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Umoja''s Triumphant Return

27 Nov 2005

Toronto officially welcomed back the spectacular South African song and dance musical UMOJA last night at the Elgin Theatre. The magical sounds of the spirit of togetherness engulfed Yonge street early on as an amassing crowd had gathered outside the theatre to hear a group of young African men playing their enchanting instruments. A musical appetizer for the large crowd which had come out in this rainy night to bask into the sunshine of South Africa''s sounds, beats and soul.

Umoja, "The Spirit of Togetherness", represents the fulfillment of the panoramic vision of the show''s creators Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni. Theirs is a story of courage through adversity and passion for the spirit of living. Umoja recounts a vast history of Black South Africans'' joys, struggles and promise from early tribal days, through the injustices of apartheid and towards a bright future. What makes Umoja so powerful is its genuineness. It is a story told by Africans themselves about hoping, loving, crying and worshipping while living at the margins of a manufactured oppression which robbed them of the wealth of their native land. As the truly inspirational Nelson Mandela look-alike narrator expressed, the Blacks of South Africa lived in a rich land but they had nothing. "Music is what kept us human" he said.

In 1950, The Group Areas Act was passed by the Apartheid government to allow them to force Black South Africans to relocate into "reserves" -- away from valuable land occupied by White settlers. Todd Twala lived through this first-hand, as her family was awokened by a bulldozer at their doorstep, forcing them to relocate to Soweto (an acronym for SOuth WEstern TOwnship) on the outskirts of Johannesburg, also known as Egoli (City of Gold). Umoja is her story, and that of thousands of other Black South Africans who persevered.

The first act began with a rousing drumming performance featuring men dressed in traditional attire, rhythmically filling the auditorium with powerful sounds. They were immediately accompanied by an indescribably colourful array of dancers who electrified the stage. A traditional beer pot was passed around, symbolising the tradition of drinking the sorghum-based beer at the beginning of a meal or visit. Accompanied by the enchanting drums, the men displayed a mind-boggling array of acrobatic and rhythmic skills through a choreography which left the audience gasping.

After a rousing solo performance by the Sangoma (the Spiritual Diviner), a group of young ladies came out to perform the Venda snake dance. All advancing in close proximity and in single-file, with their arms interlinked, they adorned a green fore-arm band which they collectively used to represent the Venda snake. This choreography is worthy of immense praise as it rendered the symbolism of a winding snake with uncanny effect. The crowd evidently enjoyed the visual effect.

The narrator then began his history lesson. First stop: Durban, South Africa''s second largest city, located in KwaZulu Natal coast. It was used as a backdrop for showing how South Africans adapted to their own environment the influx of music and pop culture from the West. The setting was the Durban YMCA where a funny and energetic animator came out to promise a "radio with batteries" for the participants of the talent competitions. The Durban YMCA was an unrivalled hub of talent and meeting of cultures, spirits and creativity which helped burgeon countless well known and lesser-known performers. The evolution and contrast of the move from the traditional beginnings to an emerging musical and cultural modernity was transitioned by the narrator''s introduction of the tula baba lullaby. This lullaby was sung to the children of the fathers who left the villages to find work and opportunities in Egoli, the City of Gold. It was also a song of loneliness for the women who were left behind in the villages.

The Egoli (Johannesburg) scene was likewise a crowd favourite. We are introduced to a much younger version of the narrator who arrives in the City of Gold with wide eyes an big dreams. We are also confronted with the harsh realities of apartheid-era South Africa as the young boy is all-too-conscious of the fact that he can''t go anywhere without his dompas (passbook). Policemen are everywhere, watching his every move. He must be ready to show his passbook at a moment''s notice. But before he is confronted with the policemen, the hormone-raging young man is mesmerized by a provocative prostitute dressed in a sexy red outfit, performed truly breathtakingly by talented cast member Lindiwe Valeria Ntuli.

We also learn about the cropping up of underground establishments called "shebeens" which sprang up in defiance to the laws which prohibited Blacks from buying liquor. Since they were being rejected by White society, the revellers at the shebeens readily adopted American culture and had their own version of the Harlem renaissance. The theme of "hearing the voices of our brothers and sisters from across the ocean" was also beautifully reflected in the second act with an epic surround-sound-like gospel performance as the cast members lined the aisles of the auditorium dressed in their white choir robes.

Following a final venture into modernity with a colourful hip hop-like display of the youth-inspired new style of music known as kwaito, the show came full circle with a return to the traditional drums and attires. As the narrator said, they had come full circle. And, in the spirit of Umoja, all the styles and influences came together for a final amazing performance.

Ysis Entertainment deserves immense credit and praise for bringing the Umoja experience to Toronto -- and now to other Canadian cities this year.

AfroToronto.com is extremely proud to be a strong partner for the Umoja show. We greatly appreciated Ysis President Lucy Hamlet''s public acknowledgement of our input and efforts. Following the show, we had the pleasure of meeting many of the cast members at the reception gala. One of them in particular, Musa Adrias Ndaba, told us how much the support and genuine appreciation of the show by people from the black community meant to him and the entire cast. We encourage everyone to make a point of seeing and supporting Umoja and future endeavours of Ysis Entertainment!

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