The UMKHATHI Theatre Works Company from Zimbabwe: A different repertoire

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The UMKHATHI Theatre Works Company from Zimbabwe was a welcomed group of performers to appear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in celebration of the 36th year of Dance Africa.

Those of us who have spent years researching, studying and teaching traditional African music and dance have grown weary and fatigued by African groups who play the Djembe drum when it is NOT part of their traditional instruments. The UMKHATHI group used instruments that are traditional to their ethnic group and region. But most prominent was the use of their voices in four-part harmony to accompany their dances. It was a different repertoire – classic, vintage and elegant representation of the traditional music of the Ndebele and Shona people of Zimbabwe.
Essentially Zimbabwe belongs to the East Coast dance region of Africa, but it is close to the South African dance region. Therefore, it has characteristics of both the East Coast region and South African dance regions. As a person who began her studies of African dance in East Africa, I am privy to a number of dancing styles that are not commonly seen outside the traditional regions. The East Coast of Africa has developed the melodics to the nth degree. The West Coast of Africa ranging from the Congo to Senegal has developed rhythm to a high prominence. In fact when I was in East Africa researching traditional African music, I was advised to go to West Africa, and was told that the universities in West Africa were more advanced and organized than the schools in East Africa. In fact the universities in East Africa did not include the study of traditional music on a large scale. The countries that composed East Africa were primarily three, namely Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. The three were grouped as the University of East Africa. On July 1, 1970 they separated and became independent countries, creating separate universities such as the University of Nairobi, Kenya ; the University of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania; and Makerere University of Uganda. In 1970 traditional African music was not included in the schools of Tanzania or Uganda, but was included in the University of Nairobi, Kenya on a small scale. Traditional African dances were not addressed in the colleges and universities at all. In all probability the colonizers, who used their knowledge of music as the foundation, established the curriculum. As their knowledge is founded in melody, and not the percussive elements of African music, the melodic elements prevailed.

Although there are groups in East Africa from Uganda down to Zimbabwe who use drums, there are a large number of groups along the Eastern Coast of Africa who do not use instruments to accompany their dances, but use their voices as musical accompaniment. One of these groups is the Masai people who live in the plain lands and do not play drums, but use their voice as they dance. The UMKHATHI Company also use their voices, in four-part harmony, to accompany their dances.
The Company is relatively new as it was created in 1997. There is no doubt in my mind that by 1997 the Djembe drum had invaded the borders of Zimbabwe. I am thankful that the musicians did not play this drum ass part of their Dance Africa presentation.
Characteristics of the dances of the Company were the hip movements (not the pelvic contractions) commonly seen in dances of West Africa. Also characteristic is the quick foot movements. Notice that they wore ankle rattles (secondary rattles) that are moved to the music of the ensemble. As a notator I was trying to figure out the time signature of the selection when I observed the Ingungu drummer on stage right, clap out the rhythm. Much to my chagrin, it was the « Kon-Ko-Lo » rhythm given the name by Nigerians. The « Kon-Ko-Lo » rhythm bears the 12/8 time signature and is one of the most popular rhythms used throughout the continent of Africa. The Ingungu drummer was essentially playing the same rhythm that the Kagan drummer in the Ewe ensemble of Ghana plays. The rattle (Hosho rattle) plays the same pattern as the Ingungu drummer, which mainly keeps the time while the other Ingungu drummer executes rhythms with the player of the Tonga drums. In my observations of traditional dance ensembles on the East Coast of Africa, I see that they use fewer instruments in their ensembles than those of West African ensembles. I have not observed any iron bells in East African ensembles. A silver whistle is used in a number of East African ensembles and countries. One movement that characterizes dances from Zimbabwe and South Africa is the classic « stamping » of the foot against the floor.

My first contact with dances of this type dates back to my early research of more than fifty years ago. The libraries here were absent of materials on traditional African dance but I was able to connect to the International Library of African Music in South Africa.
They published a book entitled African Dances of the Witwatersrand Gold Mines. This book is essentially about the dances that the men who worked in the mines performed to entertain themselves. There are also recordings that correspond to these dances. There were only male dancers, as women did not work in the mines of South Africa. In this book the dances were classified by the action seen so we have categories such as « stepping », « striding » and « stamping ». The Shangaan people of South Africa call the classic striking the foot against the ground Kutshongolo. Ndlamu is the name of another stamping dance performed in the mines. The Ndebele people of Zimbabwe call this classic stamping of the foot against the ground Ukuganda. The stamping of the foot can produce intricate rhythmic patterns.
In fact as a young choreographer who did not have a list of African names for my dance compositions, I borrowed names from this book. When I was in college, I choreographed Makwaya as a senior dance project. It became so popular that it became my signature choreography. I later notated it and it is in the library of the Dance Notation Bureau, Dance Notation Bureau Extension at Ohio State and the Dance Department in Surrey England.

The cast of the UMKHATI featured six ladies who danced and sang. I do not know if ladies play instruments in Zimbabwe. But these ladies did not play instruments in the performances. The female dancers were Faith Moyo, Ayanda Mpofu, Caroline Mangwiro,Qeqeshiwe Mntambo, Memory Muzondo, Nodumo « Nana » Sibanda.
The males of the Company played instruments, sang and danced. They were: Maqawe Moyo, Hebson C. Ncube, Fidelis Tshuma, Linos Sibanda, Webson Zenda, Amos Kazembe, Martin B. Khumalo, Mehluli Dube, Nigel Mzingaye Ndlela

In Dance Africa, the Umkhathi Theatre Works group performed different selections the first weekend of May 19th than they performed on the second weekend of May 24-27. On May 19th they performed Isitshikitsha, a dance of the Ndebele people who migrated from South Africa. This dance is performed at social gatherings. They graced the stage under lowered lighting that cast them as silhouettes. Some dancers straddled the back of another dancer as they paraded across the stage singing in four-part harmony. On May 24-27 they graced the stage under lowered lights that cast hem as silhouettes. They performed Setapa a dance that originated in Botswana that was performed at weddings. They were attired in brown leather shorts. They wore sandals on their feet, which cushioned the impact of the stamping action. The striking of the foot against the floor was pivotal in this dance. As exciting as the stamping of the foot against the floor was the use of the hips to strike the floor in different poses. The men excelled in this dance with different hip poses. This type of movement is not common among dances of West Africa, but can be seen in dances of the people of Mozambique.
They also performed Chinyambera which is a hunting gathering dance. The ladies of the group show their fruit gathering skills and at one time you can see them take a substance (bitter herb) from their breast and spread it around. Each of their selections was interspersed with musical interludes of singing, clapping, ululation and whistling.
I reiterate that some ethnic groups of Zimbabwe and Mozambique migrated from South Africa so these regions share the same type of movements.
The Umkhathi Theatre Works Company was indeed a welcomed addition to the performing stage of BAM, as the dynamism seen in this group has not been seen since the National Ballet of Senegal who appeared in 1971 as part of the Afro-Asian Festival.
Welcome! Umkhathi Theatre Works Company – you made an indelible impression that will last in our minds forever. Congratulations to their director Matesu Dube for a job well done.

///Article N° : 11764

Les images de l'article
Setapa © Matesu Dube

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