AFRICA UMOJA (article first published : 2007-11-1)

If you want to see a super-charged performance filled with joyous energy by a highly disciplined cast of 35 young dancers, singers and musicians charting the history of indigenous South African music, then stop what you’re doing immediately. Pick up the phone or link to the internet and book for Africa Umoja which is currently running at the iZulu Theatre at Sibaya Casino & Entertainment Kingdom.

We last saw this production in Durban at the Playhouse in 2003 when it ran over the festive season. The show returns to South Africa after touring over 26 countries. It was created by Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni, who met and worked together in the world-acclaimed Ipi Ntombi.

The amiable narrator is Umlazi-born Penuel “Hope” Bhekizitha Ndaba who originally worked with Todd and Thembi on a narrative for Umoja, going on to incorporate his own experiences as a musician into the story. He starts the audience’s journey with early rural music. The cast is dressed in traditional fashion - all flashing beads, fluttering plumes and animal skins. Changing costume at a dizzying pace, they move on to isicathamiya, Sophiatown, gumboot dancing and gospel.

Special mention must be made of the drummers who gave an electrifying virtuoso performance. The singing is strong and the harmonies well held. Thembi Nyandeni’s costumes are colourful and vibrant and the set is minimalist and effective. I loved the lacy hanging pieces which responded so well to the dramatic lighting but I felt that the platform structure looked more as if it had been unearthed in ancient Greece than having come from Africa.

Todd Twala’s choreography is fast-moving and there are some stunning moments in the early numbers. The emphasis is on bright, upbeat presentation with amusing good-natured ribaldry in the all-male scenes. However, there are poignant moments - particularly when the women sing of their loneliness since their menfolk went to Egoli in search of work.

The performances are excellent all round and everyone gets a chance to shine – either as a featured soloist or in a small cameo role. Audience favourites were the MC in the YMCA scene and the long lanky Mosquito in the gumboot sequence. While I was irritated at being placed at the extreme side of the auditorium – not the most favourable position from which to review a show – it did mean that I was able to catch a delightful interpretation of a glue sniffer in the back row of the ensemble which I might normally have missed. Another irritation was an intermittent howl from one of the band players’ microphones which should have been corrected at interval.

Those who have seen the show before will miss some of the popular songs from the 2003 production. These apparently had to be removed because of copyright problems. If this is the first time you will see Africa Umoja, you will be blown away by the incredible energy level, professionalism and commitment of the performance. On opening night, they had already done a matinee performance but there was not the slightest evidence of tiredness or lack of focus.

With its informative and attractively-illustrated sections on beadwork, beer pots, sangomas, drums and the fascinating Venda Snake Dance, the programme is worth buying. Apart from making good reference material for young learners, it would make a charming gift to send to family and friends overseas.

Africa Umoja (Umoja means the Spirit of Togetherness) runs in the iZulu Theatre at Sibaya Casino & Entertainment until January 13, 2008. Shows: Wednesday and Thursdays at 19h30; Fridays at 17h00 and 20h00; Saturdays at 15h00 and 20h00, and Sundays at 15h00 and 19h00. Tickets range from R90 to R125 booked through Sibaya Box-Office on 031 580 5555 or Computicket. There are group and corporate bookings available for festive season functions through 031 580 5104. – Caroline Smart




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