Umoja is an African* word meaning "Spirit of Togetherness", or more succiently translated as "unity".
The choice of the word as the title of the West End show is obtuse. The show, a musical, is not about unity per se, at least not in the political sense which one immediately assumes given that it is a show by South Africans about South African music.
The play tells the story of the origins of South African Music, from the early tribal roots, through the influences of first colonisation and then Apartheid, and finally to the present day. Rapid change is typical to nearly all facets of South African life these days - from the exchange rate, through the political arena, to social norms and of course music.
Todd Twala and Tembi Nyandeni returned to South Africa in the early 90's after some globetrotting as part of the original cast of Ipi Tombi. These were the heady days when apartheid was being wrapped up, and the celebration of all that is African (particularly our heritage) was beginning.
The pair claim that they were "disturbed by the numbers of young people from disadvantaged communities who had huge potential but no access to any type of work, education or training." While I accept that they wanted to share their joy of music and the stage, I somehow doubt that their motives were quite so altruistic. A few years of touring the world with a South African themed show must, if nothing else, have opened their eyes to the commercial opportunity that presented itself.
The pair assembled a troupe of ten called Baobab, who toured the world. In August 1999, they were joined by Maurice Fresco, a producer, to expand and develop the show. After auditioning 700, a cast of 36 was selected. Ian von Memerty, a leading theatre director, also came to the party, helping with the script and directing.
Route to London
Umoja is not your bog-standard West End musical. As much as this has contributed to its success, it could so easily have caused it's downfall. At an exchange rate of around thirteen-rand-to-the-pound when it arrived, it was quite a gamble for promoter, "porn publisher" Joe Theron.
Theron first became involved when given an audio recording and demanded to see the show. As the show was not presently playing, one was quickly assembled for the one-man audience. That single viewing was enough for Theron to put his hard-earned money behind it, which prior to its arrival in London, earned him a R200,000 loss on the South African stages.
Theron was not the only one to feel the effects of the loss. When the show initially hit the Johannesburg stages, many in the cast went without pay. It started on at the Market Theatre, snuck into the Victory Theatre and then began to gather momentum showing at the Sandton Convention Centre and finally hitting the very low South African theatre ceiling at the Civic Theatre Complex. It played for three seasons, attracting the likes of Winnie and Nelson Mandela (no doubt separately) and the President of China amongst the audience.
There are many reasons for the poor financial results Umoja showed in South Africa, mostly a combination of a dire lack of disposable income amongst the average South African these days, with a small aftermath of Apartheid-era anti-local culture bias. If, after hearing the amazing rendition of Paradise Road, you are not left marvelling that Britney Spears can hit Number 1 up against such talent, you must be thick skinned or tone deaf. But such is the nature of South African media sentiment, which the general populace swallow gladly. It seems we need to leave our shores to truly appreciate our majesty. Such is life.
In the Limelight
Umoja opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre on November 12, 2001. This was a time when many of the West End shows were reeling in the wake of September 11th, with four actually having to close their doors. No doubt Theron was spurred on to take the gamble thanks to the continuing success of The Lion King, at the time consistently playing to a full house.
The show received high praise on the opening night:
"The gorgeous effervescence of these performers, their shimmies and shakes, their athletic self-expression, their pride in their persistent heritage." -- The Daily Mail
But even higher praise was in store from musicians:
"[It] is excellent, refreshing, really what theatreland needs right now, what the world needs right now." -- Eddy Grant
"When they sang with no instrumentation they were perfectly in pitch and all the harmonies were fantastic. The dancing had so much energy that they blew me away." -- Bill Wyman of The Rolling Stones
But perhaps the highest praise came from the Brits in the audience. Notoriously a reserved bunch, night after night Umoja had people dancing in their seats and rising for standing ovation after standing ovation.
On February 7, 2002, the cast arrived at work to find the doors locked. Their costumes, drums and props were inside and they were not even granted access to retrieve them. This was the first that any of the cast and production team knew of any problem.
