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Kwela stars revive the 1950s

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TO NDR Kwela 6


JIVE BOYS: Staging for the first time in Durban, the hit musical Kwela Bafana opens next week. Pictured are cast members Andries Mbali, Siphiwe Nkabinde and Joel Zulu.

A THEATRE experience offering its audience “a night in a ’50s shebeen” is all set to stage for the first time in Durban next week.

Kwela Bafana, which has enjoyed sold-out performances at Joburg’s Victory Theatre and Market Theatre, will run at the Playhouse from December 12 to 22.

The interactive musical pays homage to townships in the 1950s and the bands and musicians that kept these communities going through politically turbulent times in the country.

Tonight spoke with theatre stalwart Smal Ndaba who, together with fellow doyen Phyllis Klotz, co-created and directed Kwela Bafana. The duo also founded the Sibikwa Arts Centre together in the late 1980s.

Ndaba explained that this musical, which celebrates the distinctive style of music that originated during that shebeen scene era, was a work that was years in the making.

“The whole process for Kwela Bafana started around 1988. We felt our people, our artists, were unemployed and something needed to be done. We went around and gathered some of the guys who used to sing in the beer halls during the 1950s. They sang some of the songs they did back in the ’50s and we took them to Grahamstown (the National Arts Festival) and they performed in a show there…

“When we got back we recognised their value and brought them in to train the young people on the music of the ’50s. We felt this should be transferred to our young people because at that time modern genres like kwaito were coming in and we wanted to preserve this ’50s music,” he explained.

The ball got rolling and snowballed into a show that ended up touring abroad, with a warm reception wherever it staged.

“This music was almost forgotten,” Ndaba stressed.

He added that the richness of the sounds of this generation of South African music – with icons like Todd Matshikiza, the Manhattan Brothers, Dorothy Masuku and others – was not its only point of glory.

“It brings back memories of the ’50s… The play is about Sophiatown, but it is relevant to all other townships in the country at the time, like Cato Manor in Durban or District Six in Cape Town, where the music and the shebeens and shebeen queens kept the people going. There’s that element of nostalgia.”

Commenting on musical director Themba Mkhize and choreo- grapher Todd Twala – both widely acclaimed in their respective fields – Ndaba said having Mkhize on board gave the team the opportunity to play around with the chords, while Twala’s choreography got people out of their seats and dancing along.

“The music is updated and not done exactly as it was in the past… The more we did the show we found the older generations would sing a long and get up and dance, so we’ve just stuck with that and the audience is invited to participate. But the show is attractive to all age groups. We’ve even found the younger generations are taken up with the music and the dance and the history behind it,” Ndaba explained.

He added: “We wanted to expose people to the music greats of the past and their role in the struggle against apartheid.”

Ndaba said although this was their first show in Durban, it was pretty much like “coming home” as a number of the cast were from KwaZulu-Natal. The cast features – among others – Bra “B” Ngwenya (King Kong), Boy Ngwenya (Woody Woodpeckers and King Kong), and award-winning actress Velephi Khumalo.

This musical features, among others, songs from the classic King Kong, Victor Ndlazilwana of the Woody Woodpeckers and Dambuza Mdledle of the Manhattan Brothers.

• Kwela Bafana runs at the Playhouse Loft Theatre from December 12 to 22 with shows at 7pm and matinees at 2.30pm on Sundays. Tickets are R60 for the preview (December 12)  and R80 for subsequent shows. Book through the Playhouse box office at 031 369 9456 or via Computicket.

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