Call it the Mamma Mia syndrome.
These days, it is not enough to present a collection of good songs on stage and call them a show. The songs have to be ripped out of their original contexts and rewoven together with the flimsy thread of new plot.
The Sibikwa Players’ Kwela Bafana+ does precisely that, weaving together a collection of songs from the masters of 1950s jazz—Blues Ntaka, Victor Ndlazilwane, Allen Silinga and more—into “a night in a 1950s shebeen” through the tinsel tale of the wooing and winning of the beautiful, unattainable shebeen queen Sis’ Peggy.
Kwela Bafana+ had a number of earlier incarnations. This latest has pianist and composer Themba Mkhize as musical director, and staging that has been stretched to employ the big stage of the Victory Theatre, with an evocative set from Sarah Roberts.
We have long lacked a South African analogue for Ain’t Misbehavin’, a celebration of the birth of our Jazz Age, and this show begins to fill that gap. You are unlikely to see any better performances of this material today anywhere in South Africa. The leads—Mdu Mkhetsi, Dumisani Mhlanga, Siphiwe Nkabinde, Andries Mbali, Nkosana Xulu and Velephi Khu-malo—act, sing and dance with verve and precision.
The musicians support more than ably and a particular delight is the band’s leadership by Bra B “Boy” Ngwenya, a former member of the original Woody Woodpeckers, one of the close-harmony vocal groups whose sound shaped the era. Bra B is now 76 years old and is still hale enough to deliver some wicked boogie-woogie lyrics. Mkhize is a brilliant arranger of voices: he manages to keep songs such as Lakutshon’ilanga faithful to their intention but still make them sound fresh.
The choice of songs stretches the mythical decade a little—Msenge, for example, was composed in 1961—but that is necessary to show the period’s full range: jazzed-up tradition, improvised modern jazz and soulful ballads.
But the flimsy plot is more irritation than support. The arrival of colonialism happens through a scene whose equivalent we have seen two dozen times before. What is startlingly fresh is how Mkhize carries us from tradition to modernity through notes, with his mutation of the song Jikel’emaweni.
Each of the songs has a powerful history of its own: King Kong, for example, in the life and death of a boxer and the birth of a ground-breaking musical, and Meadowlands in the destruction of Sophiatown.
Robbed of that context, the punches in the history are pulled. Things pick up decidedly when two of Casey Motsisi’s fables are woven into the narrative and maybe that is a direction for the production to explore further.
Performances, however, are strong enough to render structural flaws irrelevant. Whereas pantomime might tell us who some people want to be, Kwela Bafana+ speaks more, and more cleverly, without ever muting the fun, about who we are and where we have come from—a far better bet for a seasonal theatre outing.
Kwela Bafana+ runs at the Victory Theatre until December 10