As a theatre show celebrating South Africa’s music returns to Dubai, Rob Garratt asks if one musical can really capture the country’s chequered history.
The music of South Africa has long fascinated the wider world. While musicophiles fawn over the Afrobeat of ’70s Nigeria and the desert blues of Saharan nomads, it’s South Africa’s mix of township jive and Western pop which have translated best to airwaves across the globe. Ashleigh Bradford says it’s no coincidence the international focus on the country’s political struggles has gone hand in hand with an appreciation for its music. ‘South African [music] is the most well known of all African music, because it’s a country that’s in the political spotlight,’ says the theatre production manager. ‘It’s very infectious music, very happy, it’s got something you can’t really describe.’
It’s those joyous sounds that will be celebrated in Under African Skies, a musical which uses a 14-piece live band to chart the country’s musical history, beginning a four-night run at Madinat Theatre on Wednesday June 26. Starting in the 1940s, the evening opens with a solo pennywhistle performance, as was common in the townships at the time, before moving through kwela jazz and onto the heyday of South African music, including crossover hits such as Miriam Makeba (nicknamed ‘Mama Africa’), Yvonne Chaka Chaka (‘Princess of Africa’), Johnny Clegg (‘The White Zulu’) and Mango Groove.
The work of the country’s Barnyard Theatre, who are also behind recent Dubai productions Elvis Forever, Urban Circus, and last year’s Beatles tribute The Fab Four, the show returns to the emirate after a sell-out run last year. ‘It was funny,’ remembers Ashleigh, a 38-year-old Zimbabwean who’s been touring with the production for nearly a decade.
‘I couldn’t believe the response to the show [in Dubai].’
Keen eyes might notice Under African Skies shares a name with an acclaimed documentary film, released last year, which charts American star Paul Simon’s 1986 journey to South Africa to record the album Graceland. The record would go down as a classic, but proved deeply controversial. Should Simon be praised for focusing international awareness on the country’s oppressed races, or blamed for breaking the ‘cultural boycott’ many Western artists held in opposition to apartheid? At the time, many took the latter viewpoint, but that didn’t stop the album selling more than 14 million copies, garnering international fame for the artists he worked with. Which is why two Simon tunes, as well as songs by his collaborators Ladysmith Black Mambazo, are included in the show. ‘[Simon] put South Africa’s music on an international platform.’ adds Ashleigh.
This August the production celebrates its tenth anniversary. Premiering in Cape Town in August 2003, the show has toured far flung locations from Thailand to Turkey, and several countries in Europe. It’s a show which could easily fall into the trap of presenting a twee take of its own nation’s music and history for the entertainment of other nationalities – a marked pitfall of high profile West End musical Fela!, a portrait of Afrobeat forefather Fela Kuti. However Under African Skies is apparently most well received at home, where it continues to run under the title Diamonds and Dust.
‘A glittering South African gem,’ raved the country’s Daily News Tonight channel, while East Coast Radio called it ‘a product as exportable as our gold’. It’s hard to imagine the same response in the home countries of, say, a musical charting the growth of Irish folksong, or French chanson.
‘It’s such a special show, it’s very sentimental to South Africans,’ explains Ahsleigh. As the country prepares to celebrate 20 years since the first post-Apartheid election next year, the show is particularly pertinent. ‘It highlights the struggles the country went through. It’s not very political, but it does take you through the different eras of South Africa,’ says Ashleigh, ‘and now the country has been reconciled, there’s a great spirit.’
Dhs195. Wednesday June 26-Saturday June 29 (times vary). Madinat Theatre, Souk Madinat, www.timeouttickets.com
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