Blast from the past

Whistlers at work: Andries Mbali, Joel Zuma and Siphiwe Nkabinde in Kwela Bafana+.

Whistlers at work: Andries Mbali, Joel Zuma and Siphiwe Nkabinde in Kwela Bafana+.

Sibikwa Art Centre’s Kwela Bafana+, billed as “a night in a Fifties shebeen”, is enjoying a repeat season after playing last year to sold-out houses at the Victory Theatre.

For those who were around in the 1950s and saw the original King Kong at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Great Hall, introducing white suburbanites in the multi­racial audiences to the sounds of township jazz and the unique piping notes of the kwela (penny whistle), this lively and endearing show is a wonderful blast from the past.

And for those who are too young for the memories, the sheer wealth of musical creativity of the time will be a toe-tapping, sometimes heart-wrenching revelation.

The immensely talented cast recreates some of the great moments of African jazz and kwela music. It brings to vibrant life memories of some of South Africa’s legendary close-harmony groups, among them the Manhattans and the Woody Woodpeckers, of which Bra B Ngwenya, the seventysomething leader of the Kwela Bafana+ band was an original member.

It also reminds its audiences of the influence of the great American groups of that era.

The 1950s were a time when all things American were espoused in Sophiatown, from two-tone Florsheim shoes to street slang and gang culture, and the music reflected that allegiance.

Totally entertaining and frequently sentimental though it is, the production does not entirely draw a veil of misty nostalgia across the realities of the time — the realities that led to the growing liquor addiction, the depression and the tragic young deaths of so many of the “Drum generation”.

Facts of life

That remarkable group of writers, too, is acknowledged, with Casey Motsisi’s bed bugs, source of his satirical “Bug” column in Drum, playing a starring role as they crouch in a prison cell awaiting the next victims of a dompas (pass) raid. 

Poverty, unemployment, pass and liquor raids and prison all make their appearance. One hilarious sequence deals with the not-so-hilarious occupation of night-soil removal — just one of the many unpleasant facts of life in Sophiatown.

The cast comprises a tuneful, enthusiastic and highly entertaining male quartet — Dumisani Mhlanga, Siphiwe Nkabinde, Andries Mbali and Joel Zuma — joined by multi­talented actress/singer Velephi ­Khumalo as shebeen queen Sis Peggy (who gets to sing the unforgettable Makeba song Back of the Moon from King Kong) and the youthful, charming Sihle Ndaba as her daughter, Ntombi.

They are backed by the Kwela Bafana+ band — keyboards, double bass and guitar, drums, saxophone and penny whistle — led by Bra B on piano.

There is no narrative line to speak of and Todd Twala’s choreography is, though lively, a tad repetitive.

But, as the cast belted out the iconic Meadowlands and the (sparse) audience rose to clap, sing, ululate, whistle and dance along with them, any flaws were forgiven. It was a great, warm-hearted and thoroughly enjoyable night at the theatre.

Kwela Bafana+ is showing at the Market Theatre until June 24

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