Singing it all back home

Phillip Kakaza

A melancholic nostalgia sweeps through Woza! - the Civic Theatre’s celebration of 40 years of South African musicals - as the soulful voices of Wendy Mseleku and Sibongile Mngoma and the tap-dancing feet of Somizi Mhlongo tour memory lane.

King Kong’s blues number Back of the Moon and Ipi Ntombi’s Mama Thembu’s Wedding really get the audience going, even as the nine-member cast try to thrill with every piece they perform.

But Woza! - a modern fable with fabulous singers and instrumentalists - ultimately lacks a coherent storyline to weave with the music and dances. Is it Africa in a package for foreigners? Is it just a historical reference for a local audience?

Perhaps it’s more important to recognise that the production supports a valid cause - illuminating the history of black South African theatre.
It also advances director Siphiwe Khumalo’s career in the arts in this country, not only as a practitioner but also as something of a historian.

Since Khumalo’s first musical, A Tribute to Gibson Kente, enjoyed a successful run at the Civic Theatre, his dream is to document South African theatre and music.

Many years have gone by without a single release of a recording by a black South African musician - let alone any documentation of their works. Apartheid exiled African music and much of it was recorded abroad.

Khumalo agrees: “It’s no joke that people overseas have the best collection of South African music. We need to bring our heritage back home.”

And Woza! strives at bringing back the multicultural heritage that is rooted in Africa to this country. Khumalo says the production demonstrates his commitment to preserving our own works.

“Putting together the production has been a big task. When I approached Gibson Kente for some of his early works, he told me they all burnt in his garage. Another search was for one of the pieces from King Kong. The people involved in it couldn’t give me anything. I struggled and eventually managed to get an old record.

“That showed me how much of our heritage has been washed away.’‘

With the political changes in South Africa, new voices are emerging and Khumalo says it is his mission to “constantly grovel in the dustbin, and craft theatre that documents our history.”

Khumalo likes casting young artists in his shows to “take them on a pilgrimage of their own history and on to the next millennium”. He uses the words “preserve” and “heritage” frequently. They add emphasis to his mission and he hopes to record Woza! and possibly make a film of it.

“We need to make sure that artists have access to our heritage. All music institutions and universities in the country must start storing South African works as references for the next generation.’‘

Woza! is on at the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg until June 20

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