“The drums of Africa are powerful,” says Hope, the narrator of Umoja. “They speak with your blood, your heart and your soul.” As he reflects on his life as a musician he recounts the story of South African music from girls in grass skirts to African hip hop via jazz, gumboot dancing and gospel. It is a story of a peoples’ struggle and the irrepressible power of music
As the drums begin to pound on stage men dressed in skins and feathers crash spears onto shields as they dance. Multiple costume-changes later the stage is strewn with beads and drum stick splinters and the high-energy pace hasn’t slowed. The singing is gutsy and soulful and when they break into harmony spine-tinglingly good. The dancing isn’t graceful but it is whole-hearted, tightly choreographed and infectious. High kicks and somersaults punctuate a sexy belly-dance style of gyrating. The performers are all ages, shapes and sizes and they can all dance the house down; they come mostly from the townships of South Africa and this is their own story.
Dark themes including the brutality of apartheid, the exploitation of the mine workers and the threat of HIV sit alongside idyllic songs from village life and church meetings. The boot slapping gumboot dance (a method of communicating while mining) rivals Tap Dogs in its masculine athleticism. Equally impressive is the technical skill of the marimba players and the centipede-like use of long lines of arms and legs in the Venda Snake Dance.
A five-piece jazz band sets the scene for the illegal drinking bars of Sophiatown and Soweto. Tribal clothes are swapped for sneakers and bikini tops for Kwaito, the African version of hip hop which became popular around the time Nelson Mandela took office as president. The joyful exuberance of the performers as they danced to it was the greatest testimony that this music and its history is in their blood and heart and soul.
Umoja runs Tuesday 19th – Sunday 24th June at Burswood. Tickets through Ticketek.
This article is copyright The West Australian 2012.