Anthology of African music“Umoja” is a celebration of South African music through the ages. Tribal drumming in the bushes gives way to dancing at the YMCA, which makes way for soulful music on the streets of Johannesburg, to singing in the mines, then gospel music in the churches and artists jazzing it up at the clubs.
Music and national political upheavals are intertwined in this charming musical, which on opening night Tuesday at Hanjeon Art Center in Yangjae-dong, Seoul, ended with a standing ovation. The staging, running until Nov. 17, is “Umoja’s” second in Seoul.
The musical first opened in November 2001 at the Shaftesbury Theater in London. Its success there launched an international tour of Australia, Denmark, Israel and Japan. And it’s easy to see why the cast would be brought back to Korea.
The dancing is powerful, the singing grand and the costumes colorful. The stage design is simple and the storyline is straighforward. It’s not too difficult for audience members to be drawn into the plot, despite a language barrier for many in the audience. The performance is in English, with Korean subtitles on two large screens on both sides of the stage.
The story is told through a narrator, who appears between songs to explain the significance of each type of music. While the performance is a visual anthology of South African music, the politics of the times also come into play. After all, with each turn in the history of music comes a fateful change in politics and society. And if any word could be applied to the history of South Africa, it is dynamic.
Under the direction of Ian von Memberty, instead of being a bleak tale, it’s one full of color, vibrancy and humor. “Umoja” is a Swahili word that means unity. There were points in the country’s history where, as the narrator says, “as we were learning about the spirit of togetherness, we were also breaking apart.” But through it all, the narrator says, “music helped keep us human.”
Take gospel music. According to this musical, it came to South Africa on the backs of slaves in the Americas. But as the singers take the stage, the songs are a full blend of melodies with ever-changing choreography. At one point, the singers leave the stage to stand in line in the aisles by the audience. And to hear the chorus of voices near you, rather than through a sound system, is wondrous.
Since this is a musical, instead of a fat lady singing toward the end of the show, as the opera cliche has it, there’s a fat lady who gets her booty shaking like you wouldn’t believe. As a matter of fact, there is a lot of booty shaking. There’s also some audience interaction. Different dancers get the audience to clap along, or yell hallelujah.
And so the performance ends on a high note of hope and vibrancy. “I see how it started,” says the narrator, “and where it is going.”
by Joe Yonghee
Tickets are 30,000 won ($27) to 80,000 won. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. weekdays, and 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekends. For more information, call (02) 3472-4480.