On Umoja


VANCOUVER - A couple of weeks ago this Thursday, the first of the month, Oprah Winfrey made her highly anticipated appearance on the David Letterman Late Show. Despite being a fan, I had to miss Letterman that night as I was at the opening night performance of Umoja: The Spirit of Togetherness at the Vogue Theatre.

During the so-called television event of the decade, Dave asked Winfrey about the work that she was doing in South Africa. Education, says Winfrey is the key to accomplishing some sort of escape from the dire epidemic of HIV-AIDS, not to mention, crime and poverty.

Education is a bit of the same theme that drives the creators of Umoja, who conceived a mix of African dance and music into a theatrical experience to not only educate Africans themselves about their music and identity, but to entertain, what's now been a worldwide audience.

After wowing theatregoers in Toronto and Windsor, Umoja's taken up residence at the Vogue until the 31st of this month, raising the roof with their high energy dancing and singing. They're converting the old Vogue into a supper club in the coming year, thus some construction work will be necessary. This phenomenally energetic cast does not fail, and I'm thinking they could tear up the seats in the place, as the frenetic cacophony of song and dance inspires theatregoers to follow the rhythms of the singers and musicians featured. On opening night, two youngsters were spilling into the aisle jumping up and down to the sounds and colour emanating from the stage, probably to the chagrin of a lot of the other patrons who felt compelled to do the same.

The show is African, so the sounds that ring through the theatre are jaunty and hectic, evoking both happiness and sadness. They are, as the narrator played by Penuel Bhekizitha Ndaba says, life itself; the motions that we go through day to day, and the events that we endure as we go from life to life. Ndaba is an awfully charismatic figure, who appears on stage to sort of provide a bit of context through his narration between the dances. His part is not that of a narrator per se, as the show has not much of a plot. He acts as a guide as we go through a progression of dance fads in South Africa, from the more primitive days of singing and dancing in a sort of village scene, to sock hops and early rock and roll, to today's more modern sounds evoking urban hipness and cool.

The creators of Umoja show the unity that music means to its African society. Though costumes change and the sound tweaks every so often, the spirit is the same. Music and dance unite more than anything else. Weary of American influence in African music, Todd Twala and her collaborators conceived of this show that demonstrates the uniqueness of African music. She's also succeeded in bridging the gap between her world and ours by bringing this show here. Its run in Vancouver has already been extended, and with reason. It's an education for us in this Western world, that thanks to music and movement, we've got more in common than we previously thought.


Umoja: The Spirit of Togetherness runs through to 31 December 2005 at the Vogue Theatre (918 Granville Street). Tickets are available through TicketMaster, and information can be had at www.umojatour.com.


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