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

UMOJA (article first published : 2003-12-18)

When you purchase the glossy, well-presented and informative Umoja programme and make your way into the grand Playhouse Opera theatre with this lavish publication in your hand, you might get the feeling that the show is going to be of a very high standard.

You would be absolutely right. Umoja, now back in Durban for the second time, is a slick, highly-professional and entertaining journey charting the history of South African music. Costumes are colourful and vibrant, the set is minimalist and effective and the lighting is clean and dramatic. For once in this venue, the sound was almost faultless.

Created by Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni, Umoja means the Spirit of Togetherness. The show has been so successful that there are currently two casts performing in the East and in the UK.

The narrator is Umlazi-born Penuel “Hope” Bhekizitha Ndaba who originally worked with Todd and Thembi on a narrative storyline for Umoja, going on to incorporate into the story his own experiences as a musician. A strikingly similar Mandela-figure dressed in typical Madiba shirts, he starts the audience’s journey with early rural music. His powerful and engaging presence provides the backbone of the show as he weaves in and out of the various musical styles from isicathamiya, Sophiatown, gumboot dancing and gospel to contemporary kwaito music.

While the cast is extremely disciplined and focused, certain performers stand out – among them lead singers Ntomboxolo Belinda Ratyana and Tobela “Leon” Mpela as well as master drummer and marimba player Daniel Bonginkosi Mthembu. Lindiwe Valeria Ntuli was excellent as the prostitute as was Lawrence Macebele as the gospel priest.

The show contains numbers that are well-known and popular even by those who have a scant knowledge of “African” music. I think I only heard one rather off-key note in the whole performance - the singing is extremely good and so is the well-balanced instrumental back-up. The choreography is fast-moving and there are some electrifying moments in the early numbers. Humour is never very far from the surface and I would like to mention a delicious little moment as the drunk, Israel Mzayifani Thabethe, frantically tries to leave the shebeen to evade the police.

With its informative and attractively-illustrated sections on beadwork, beer pots, sangomas, drums and the Venda Snake Dance, the programme is worth its cost of R20 and, apart from making good reference material for young learners, would make a charming gift to send overseas.

Umoja will have a popular appeal and is obviously an must for tourists. With such a talented cast and sure-handed directors, however, I would have liked to have seen something a little more adventurous. Ah, but then “adventurous” doesn’t always make for good box office!

Merchandise such as CDs and cassettes, T-shirts and caps are available for sale. Umoja runs ovr the festive season and booking is at Computicket. Details on group bookings, fundraising opportunities and special schools performances from Nikki on 031 266 7892. – Caroline Smart




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