« Children’s Choir nabs two Grammys | Main | Singers legacy goes back to slavery times »

February 10, 2006

Black Umfolosi mines a rich cultural heritage

Inkundla (Zimbabwe):

Ever-opinionated rapper Kanye West isn’t the only artist asking the world to think about where their diamonds come from. Performances by Zimbabwean group Black Umfolosi always include a dance called the Ingquzu, which, like West’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”, has a political edge to it. Based on the vigorous stamping and smacking of miners’ footwear, it is accompanied by complaints about low wages and bad working conditions.

“Ingquzu is believed to have originated when the miners were slapping their boots to remove the dust and mud, and discovered that it could be a form of entertainment for them,” says Thomeki Dube, one of Black Umfolosi’s founding members, reached in Bulawayo, where he and the band are based. “The South African mines attracted workers from as far away as Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, who took the Ingquzu back to their respective communities,” he continues. “Today people do the dance in pubs, and at receptions and parties. It’s become a kind of traditional dance, and is found all over Southern Africa.”

But as much as Ingquzu is a crowd-pleaser, Black Umfolosi is best known for singing rather than dancing. Its members are masters of a style—mbube—that grew out of the hostels where miners and other workers lived in the early 20th century. Known in the west chiefly through the work of Zulu band Ladysmith Black Mambazo, mbube is characterized by a sweet, high lead, four-part a cappella harmonies, and a predominance of bass voices.

Black Umfolosi, whose members come from the Ndebele people closely related to the Zulus, is the leading mbube group in Zimbabwe. “In Bulawayo, where we all live, people now sing this way whenever there’s a wedding or a party or a new baby is born—or just to entertain themselves in the beer gardens,” reveals Dube. “Anybody can start singing and others will stand up and join in or start dancing.”

Black Umfolosi last came to Vancouver, in 2001, as an eight-piece outfit. However, when the group returns next Wednesday (February 15) at the Capilano College Performing Arts Theatre, it will be as a quintet. “We work a lot in Britain and we found that many bookings were in venues with stages too small to accommodate all our dances, which are very vigorous,” Dube explains. “The eight-piece group still exists, but for touring it’s much more practical for us to be just five. We can expand our show for a big stage or restrict it for a small one.”

While a scaled-down version of Black Umfolosi is on tour overseas, the other members continue to do small-scale performances at home, and to work in the community arts centre the group established in 1994 in Bulawayo. “We are planning a number of new things there because next year is our silver anniversary,” says Dube. “We’re hoping by then to have our own theatre and amphitheatre, and a studio for both audio and video creations. With the Zimbabwean economy in disarray at the moment it’s very difficult, but we’re still trying to make some of those goals.”

Posted by acapnews at February 10, 2006 10:00 PM