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UMOJA: The spirit of togetherness

28 Nov 2005

An interview with Todd Twala, artistic director

“UMOJA is about celebrating South African music and dance.  For many years we were oppressed in our country, finally we are free now.  The only thing that kept us going during apartheid was music and dance, which no one could take away from us.  So we thought after our independence, it’s time to celebrate what kept us going,” says Todd Twala, artistic director and choreographer.  We are sitting in the business centre in a hotel on Church Street.  Her words resonate with passion and conviction, leaving one oblivious to the rain falling outside.

Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni inspired UMOJA, the tremendously successful music and dance production that has performed across countries in Europe, Africa and Asia.  The group is performing in Toronto as part of its North American tour.  UMOJA takes the audience on a musical journey from jitterbug to jazz, from gospel to hip hop.  A narrator guides you through historical events, entertaining and educating with music and dance, the vibrant culture that is South Africa.  

UMOJA began in 1982 in Soweto, as a social gathering in the communities to keep the kids away from the streets.  As successful dancers in those days, Todd and Thembi were role models for many kids.  “In our spare time we would drop into a recreation centre.  Every time we did classes we got more and more kids.  It just kept growing.  So twenty years later we decided to turn it into a production,” says Twala.  The production was a hit in South Africa.  It then went on to London for it’s international debut, running for two years.  The rest as they is history.

The unique thing about UMOJA is that many of the cast members are not professionals.  Instead of hiring professional musicians and artists, the founders decided to help the disadvantaged communities instead.  Many of the cast members come from poor, abusive, and alcoholic families.  Many could not further their studies because of financial constraints.

“We wanted to give them a chance in life,” says Twala, “these are the special people doing UMOJA.  I think this is why the show is such a success.  It’s the honesty of the people doing it, the creators, Thembi and I, and the kids themselves.  They aren’t kids from dance institutes trained to be professional dancers.  It’s people doing it from their hearts.  That’s why their spirits pour out into the audience.”

Her passion for helping young people is evident.  UMOJA is more than a production.  It has changed many young lives. Over 200 cast members aged 19 –25 have performed in UMOJA over the years.  One such cast member is Lungisa Gubudela who has been performing with UMOJA since 2001.  Chosen from an audition of over 800 people, Lungisa’s life changed dramatically after joining UMOJA.

“UMOJA is like a home to me.  I have friends here.  I can confide in her (Twala), she is like a mother to me.  I can tell her things I can’t tell my mother.  UMOJA teaches us about our South African music, our history, what happened then and what is happening now.  She (Twala) teaches us how to carry ourselves, and take pride in ourselves.  It has been more than just a production.”

Lungisa is wearing a baseball cap, with UMOJA across the front, her fingers interlocked, leaning forward as she speaks.  Her eyes are bright with excitement. “I love being on stage,” she continues, “You find someone who may come to the show, he or she may be hurting but after the show they forget everything.  That person must enjoy it.  I feel that I am praising God when I am on stage.”

The group has recently purchased a theatre where they will begin an arts academy.  Young people will be groomed in the performing arts to work in television, films and other productions.  Some of the cast members who have outgrown UMOJA will be teaching at the academy.  Twala is also working on a comedy and a gospel production, which will be produced under UMOJA as well.

Twala is thankful that audiences all over the world have been receptive to the production.  She comments on the news she has seen while here in Toronto, concerned with young people and violence in black communities.  She implores artists to get together to create programs that will help kids channel their energies and see themselves as valuable.  She is willing to help any community who wishes her assistance in developing such a program.

“ I ask God not to let this dream die,” says Twala, “It has saved so many kids in South Africa, who could have been killed by guns and drugs.  I would like to pass this dream on to the kids to keep it alive. I want to see our children given a chance in life. All the negative things you have been hearing over the years aren’t who we are.  UMOJA tells you who we are.  We are a wonderful people, a colorful people, a forgiving nation, and a loving nation.  That’s what comes across in UMOJA.”

UMOJA is playing at the Elgin Theatre from September 20th – October 20th.

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