Soaring search for truth

‘Can you imagine someone in 1910 crazy enough to do what Shembe did?” asks composer Neo Muyanga. Dressed in his waistcoat and cravat and with his owl-like spectacles, Muyanga looks quite the 19th-century gentleman. Born in Soweto, he studied in the Italian madrigal tradition with choral maestro Piero Poclen in Trieste, Italy.

The story of Zulu prophet Isaiah Shembe (1870 to 1935; baptised in 1906), who founded the New Nazareth African Church (iBandla la maNazaretha), has always been in Muyanga’s family background.

“My mother’s [maiden] name is Shembe,” says Muyanga.
“The joke in the family is that [because] I knew the name in the church context, I’d ask if we were related. My mother never answers that question. She laughs. The family is divided. I think there is nervousness about claiming the name.”

Following the death in 1975 of Shembe’s successor, Johannes Galilee Shembe, the church split into two factions. There have been numerous squabbles and court cases ever since.

“I don’t use their stories, designs or music. One should have respect for other people’s terrain. The [church] world is secretive and protective because they get exposed to a lot of ridicule and there are rumours started all the time. I wanted to find the dignity in the story of a tribe that has a messiah.”

Man and legend
Shembe was regarded by his followers as God made flesh. His achievement was to indigenise the Christian gospel as the Reformation had done in 16th-century Europe. Shembe, the man, had his sceptics, among them the colonial authorities, who saw him as either dangerously revolutionary or at best a charlatan.

But Muyanga’s mythic operetta, The Flower of Shembe, “isn’t the story of the church”—that is only a ­starting point.

Muyanga has tried to imagine anew what trials and tribulations might befall a prophet coming to terms with a most onerous destiny—a fictional narrative based loosely on the lives of past messiahs and drawing on Mithra, the Persian deity, Jesus of Nazareth and Saint Yared in Ethiopia.

“The government invented the story that he [Shembe] died falling off the edge of a cliff—that he put a few feathers on his arms and said he’d fly to heaven. But that is not how he died ... I wanted to use the idea of flying up into the sky. Our messiah grows wings and he does fly.

“Part of me is a cynic, but the larger part of me is an eternal optimist,” says Muyanga. “I want to walk into that space of hope. My messiah says: the time for messiahs is over. It is time for us all to find the truth in us.

“We are responsible. We have to change the environment ourselves, to truly be ourselves and be in and of the world. The narrative of the messiah is one of hope for all the world.”

To realise his vision, Muyanga has assembled an impressive creative team. They comprise two of South Africa’s strongest female performers, Chuma Sopotela (as the prophet, Addis Shembe) and Faniswa Yisa (as the mother, Anharit Shembe), director and choreographer Ina Wichterich (a former dancer with the Pina Bausch Company), Craig Leo of the Handspring Puppet Company and Dianne Schepers, fine artist, felt architect and international designer based in ­Switzerland.

Stop-motion, hand-drawn animation, an ingenious pair of mechanical wings and a set made out of a “pure felt” sculpture bring to life a sacred garden.

Mixing traditions
Music is of course central to the work and employs Muyanga’s NeoSong Company signature technique of quirky, jagged language and sung speech. He writes in his programme notes that the “musical idiom is ­elastically pan-African, drawing vastly from urban Zulu music modes and harmonisation weaved together with ­modern chamber orchestra ­accompaniment”.

“I use a lot of the maskanda tradition,” he says.

“They have this wonderful phrase of taking an instrument and making it sing Zulu.”

The musicians include a classical string quintet, a jazz trio and Xhosa traditional singer Lungiswa Plaatjies, who was lead vocalist for Ama-mpondo.

“Everybody has had to reach out of their comfort zone. Actors have had to learn singing parts. They’re not trained opera singers.”

Muyanga says he is also referencing “the Gibson Kente melodramatic tradition—but it is seen as discredited—so it is difficult for them [the performers]”. He grins. “Everyone in this production is quite headstrong.

He had initially wanted to stage the work in the South African National Gallery in Cape Town, but this was cancelled just two weeks before the opening night for reasons that are still unclear.

Artscape came to the ­rescue and has been “incredible”, says Muyanga. “I don’t know what the story [at the gallery] internally was, or if it was a miscommunication”. But being the eternal optimist that he is, he says: “The upside is we’ve had to problem solve all the issues that would have come up later. We now have a show ready-made for touring.”

The Flower of Shembe is at the Artscape main theatre until May 5. Book at Computicket

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a political novelist (Primary Coloured, Reports Before Daybreak). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003 about things that make life more enjoyable – the arts, literature and travel and (in his Friday column, Once Bitten) food. If comments on the internet are to be believed, he is a self-loathing white racist, an ultra-left counter-revolutionary, a neo-liberal communist capitalist, imperialist anarchist, and most proudly a bourgeois working-class lad. Or you can put the labels aside and read what he writes. Visit his website: Read more from Brent Meersman

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