Umoja is sub-titled the spirit of togetherness, and that overwhelmingly is what it turns out to be. A foot-tapping, soul-stirring, life-affirming experience that got a richly deserved standing ovation from a first night audience that, quite simply, didn’t want to leave. What we all would have loved instead, to a person, was an invitation from the superb entertainers on stage, to join in the exuberant song and dance that had captivated us throughout a fabulous night’s entertainment.
The advance publicity came nowhere near conveying the depth and richness of this unique show. The colourful program, on the other hand, did serve as a valuable introduction to the culture and context of what we were about to see. Which was nothing less than “the story of the music of the South African people, from tribal times until to-day”. Add to that the fact that most of the performers came from disadvantaged communities, with nothing to declare but their talent, and were honed by choreographer, singer and teacher, Todd Twala, into a troupe of breathtaking professionalism, and it’s not hard to see why the audience sat in a state of stunned rapture from the first, irresistible beat of the drums to the ensembled finale that recapitulated the highlights of the musical history.
In between, a cast successively garbed in a variety of striking costumes produced by designer Thembi Nyandeni, took us from the dynamic beat of tribal song and dance, forward into the various ways it has evolved during periods of extreme hardship and the influences of an increasingly multicultured society on a people who have survived it all, with heart and sense of humour intact and channelled back into their music.
A music which is underpinned by the drums that are “integral to the rhythms of Africa both in everyday life and spiritual matters”. It is not only the printed program that tells us this, but the unbelievably mellifluous voice of the Narrator, who introduces us to each of the sequences in tones that reverberate with as much power as the drums themselves. Truly a voice that any politician would kill for. It hardly matters what Joseph Motsamai says all you want to do is to hear him speak.
Until the next round of superbly synchronised dancing and choral singing and solo singers and dancers takes you into yet another vibrant stage in this musical journey through South Africa, via scenes from the Durban talent competition (with the wonderfully world weary compere, Gregory Makhubela), to the Johannesburg street scene, shebeen (or wayside tavern), mining town and hostels, gospel sounds, the club, and, finally, the finale of togetherness: Umoja. Given the time, I would list each member of the cast of gifted performers, but again I can recommend that informative program, which presents each of them and their stories of some very different routes to the stage.
And as this show is only on for a few days more, there is very little time to put your skates on if you want to see a performance that in the rarely heard words of my companion is a must-see. It takes us away from the by now well-known rhythms of Afro-American music, to its irrepressible origins, and the directions in which these have moved in their own homeland. Together, they add up to a feast of visual and aural sensations which happily you can choose to take a taste of with you, in a CD that that had us stomping our feet all the way home.