Review: Mafukuzela – Songs of Freedom

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It is alarming how little known is the name of John Langalibalele Dube, aka Mafukuzela.  Born in 1871 Dube was a political activist, a statesman, writer, teacher, journalist, priest, scholar and, most importantly, the first president of the African National Congress.  Songs of Freedom, directed by Jerry Pooe, is a tribute to this extraordinary man.

A musical-based tribute concert with a simple set, Dube’s story is told as a series of events, interspersed with musical performances from a 10 piece orchestra, a choir and a small group of dancers.

Special guest performer, South African jazz artist Sibongile Khumalo, was an absolute highlight. Her presence filled the theatre the moment she stepped onto the stage, and the crowd could not help but cheer and applaud.  A true professional, she utterly commanded the show.

On the downside, Khumalo’s brilliance served to cast others into the shade.  One of the narrators in particular was a performer you either really liked or disliked. While there were some who were entertained by his over-exaggerated expressions, others were not. The women next to me whispered, “Can someone please explain to him that that is OVER-ACTING”. It was also a pity that there was no cast list and no programmes were handed out. All that was mentioned on the posters was that the cast consisted of members of the Performing Arts Centre of the Free State. For a Sibongile Khumalo fan, it felt that the spaces between her performances were separated by light years.

Musically, the entire show was very gospel-based, echoing Dube’s Christian values. With many songs sung in choral style, complete with clapping and harmonies, it felt that all that was missing was an offertory box and a passionate preacher.

There were plenty of classics, such as ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow’ and ‘I’m Ready to Cross the River Jordan’, all performed with a bursting energy.  Certain Zulu songs (many of them by Dube himself) also included tribal dances, which were lively with beats that the audience could feel resonating through the floor. Even those who didn’t speak a word of isiZulu were swept up into the rhythms and, as with other songs, one did not have to understand the language to feel the sincerity of the vocalist.

Khumalo’s rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ was a showstopper.  It may be a cliché to describe a soulful lady who knows just how to belt out each note to perfection, but clichéd or not, the crowd sat in silence and listened to this great performer. We savoured every sweetly sung note, and she left us with an exquisite memory to cherish.

The band also did an exceptional job and the very bluesy solo of the saxophonist and the lead guitarist were two small pieces that stood out. The violinist added a well-judged sentiment to performances such as a reading of one of Dube’s speeches which expressed his eagerness to be heard. Dube tried again and again to make the world sit up and take notice of the political circumstances of South Africa in the early 1900s. His insatiable desire to be heard through the shrill shrieks of colonialism resonated throughout the show.  Director, Jerry Pooe, clearly intended us to remember to celebrate the life of Dube, and with this show his objective has been perfectly achieved.

By Lauren Vogt

Mafukuzela – Songs of Freedom was performed at the Artscape Theatre on 30 May 2013

 

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