The management of the Shaftesbury Theatre had been receiving warnings about the noise level since November 2001. Unfortunately they did nothing about the situation, which was not difficult to remedy:
"I've been up into the roof with my sound experts and they've taken a look around and told me the problem can be fixed easily at a small cost of about £20,000." -- Theron
"What we can do is increase the insulation fo the hay loft by installing sound baffles -- a tightly-woven, semi-rigid material that absorbs sound." ... "on the whole, the procedure is a simple and pretty common one." -- acoustic consultant.
Theron also came up with innovative alternatives: a glass cage around the stage, open at the front; reducing the number of drummers; using drums with a different hide that reduces the noise.
"Theron has come up with some very sensible and potentially successful ways to solve the noise problem and we don't understand why the he and the theatre don't just put their heads together and sort this out." -- representative of Camden Council
Fortunately, the Umoja team did not give up. Theron is suing the theatre for several hundred thousand pounds. The case is still pending. (At the time that the action commenced, the exchange rate had slipped to nearer to eighteen-rand-to-the-pound, though it has subsequently recovered to its November 2001 rate.)
The Show Must Go On!
Luckily South Africans will not accept defeat. Umoja reopened at the Queens Theatre on June 5, 2002. In the intervening four months, far from being idle, the team took the opportunity to tweak the show. They removed sections that had caused lulls and added new material. They also assembled a new cast to tour Australia. When the time came to call the second cast back for another destination, the Australians would not let them go and a third cast was hastily assembled.
In spite of all the controversy, the reopening went ahead with little fanfare. With understandably tight purse-strings, it was not hugely publicised, which did not stop the house from filling, but possibly caused the predominence of African people in the audience: those who had been meaning to see the show before it was suddenly shut down, and had learned from their mistake!
What to Expect
The show opens with a drum solo that breaks into the entire cast participating in a rendition of the title song. Apart from the narrator, Hope Ndaba, who wears a Madiba Shirt, the attire is early tribal, which means bare breasts, if that is what it takes to get you into a West End theatre! The men carry spears (assegai's) and shields. As if the scene has not been set enough yet, the narrator then tells how music accompanies all social interaction in South Africa, from work to marriage to death to circumsicion rituals. This, it seems, is where the title, "Spirit of Togetherness", comes from. The scene also features a sangoma and the impressive Venda Snake Dance.
Durban Talent Competition
Ndaba now tells us about when the people began moving to the cities to seek work, and how they began to mimic the western styles. The parody of the compere at the talent show is a little close to the bone, but luckily South Africans are blessed with the ability to laugh at themselves. Towards the end of the scene, the narrator tells of the exodus of the men to Johannesburg to work on the mines, and Tula Baba, sung by the female chorus with soloist Jackie Mazibuko would move anybody, whether they understood the lyrics ("quiet child") or not.
Johannesburg Street Scene
In Cry the Beloved Country, Alan Payton describes the arrival of a rural priest in the heady and often sinister world of the 1940's Johannesburg townships, specifically Sophiatown. As good as Payton's written description is of conveying the confusion and emotion experienced by the priest, the cast are at presenting it on the stage. Watch out for the black policemen who harrass our innocent young man.
During apartheid, shebeens were one of few places that people could get together. Shebeens were essential as the only available source of private enterprise, affordable alcohol, sharing of ubuntu, discussing politics and of course exposing local musical talent. This scene features Miriam Makeba's Pata Pata.
Mining & Hostel
The second act commences the male chorus running up the aisles in gumboots, overalls and carrying black dustbins. The narrator explains how, when working in the mines, men were not allowed to talk. They communicated by tapping on their rubber wellies. At night, away from their families, in single sex hostels, they would entertain themselves playing the only instruments to hand: their boots and the bins. With improvisation, tribal dancing transformed to Gumboot Dancing. The Gumboot Dance is accompanied by drums and two Marimba players. The Marimba solo is even more moving than the dancing.
