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August 12, 2005

Umfolsi Lacked African Energy

Hexham Courant (UK):

Writing arts reviews for the Courant is not always as easy as it looks. The easy ones are those where you record a joint delight with the audience. It’s not difficult either to enthuse alone. It becomes really hard, however, to describe an event which the greatest part of an audience clearly loves but which, for you, is profoundly disappointing. It happened for me last week with the visit to the Queen’s Hall in Hexham of Black Umfolosi, the Zimbabwean song and dance group.

So let me first record that the two-hour show was well received by an enthusiastic audience that, despite high ticket prices, filled most of the seats in the Queen’s Hall. At the end of the evening sustained applause, whistles and demands for encores, together with a standing ovation in some rows, testified to a general feeling of delight.

Black Umfolosi are based in Bulawayo and a group of 18 performers has toured the world with displays of harmonic a cappella singing and dancing. They not only perform but provide workshops in dance, voice, theatre, design and issues affecting society. In any survey of multi-culturalism in the arts they clearly tick all the boxes. Black Umfolosi have earned great praise over the years. “Sheer energy radiates from this world-famous group...a capella singing...rich and fascinating, bursting with life yet under perfect control.”

The Rough Guide to Zimbabwe encapsulates their appeal: “their songs in close, rich harmony, address...love, family spirit – as well as contemporary problems...intricate rhythms...clicking, clapping and shouting, which combine to produce a natural funky and ragged aura.” Their website and publicity shows performers in traditional African costumes. But we saw and heard little of this authentic cultural tradition. Nothing funky or ragged burst onto the stage of the Queen’s Hall.

Instead we were entertained by five amiable young and middle-aged men dressed in colour coordinated nightshirts, black tracksuit trousers and white trainers, who crooned into an arc of microphones and came forward for short bursts of shimmies and the odd high kick. They were astonishingly well drilled, and therein lies the root of my disappointment. What we got was undoubtedly well done but it was regimented and over-repetitive.

What I heard was great but what I saw was homogenised, low calorie, sugar-free stuff. And did I detect in the performers themselves, nearing the end of a long tour, a sense of tiredness, even of self parody? Their extended chats to the audience suggested so. Some moving gospel songs were followed by tongue-in-cheek requests to throw flowers, credit cards or car keys on stage. They were clearly going through the motions.

But in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion slept that night. What a pity it didn’t wake and roar more effectively. I wish the group well as they return home. I’m pleased that so many people enjoyed themselves. But I am sad that what was a pleasant evening didn’t explode into a more real expression of African energy.

Posted by acapnews at August 12, 2005 9:12 PM