Hugh Masekela

Diane de Beer

From Pretoria to Jozi to Amsterdam to London and Washington DC’s Kennedy Centre, Songs of Migration, the show first conceived by the man who claims music as his life, Hugh Masekela, opens in Cape town for a short run tomorrow night.

Then it’s off again to three cities in France, interest from South America and the East, with yet another season at the Joburg Theatre early next year.

“I wanted to honour those songwriters,” says Masekela about the inspiration for this musical tribute that looks back at people who celebrated and captured the pain of their lives through the music they wrote. It was only when director James Ngcobo read the lyrics that he started telling a story.

“He’s a genius,” says Bra Hugh, who describes the show as a work in progress. “It’s still evolving,” he says.

The songs were inspired by the trek from faraway villages to the city, from familiar ancestral lands to the townships to find work, often leaving loved ones behind. The show features songs by Joseph Shabalala, Dorothy Masuka, Miriam Makeba and Masekela himself, among many others, and for many the music will not be familiar, but there will also be some delightful ditties included that will come as a huge surprise.

It all started about four years ago in a Pretoria State Theatre rehearsal room as a show that was exactly that: a rehearsal. It was also titled The Rehearsal. “We found our props in the storerooms from old productions,” says Ngcobo as he recalled the birth of what has become an international phenomenon.

Listening to Bra Hugh and Ngcobo, it’s obvious that this one is universal. But even the shows that don’t have that specific appeal should also be given a chance.

“We need to get that touring thing going nationally and internationally,” says Ngcobo. What fascinates audiences about the story and the songs is that it hasn’t stopped; the travelling, the shifting borders and the migration. It’s still happening with all the hope and heartache.

“It’s not just a once upon a time story looking back,” says Ngcobo, “it touches on today’s pain.”

As Ngcobo explains how he played with the chronology of the songs and the timeline of history without turning it into a dry history lesson, Bra Hugh remarks on the story-shaping ability of his director. At first, the focus was on the rehearsal space, but as they started performing, it shifted to the people.

The cast is 20-strong with performers and musicians included, and apart from Bra Hugh there’s also the heavenly tones of Sibongile Khumalo (who will also be performing her 20-year celebratory solo show at the State Theatre in Pretoria next month).

They’re the veterans who are passing on the baton to new young voices. The male voices are four young men (Bonginkosi Zulu, Happy Motha, Linda Thobela and Bubele Mgele) from Vosloorus who have formed a group called Complete. Watch out for them. Audiences in Gauteng have been blessed to hear them a few times in shows by Ngcobo, but Bra Hugh has also recorded them with a Swedish all-girl group to be launched later this month.

“I didn’t discover them,” says Bra Hugh, “they found me.”

He says he is constantly inundated by friends, family and even children (“That’s a tough one!”) to listen to someone. This time it was a close friend. “I happened to pop in for a visit when these young men were there long after the nagging stopped.

“They sang one song and I thought it was a fluke. Singers can often do one song well.”

But these youngsters blew him away – and when you hear them, you will know why. The women are also extraordinary and include Kuki Mncube, Gugu Shezi and Khanyo Maphumulo. The voices are all unique. And if for a moment you think Masekela is a trumpeter rather than a singer, think again. This is his world, his music, songs he can inhabit, and it shows. It’s almost as if his toes twinkle when he steps on to the stage.

No one who has seen the show is at all surprised by the success and those participating are enjoying the experience. “It’s like a big family,” says Ngcobo about travelling with them around the world. Bra Hugh is heard saying that he’s getting old, but not many are listening. “It’s the kind of local musical that will have a life. I want to find a younger replacement eventually,” he says.

Already they’re receiving calls from all over the place. “It’s encouraging for everyone that the world is in love with South African stories and shows,” says Ngcobo, who has just finished his first Amsterdam Afro Vibe season as artistic director.

Included in his programme was Princess Mhlongo with her version of Zakes Mda’s And the Girls in their Sunday Dresses as well as the Sibikwe orchestra of young musicians who play traditional instruments. Next year he hopes for more diverse South African theatre with even an Afrikaans play included.