Musical tales of Exodus

2010-01-17 08:31

IT’S January and most

people would kill anyone who came ­between them and their last Salticrax

biscuit. Let alone fork out their final precious pennies on a trip to the

theatre. In this climate of widespread brokeness, what could compel theatre

director James ­Ngcobo to stage an ambitious play-slash-musical chronicling 100

years of South ­African music?

It was this question that saw me spending two hours freezing in the

Main Theatre at the Market, Johannesburg, watching a rehearsal of ­Ngcobo’s new

production, Songs of Migration.

Not quite a musical and not quite a play, Songs of Migration tells

the tale of exodus through music. Ngcobo has roped in the talents of three

soaring artistic talents to make his ambitious show a reality: ­musicians Hugh

Masekela and Sibongile Khumalo and choreographer Gregory Maqoma.

Ngcobo is at pains to impress upon me that what I’m watching is not

a rehearsal, but a session to fine tune the show. And not even an

air-conditioner turned so high as to approximate the frigid winter ­currently

being endured in Europe could drag me away from the marvel of watching Ngcobo,

Maqoma, Khumalo and Masekela change, exchange and rearrange the ­music,

movement, dance and lighting, ­until they are satisfied that it blends well


The rapport ­between the perennially youthful Masekela – decked out

in his trademark black waistcoat and black beret and sporting trendy Adidas

sneakers and a startlingly bright tie – and Khumalo kept things light when the

legs tired and the voices became strained. The show has a two hour running time.

Masekela, who with Khumalo plays the role of the storyteller who

keeps the narrative of journeys and relocation moving along, never strays far

from the band. ­Comprising Fana Zulu on bass, Ntokozo Zungu on guitar, Tshepo

Mngoma on violin, Godfrey Mgcina on percussion and ­Ezbie Moilwa – who is also

the musical ­director – on keyboards, the quintet provide the musical anchor for

the show.

The eight-member cast includes Thumbeza Hlophe, Bonginkosi Zulu,

Kuki Mncube, Gugu Shezi, Happy Motha, Linda Thobela, Nondumiso Zondeki and

Bubele Mgele.

Both exacting musical task masters, Masekela and Khumalo direct the

corps of singers, suggest different keys and chide those who do not know the


Meanwhile ­Ngcobo – whose eyes glow with the manic intensity of a

man possessed – whips through the theatre like a whirling ­dervish, holding a

simultaneous dialogue with the singers, the musicians, the choreographer and the

lighting designer, ­Wesley France.

He occasionally popped up behind me to share salient points about

songs or composers, or just to share his artistic vision: “I didn’t want to tell

a chronological story! People can get that from a history book. I want to speak

about the emotional ­bubbles that happened when people were separated.”

And to this end he succeeds. Songs of ­Migra­tion is more than a

song and dance number – although there is a lot of singing and dancing. It is a

nuanced exploration of ­resettlement, of pain, separation, and loss. Ngcobo and

Masekela, who compiled the score together, include many familiar songs of

migration, such as Masekela’s iconic Stimela, Phola Hier and Hambani Madoda.

But the score reflects the show’s broader focus on migration that

includes not only the forced removals and economic migrancy that affected

southern Africa, but also the exodus of Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe,

slaves taken from Africa, and Afrikaners making the Groot Trek.

Given the emotional gravitas of the ­subject matter, Songs of

Migration could easily slip into a schmaltzy, blame-ridden, victim song. It

doesn’t, thanks to the chemistry that bristles among the combined ­talents

involved in the show. Humour and levity abound, not just among the cast members,

but also in the choice and ­rendition of songs.

Songs of Migration’s theatrical punch lies in the subtlety of the

indictment of ­slavery, apartheid and religious persecution that saw the mass

exodus of persecuted people. Under Ngcobo’s direction, the music goes from the

spine-tingling Sarie ­Marais to Phola Hier and then straight into a medley of

Negro spirituals that include Rail Road and Let My People Go.

The set is simple and uncluttered. Suitcases are the dominant

props, alongside the old and new South African flags and sepia toned pictures of

African migrant workers and Jewish immigrants arriving in South Africa.

Maqoma’s choreography is unobtrusive. His lines are modern and the

movements are never predictable.

Songs of Migration is a piece of magic created by four creative

geniuses, five ­musicians and eight singers that – like all good art – seems

effortless, unrehearsed and spontaneous. It’s worth selling your last Salticrax

for or digging out those precious January pennies. It gives a whole new

­perspective on what it means to be really broke, and very far from home.

  •  Songs of

    Migration runs at the Market Theatre until February 21.

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