Mbuli sings for justice

by Jennifer Skoda | 5/2/93 10:00pm

Mzwakhe Mbuli, the South African poet and songwriter, prefaced his Friday night concert in Webster Hall with the warning, "Anyone who doesn't dance tonight will have to be taken to the hospital after the show." No threats were needed because the lively music and energy of Mbuli and his dancers inspired everyone in the audience to let loose.

"You've seen shows before, but you've never seen anything like we will show you tonight," Mbuli said.

He was right. The performance consisted of Mbuli's political poetry, which denounces apartheid, set to traditional South African music, such as kwela (pennywhistle music), marabai (Sophiatown jazz) and mbaqanga (township jive), produced by guitar, bass and drums. The two South African women who danced with Mbuli were energy personified; for almost two hours they leaped, kicked, and shook in unison with each other and the beat of the invigorating music.

Mbuli had an incredible presence due to his height--he is almost seven feet tall, his commanding voice and the conviction with which he performed his politically inspired music.

Some of Mbuli's songs are banned in South Africa for their political content. He informed the audience that he could sing them Friday because there were not television cameras.

The musician has been arrested several times, tortured and has survived three assassination attempts.

"Alone, alone, alone...176 days of solitary confinement/solitary conversation/solitary combat against solitary confinement," Mbuli chanted of his six month imprisonment.

Mbuli's music was so powerful because it was evident that he was singing with passion and purpose. For him, music and song are tools in the fight for liberation.

After chanting about the changes coming in Africa, apartheid and his people's struggle for freedom, the music suddenly picked up and Mbuli joined the women in their kinetic steps. This tension between the solemn issues and the spirited music and dance resulted in a dynamism that Mbuli refers to as "total fireworks."

Mbuli sang in English, Zulu, Venda and Xhosa. Even when the words were incomprehensible, the intensity and spirituality of the music pervaded and created an understanding that surpassed the language barrier.

Mbuli has recognized that celebration through music and dance is a unifying force that is more powerful and effective than animosity. Despite the difficulty he has endured in his life, there is no hostility in his music. "To me, repressed anger is like acid. It's dangerous, it can stifle you," he stated in a press release.

By the end of the concert energy of Mbuli and the accompanying dancers and musicians had reached everyone in the audience as they danced freely around Webster Hall. If there were people that didn't dance, they may not have needed hospitalization, but they certainly would have felt out of place.

The roar of applauding fans encouraged Mbuli to return to the stage for an encore performance.

Apparently satisfied with the audience's enthusiastic reception of his message, Mbuli ended the concert by saying, "I don't see black and white faces. I only see faces. Keep up the work, brothers."