Black Umfolosi: Fast-rising stars of Zimbabwe's Ndebele music

Tuesday 1st October 1991

Mike Fearon tracked down the Zimbabwean group BLACK UMFOLOSI in South London.

Black Umfolosi
Black Umfolosi

It's rare that Britain is visited by a group of all-singing-all-dancing Zimbabwe Christians, but - unnoticed by most of our churches - this is precisely what happened this year on Black Umfolosi's mammoth European tour of schools, colleges, theatres and arts centres. At a time when most Christians strive to perform in non-church venues, Black Umfolosi had to specifically request gigs in churches, simply to provide some variety.

The group were relaxed and talkative when I caught up with them in South London, in temporary occupation of a college hall of residence outside term-time. The group were staying there between visits to Sweden and Ireland, on a European tour which began in March.

In the stable political situation in Zimbabwe, they explained, indigenous African music can be heard on one local radio channel, while a flick of the dial unleashes the whole gamut of western pop, peacefully co-existing alongside traditional culture.

As in Britain, the choral tradition has often been looked down upon as old-fashioned, but Africans are less inhibited than Europeans about spontaneously bursting out into song when they're having a good time. It was natural, then, that - back in 1981 - when a group of schoolboys found themselves without a source of entertainment, they took to entertaining themselves.

These boys from George Silungika School in one of Zimbabwe's largest towns formed their own 35-voice choir, singing a variety of love songs and traditional ballads about national heroes.

The school quickly came to formally recognise the boys' efforts, and the impromptu choir was often dispatched to neighbouring schools, along with various sports teams, to enhance the school's name and reputation. "A lot of cultural activities were encouraged in the wake of the country's independence in 1980," explained Lucky Mayo, one of the group's founder members.

Though it wasn't a Christian school, Christians within the choir soon began to predominate. Gradually, non-believers either left or were converted. "If we'd all started smoking, getting drunk or misbehaving, it would have effected our performance and we could not have performed to the satisfaction of the people hiring us," says co-founder Thomeki Dube.

"In 1988, we all graduated, and nine of us decided to turn professional. In addition to singing, we began to include various dances - Zulu war dances for example - and we now call ourselves an arts troupe, instead of just a choir. The dances all depict some facet of tribal life; perhaps a woman working in the fields, or a hunter going to the bush. Others celebrate the birth of children. We sometimes improvise, but the basic characteristics and rhythms of the dances are always maintained."

Artists like Milli Vanilli may get away with miming their songs during strenuous dance workouts, but Black Umfolosi do it the hard way - singing live throughout their 90 minute performances. "It's difficult, and one has to rehearse a lot to get used to it," says Thomeki.

Their set has changed completely since the group's first UK tour, and now begins with traditional war dances before moving into newer material. Some songs are sung in English and others in various African dialects. Instrumentation runs from the inevitable drums, through wind instruments like the 'keau' using animal horns, native stringed instruments and western electric instruments - though the logistics of the world tour meant that some of Black Umfolosi's veritable music museum had to be left home in the cupboard.

"With the indigenous instruments, we spend a lot of time discovering how they were originally played, and the sort of music they were intended for," says Lucky. The integrity of their work and its faithfulness to their culture is of vital importance to the group. Some of the oldest stringed instruments utilise strings made of hair from oxtails!

Costumes, too, require responsibility for authenticity. The war dance, for example, features the group dressed in native costume with the correct make-up and props. Where possible, Black Umfolosi utilise props and backdrops - though this is not always possible with a travelling production playing at venues of diverse size. Acoustics can be problematic in large venues, and smaller venues frequently present difficulties because of the minute size of stage area that is available.

The vitality and energy of Biack Umfolosi's performance prevents their shows from remaining academic hostages to the Zimbabwe culture. Audiences are frequently driven to their feet by the infectious rhythms, and they sing and clap along to the pulsating beat. Even English audiences have soon lost their natural reserve and joined in wholeheartedly with the joyful atmosphere. "Our aim is to get everybody entertained," they say.

If cultural integrity and sound entertainment value are integral parts of the group's performance, the third side of the triangle comes from their Christian faith. As the group became streamlined down to its present touring size, some unbelievers left while others accepted Christ and stayed. Now all eight performers pray before they take the stage for each performance.

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Reader Comments

Posted by Chetika du Preez in Johannesburg @ 20:56 on Aug 22 2010

it is a well written artical:}

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