February 2006

Black Umfolosi
Presented by Gary Topp
February 10 & 12, 2006Lula LoungeToronto
The Men from the Deep — of Zimbabwe
by John Leeson with photos by Roger Humbert
The first Toronto appearance in five years by the Zimbabwean a cappella group Black Umfolosi drew a sold out crowd Friday night to Lula Lounge (prompting the last-minute addition of a second show on Sunday). The performers, kicking off their North American tour that night soon made it clear to anyone unfamiliar with their live show just why they had been so eagerly anticipated.
The joy and energy they brought to the stage was obvious and infectious. It was also pretty impressive, given the long route they had taken to get to Lula Lounge. Visa problems had delayed their arrival in Canada by a day, and they had landed only the night before, after a series of flights from Zimbabwe, via Johannesburg and London, England (where they spent 8 hours on layover). They were up early the next morning, and at the CBC studios at 5:30 a.m. for a radio interview, off to CIUT to tape another one, and then down the 401 to London for a noon concert, finally returning to Toronto for the evening Lula show.

They told us they were happy to be back in Toronto, and thought they were ready for the Canadian winter, but said that although Canada has “very nice people, you have very nasty weather”. The room soon warmed up — and filled up — with their tight, five-part harmonies, built around the strong bass voices of their Imbube style a cappella. The sound was so rich, that on occasion it made me think of Phil Spector’s famed “wall of sound” productions from the 1960’s. However, this wasn’t anything as solid as a wall — the sound moved, floated, soared and dipped. Just as the audience began taking flight with the lush harmonies, one or more of the group would suddenly come out front onto the extended stage in some graceful — or highly energetic — dance.

They sang in both English and Ndebe, and the music covered a spectrum of themes. There was a gospel number, thanking God for sending us his son, and a raucous, humourous song asking a lover’s forgiveness that had old fans in the audience cheering and laughing as the singer pleaded, “Baby please come back”. After the song, Thomeki Dube explained the method the singer would use to reach his lover: go to the places where she goes, and then sing his plea to her. “It’s our form of text messaging”.

Many in the audience joined in on “Mwari Komborera I Africa” (“God Bless Africa”), the unofficial “African National Anthem”. The audience in fact was a big part of the whole show, filling the night with laughter, singing, whoops and calls to the stage. Singer Sotsha Moyo would get the crowd to sing along on song choruses; some knew many of the songs and sang along without prompting. Others came on stage to dance with the group — one man started a competition with one of the performers to see who could kick higher. Twice people brought the Zimbabwean flag on stage.

Black Umfolosi, like fellow Zimbabweans Oliver Mtukudzi and Thomas Mapfumo brings a large measure of social consciousness to its music. One song recounted the frustration a parent feels after the child he or she built up and did everything for, has grown to adulthood and “has nothing to do with me”.

The first set ended with one of Black Umfolosi’s concert show pieces, “Shosholoza” a song about the train that ran from Cape Town to Cairo, and the painful story of the people from around Southern Africa who boarded it to work, sweat and suffer in the South African diamond mines. They started with the sound of the train: “Sho…sho…sho…. sho sho sho.. wooo … wooo.” But the song went on to recount the hardships, poor pay and conditions of the mostly immigrant workers. Then four of the group came out in miners’ helmets, coveralls stripped to the waist, and gumboots to do their famed gumboot dance to the rapid beat of hands slapping boots, thighs, leaping and singing.

They finished the show with “Imbube” (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) that had almost everyone in the club singing the chorus, arms up in the air, house lights on. It was also the last song of their encore, ending the night on a high point, and giving everyone enough energy to face the “nasty weather” outside.

Black Umfomosi are:
Sotsha Moyo, Thomeki Dube, Sifelani Sibanda,
Alec Ncube, Zenzo Hlaseka
We welcome your comments and feedback
• • • • • •
John Leeson
• •
Roger Humbert
The Live Music Report

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