Hope-filled magicians

2008-02-01 00:00

They dance like demons, sing like angels and drum like magicians, according to London's Daily Telegraph. But according to Todd Twala, one of the visionaries behind Africa Umoja which kicks off at Sibaya iZulu in Durban next week, some of the performers are extremely talented “ordinary kids” who had lost all hope.

Umoja, which translates as “the spirit of togetherness”, is a two-hour music and dance spectacular that traces the journey of South African music from the potent rhythms of tribal music to the intricate steps of gumboot dancing, from the foot-stomping jazz of Sophiatown to the inspirational, full-throated joy of gospel and the pounding energy of kwaito and pantsula.

The cast comprises 40 young performers - singers, dancers, drummers, marimba players and musicians - who found their niche thanks to a show that started off as a community performing arts project. The story behind the show is as remarkable as the show itself and could make a hit musical or award-winning movie. The only difference is that it is an ongoing real-life drama, according to Twala.

In Soweto in the Seventies, Twala's family was evicted from their home in the George Goch township near Johannesburg and “resettled” in a life of poverty, with box-like houses, poor sanitation and no running water or electricity.

She befriended Umoja's co-founder, Thembi Nyandeni, at primary school but they lost touch for years until they met while performing in the so-called “tribal musicals” such as Ipi Thombi, Meropa and uMabatha.

Twala began her career in 1976 with Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke's Meropa. Nyandeni took to the stage in Ipi Thombi in 1976. They met again while performing in London's West End. In 1978, Twala joined Ipi Thombi which toured the U.S, Europe, Scandinavia, New Zealand and Australia.

Between tours the two took time out to choreograph their own dance pieces which formed the building blocks for Umoja. They returned to South Africa during the early eighties and soon realised that the poor children of Soweto needed help and to be taken off the streets. Twala remembers how the two friends engineered “a community gathering” and taught the children how to sing, dance and act. Every time they returned to South Africa from Ipi Thombi, the “troupe” had grown. Eventually, on the verge of quitting dancing, they decided to turn their community project into a proper production. They “played with ideas” until 1999 when they realised that South African youngsters had no idea about their local musical roots but knew a great deal about American superstars.

As part of this South African musical “education”, Umoja celebrates a number of colourful traditions, including the Venda snake dance, or python dance, which is performed to the mesmeric beat of the domba drum and is a celebration of young women's virginity. Then there's a talent competition in Durban during the fifties. “The city became a magnet for rural migrants, unfolding a world of exciting rhythms and bright lights. Talent competitions were held at the Durban YMCA and the place would be packed … The compere would introduce each act and finally give away the big prize - a radio with batteries!” she explains.

When Umoja opened at the Market theatre in 2002, it was an overnight success and it set a precedent for everything from supper theatre to mainstream musicals. The next step was to take it overseas which, Twala says, “opened the gates for South African music” and created opportunities for performers such as those in the cast.

Since 2000, Umoja has toured 26 countries. As Twala takes to the iZulu stage, Nyandeni is in Canada with a second cast. Another is performing in Johannesburg.

Twala says Umoja has changed her own life as much as it has transformed the lives of its performers. “Traveling with 40 kids hasn't been a easy task. I draw strength from God on a daily basis. I had to change my own lifestyle. Because I am with them for 24 hours, I am their role model. If I tell these kids not to smoke, drink or do drugs, then I must live that. I have to show them that because you come from a poor background that doesn't mean you have to do what is wrong.”

Twala and Nyandeni have also encouraged the hundreds of performers that have moved through Umoja over the past seven years to “reach for the stars.” Some have joined the Lion King, others have launched solo careers.

“Umoja is not like other shows. It is like a home. Children come here and when they grow up and are ready to move on, we set them free. Now that we have a democracy, we encourage them to go back to school, to take opportunities. You should see them today. They are so confident, so wonderful. Some have built large homes. Some have travelled. They are lovely and are taking responsibility for their lives,” she says.

•Umoja runs from November 1 to January 13. Booking is through the Sibaya box-office or via Computicket. Tickets range from R90 to R125.

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