The need and desire for increased economic opportunity drove many Africans from across the vast continent to migrate to South Africa in the 19th century. As a result of this influx, South African society was informed by an array of foreign cultural influences, which is, in turn, reflected in the indigenous music that has emerged from the great nation. Many songs, including those written by the world-renowned musician Hugh Masekela, explore this struggle – a situation where migrants were separated from their families and endured incredible hardships in the pursuit of providing for their families. Political struggles and related inequalities of the day also informed this music, just as it informed the songs that African Americans sang in our own country as they sought political and social freedoms. Johannesburg’s Sibojama Theatre’s production of Songs of Migration, which played Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center for several performances in mid-October, explores these musical influences with a musical tribute and, at the same time, reminds contemporary audiences of the cultural, political, social, and economic forces that have shaped present day South Africa.
Hugh Masekela and South African stage, television, and film actor James Ngcobo have compiled 29 songs for this musical tribute, including several that Masekela himself has penned. Many specifically explore the challenges that migrants endured in 19th century South Africa, and several songs, drawn from the African American traditional music cannon, help draw parallels to the slaves’ experience in our own country working in cotton fields. Others still, though not specifically South African (such as the Yiddish song “My Yiddish Mama”), highlight the centrality of family bonds to the migrants’ experience.
Under the direction of writer/director James Ncgobo, a seven-member cast of singers, including Masekela and legendary South African vocalist Sibongile Khumalo, bring these jazz-infused songs to life backed by an incredible five-piece band. Khumalo and Masekela serve as “Lead Storytellers” and, through limited dialogue, provide context for the issues that the songs explore. Unfortunately, the commentary is so basic and basically amount to saying that ‘life was hard for these migrants’ that those without extensive knowledge of South Africa’s history may be left saying “ok, how did this happen?” Those with an affinity for South African history and politics may also want a more in-depth treatment of the issues.
Fortunately, it’s quite easy to forget the lack of depth in the commentary when the music sets in. Elder statesman of South African music Hugh Masekela has a performance style that is both exuberant and polished. Whether playing his trumpet or singing and jiving along with the rest of the members of the band, one can’t help to keep eyes on him. Khumalo’s rich and powerful voice also does justice to this incredibly diverse and textured music. The ensemble cast of very capable female singers (Kuki Mncube, Gugu Shezi, and Khanyo Maphumulo) and a technically-proficient male a cappella group “Complete” (Bonginkosi Zulu, Happy Motha, Linda Thobela, and Bubele Mgele) also fuse their high-energy vocals with effortless choreographed movement (by Greg Maqoma). Standout songs include Hugh Masekela’s opening number “U mam ‘u ya jabula” the famous “Stimela,” as well as “Matshidiso.” A series of African American songs (including the compelling and powerful code song “Rail Road”) round out the musically diverse production in an interesting way.
The Kennedy Center, as always, should be applauded for bringing this (and other) international theatrical productions to our fair city. It’s always a treat to see Masekela and also be exposed to other South African musicians of note.
Songs of Migration ran from October 17-20, 2012 at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts – 2200 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets to other Kennedy Center theatrical productions, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online. Running Time: 2 hours with no intermission.