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Umoja tells South Africa's story through song and dance
Diplomatic Pouch / September 4, 2014

By Larry Luxner

Twenty years after Nelson Mandela became the first black president in South Africa’s history, a world-renowned group will come to Washington later this month to tell the story of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle through song and dance.

Africa Umoja (a Zulu word meaning “together”) arrives Sept. 29 and premiers Oct. 2 at the National Theater — kicking off the group’s second multi-city North American tour. The show continues with performances in Charlotte, Miami, Birmingham, Memphis, Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans and finally New York.

“All this year, South Africa is celebrating 20 years of freedom and democracy,” said Ernest Kelly, president and chairman of the New Orleans-based International Arts Foundation, which is organizing the Africa Umoja tour.

It was Apr. 27, 1994, when Mandela was sworn in as president of South Africa, ending white-minority rule throughout the continent’s wealthiest yet most deeply divided country. Mandela, who served 27 years in prison, shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with then-President F.W. de Klerk and was one of the world’s most admired elder statesmen when he died last December at the age of 95.

“Our whole tour is dedicated to that,” said Kelly, who’s also involved with another project in Durban called the World Jam Music Festival, to take place on the first anniversary of Mandela’s passing. “We’ve been working in Africa for a very long time. The whole musical is about all the oppression South Africa has had to endure to get to where they are now. It makes for a very moving performance, with a lot of historical points along the way.”

Kelly told the Pouch that the four-month tour will cost his organization about $2 million, up from last year’s $1.7 million.

“It’s very expensive, but this is an internationally acclaimed production,” he said. “It’s been shown in over 50 countries. It’s not a neighborhood thing, it’s the real deal. I’ve seen a lot of the ethnic type productions, and this one is better than all of them. We play to standing ovations every night.”

The South African Embassy is sponsoring Umoja’s opening night here. Ticket prices range from $33 to $88.

“The National Theater holds 1,653 people, and we don’t want any empty seats,” Kelly joked. “This is an event we want everybody to benefit from. We’re going to be inviting the other embassies to attend this.”

The 35-member cast of singers, drummers and dancers will be traveling on a tour bus for four months, bringing their talent and joy to audiences throughout the eastern United States — with a special focus on the American South.

“New Orleans is one of America’s most African cities, so it’s is not a coincidence,” said Kelly. “I’ve lived here and have been involved in the entertainment business for over 30 years. We decided to start this foundation to show how important cultural diversity is.”

The show covers South Africa’s musical history from ancient rhythms to the current club sounds of kwaito.

According to a press release, “the tale dances through sheebeens and the cultural melting-pot of Sophiatown. The heart is saddened by cold stories of forced removals, yet the feet continue to stomp along with the explosions of gumboot dancing. There are also the reminiscent sounds of the vibrant jazz that forced its way free from the constraints of the times. International audiences will relate to names such as Miriam Makeba (Mama Africa) and the late Dolly Radebe, while a thread of gospel music running through the tale recalls the huge helpings of faith and courage. This saw black South Africans through some of the country’s stormiest historical passages.”

Judging from the rave reviews, this is one show not to be missed. London’s Northern Echo calls it “a breathtaking and vibrant spectacular which assails every one of your senses. Definitely the hottest show in town.” Adds the Daily Telegraph: “Enough energy to light up London. I defy anyone to leave this hit dance musical anything less than elated.”

For more information, visit http://umojausatour.com.

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