The scene concludes with Nqongqothwane, The Click Song. This traditional song used to feature in a TV advertisement for BIC pens: "It's in the click." being the obvious catchphrase. It also formed one of the lessons in a Xhosa tape series I once did. There is not a line in the song without at least one click. As if that's not enough, there are three different clicks in the Xhosa and Zulu languages: c, x and q.
c is located at the front of the mouth with the tongue behind the front teeth, sucking backwards. x is located at the side of the mouth with the tongue sort-of sliding across as you tut-tut. q is the hard one, ironically contained in Andigqonda, I don't understand. It is located in the centre of the mouth, bringing your tongue down from the roof, like the "clop" in "clip-clop" (mimicing a horse on a road).
Now imagine all of that sung melodiously in a beautiful, moving song.
When I was at university, I lived next to a station on the Suburban Line that runs through the previously white-only suburbs of Cape Town. My ears quickly tuned-out the train noise, but on weekday mornings, the station would still wake me. The third class carriages would literally rock, bursting at the seams with overweight African Mamas stamping the beat on the floor of the train and singing in perfect harmony. I would lie in bed listening happily to the passionate gospel services on each train as they passed.
The scene opens with the entire cast flanking the audience in the aisles, wearing white gowns with AIDS Awareness ribbons on their left breast.
The scene concludes with Paradise Road, a song I recognised with the band's first bar. It is an interesting choice for the gospel scene, as it is more political, than it is religious, however it uplifting, singing of hope. There is an interesting story behind the song, and it is sung and the AIDS awareness ribbons worn as a tribute to Anneline Malebo, who sang the chorus in the original version when it topped the South African charts in 1980. Joy, the band, were the first non-white act to top the charts. Malebo was raped at a party in the 90's, contracted AIDS and died in late 2002. She had refused to take anti-retrovirals as she could not justify the expense, deeming her surviving children in more need of it once she had passed.
This scene introduces the newly-emerging styles of Kwaito and Pantsula, before the narrator finally gets a chance to demonstrate his musical abilities in Busker's Blues. For this song, Ndaba is alone on stage and calls upon the audience for assistance in snapping the beat with their fingers. Througout the evening, the audience has been loosening up, especially after the extended interval after which left-over drinks are poured into plastic cups and carried back to the seats. With this song, those who have resisted interacting are finally cajoled into joining in.
You know what? I'm not going to give it all away. Put on your dancing shoes, take off your coat and GO AND SEE THE SHOW!
* Gritchka says "Umoja" -Not Xhosa but Swahili. The Xhosa root for one is -nye, I'm not sure what the abstract prefix is. The word 'Umoja' is widely known because of Kenyatta, Nyerere etc.
Gritchka says moja is 'one' and u- makes abstract nouns: so umoja = oneness, unity etc.
Frankie says It could be a common word. You'll have a hard time convincing me that the pair who were Xhosa/Zulu speaking created a show in Xhosa/Zulu that celebrates South African Music and culture and gave it a foreign name.
Gritchka says Umoja is a well-known African rallying cry, and though I can't prove it with a big Xhosa dictionary, it does't look Xhosa to me. The Xhosa for unity would be ubunye, I think. It's conceivably a Xhosa um- plus some stem -oja, but in that case it's a remarkable coincidence that it matches a Swahili word of exactly the right meaning. (Of course S and X are related, but the *matching* related word in X is ubunye.)
At this point I defer to Gritchka's better judgement, however I am looking into it. -- Frankie
I have now tracked down a real live Zulu-speaker who reliably informs me that "Umoja" is Zulu slang.
Sipho: Kunjani wena?
Thabo: Aish! Umoja! Wena?
Sipho: Ndisaphile nkosi mfondini.
Okay, I've finished showing off. Now go get your tickets damnit!
If you live outside of the UK, maybe I'll make you a copy of the CD, if you speak really nicely to me.
TNT Magazine, May 27, 2002
Official Program of the show