UMOJA (Ysis Entertainment/Sting Music). Runs to October 30. See listings, page 87, for details. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
As a celebration of the diversity and influences in African music, Umoja - the riotous, colourful spectacle running at the Elgin Theatre till the end of the month - succeeds. But it doesn't work as theatre. And its claims to be a political history lesson are suspect.
The title, translated, means "the spirit of togetherness," and the 40-odd performers certainly bring to life a wide range of musical styles and looks from all over the continent. Most audiences are familiar with gumboot dancing and marimba drums, but might be surprised about the prevalence of gospel music or the emergence of shebeens, unlicensed drinking and dance establishments that flourished in the early days of apartheid.
The manner in which the first act closes illustrates the show's bizarre politics. Police bust into a shebeen, and the well-dressed, happy patrons escape from the cops in slapstick style. This seems more an example of the creators making safe, feel-good entertainment for Western audiences than an honest examination of the intersection of politics and art.
At the end, when the show's lovable elderly narrator, known as Hope ( Penuel Bhekizitha Ndaba ), tells us that music helped his people survive pain, you think, What pain? The most painful thing we've witnessed has been a group of women singing a mournful song about being without their men.
I'm not against revelling in tuneful, colourful - the costumes are jaw-dropping - spectacle performed by a versatile troupe. Obviously neither was the small crowd last Thursday, which gave an unprompted standing ovation.
But it's misleading to call this an African history lesson. If anything, it's the world's first amnesiac musical revue.