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Celebrating African Song & Dance with Umoja – The Spirit of Togetherness

Celebrating African Song & Dance with Umoja – The Spirit of Togetherness

By Matunda Nyanchama

October 10, 2005

This weekend I had a chance to watch one of the most beautiful displays of African song and dance I have ever seen. The Umoja show (www.umojatheshow.com) is on its second Canadian tour, currently running at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. It reminds me of Ipi Ntombi, another equally entertaining and successful musical from the 1970s. This resemblance is not by coincidence. Umoja’s creators Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni, whose lives appear intertwined since childhood, are veterans of other South African musicals, including Ipi Ntombi.

The show is a display of energetic dance, powerful drumming and rhythm. It is a story of the evolution of South African music over time; music with origins in rural South Africa, influenced by urban tastes and modulated by effects of the oppressive apartheid environment. It is an entertaining tale to behold and every minute of it was worth it!

The narration starts with traditional life in rural Africa: a place of traditional rituals of initiation, courting, marriage and celebrations of harvest. It is the land of powerful Sangomas (spiritual diviners) and warrior culture of strong men and energetic women. Celebrations are a display of African beauty in the song, dance and costume. Central to this is powerful drumming. In the words of the program blurb: “War, birth, death, marriage and festivities … all these ceremonies are underscored with the thunder of drums…” for “the drums of Africa are powerful, they speak to your blood, your heart and your soul …”

The narrator then takes us to Durban where rural music from many parts converges in an urban environment. Here competition is held between dance styles/forms from various parts of the country. Rather than being a clash of “civilizations”, there is synthesis and blending that creates a new milieu of moves, gyrations and costume.

Johannesburg (Egoli) presents its own uniqueness: chaotic hustle and bustle of work, hawking, drinking, conman ship and seduction. It is a scene to behold as agents of apartheid enforce pass laws and limit Africans’ potential and reach! This environment breeds its own forms of entertainment with illegal entertainment outlets (the shebeens) and where Shebeen queens rule! And African music, song and dance thrives in spite of apartheid and urban chaos, blended and modulated by the unique environment in which it exists.

Meanwhile economic conditions dictate that men migrate to seek work in the mines, where they are not allowed to bring their families. They have to leave their women and children in rural areas or segregated African enclaves! Apartheid, however, cannot stop the evolution of music to capture festivities, sorrow and pain of folks torn apart by an inhuman system. Music thrives among the women as they do their chores – fetching water and firewood, and cooking for and feeding their families.

Meanwhile, music flourishes at the mines as men find ways to entertain themselves, if only to relieve stress and circumvent the oppression and exploitation; gumboot dancing is born, and in the words of the blurb: “because [miners] were forbidden to speak while they worked … found a way to communicate non-verbally with each other and to entertain themselves … after work.” No matter where one is, no matter the conditions, one cannot stop the match of music.

Churches are not spared in this music evolution. With a gospel explosion, European and American hymns are blended with African flavours to create unique music forms and ways of worship.

Umoja captures the changes that come with the passage of time over generations. With modernization and globalization the music assumes new forms. However, the thundering of African drumming continues, men and women gyrate in provocative dance forms and the music continues to touch the soul, even as costumes are transformed. As the ageing narrator looks back to his times of youth, he offers insight about what has changed: places, times and actors. It is a “oneness” (umoja) that one can feel, and even touch. Otherwise what is music for other than what it has always been for? War, birth death, marriage, festivities …

Umoja is entertaining and you will get value for your time and money. You would also have contributed to another cause: providing employment for the actors in the musical for, as the blurb says of the founders: one of Umoja’s objectives was to provide an outlet for talented unemployed youth in South Africa.

NB: Umoja runs till October 30, 2005 at the Elgin theatre; November 3 – 13, 2005 in Windsor and November 29 – December 31, 2005 in Vancouver. Tickets can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.ca. One can also order the DVD and CD of the music from www.umojatheshow.com.

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Dr. Matunda Nyanchama (mnyanchama@aganoconsulting.com) is a computer security professional working in Canada and past president of the Kenyan Community Abroad (KCA)

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