Music, dance are alive in vibrant show

For nearly two centuries, while rival European colonial powers and white ethnic groups fought for hegemony in southernmost Africa, the indigenous tribes already living there were systematically disenfranchised. In the Republic of South Africa, a segregationist policy known as apartheid was made official in 1948.

During those years, laws were enacted to keep the nation’s black and white population separate, even to the extent of forced relocations. But, despite those efforts, the harshest government crackdowns could not suppress the native culture and the practices of centuries-old rituals.

Many of those ancient rituals, including dance, music and tribal languages chanted in native tongues, are seen and heard today in an internationally renowned traveling show known as Africa Umoja (“The Spirit of Togetherness”).

Africa Umoja will be making its first New Orleans appearance at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts from July 10-13, and tickets are now on sale.

The troupe was founded by two young South African women, Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni, from the formerly segregated Soweto Township. The two friends and former schoolmates, who shared a love of dance, started a succession of performance troupes in the early 1980s that evolved into the present-day Africa Umoja ensemble. Three dozen performers comprise each of two separate companies: one stationary in Johannesburg, and the other on a world tour.

Among the show’s components are the songs, dances, costumes and ancient tribal rituals and languages of the Zulu, Xhosha, Bantu and other tribes whose presence in South Africa long predated the arrival of the white Europeans.

The sequence of scenes throughout the production tells the moving tale of indigenous South African music — from the earliest tribal rhythms to kwaito, an internationally popular genre that emerged in Johannesburg in the 1990s combining elements of house music, hip-hop and native African styles.

Joe Theron has been the producer of Africa Umoja since the late 1990s. Following a 20-plus-year career in music production and publishing, he bought the show in 1999 and set about bringing it to the world. The show has toured more than 60 countries with still more to come.

“One of the things I enjoy most is providing an opportunity for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to learn dance and get up onto the stage and perform,” Theron said.

“We audition on an ongoing basis and when we see a child with talent we will train them and work with them. When they move on to other ventures, we never say we’ve lost them. We’re very proud that at least 15-20 of our kids have gone on to ‘The Lion King’ and other productions. We provided the springboard for them to advance their careers.”

Several of the young people who performed in last season’s Broadway in New Orleans production of “The Lion King” were Umoja alumni, Theron noted.

Theron pinted out that two of South Africa’s most internationally renowned musical performers, trumpeter/composer Hugh Masekela and the late vocalist Miriam Makeba (nicknamed “Mama Africa” and to whom Masekela was once married) have a connection to the Africa Umoja show. Masekela played on the soundtrack and Makeba’s 1967 hit song “Pata Pata” is performed in the show.