Kwela Bafana, which I first saw last year at the Victory Theatre, and is now enjoying a full run at The Market Theatre, tells out a highly romanticised version of life in the early fifties, the dompas and night soil carts notwithstanding, in Sophiatown before it was torn down by the apartheid government in 1955 to be replaced by sub-economic housing for whites. The production is wonderfully slick with jazzy music, lively choreography by Todd Twala of IpiNtombi and Umojo fame and wonderful costumes and sets.
The name “Kwela” refers to the pennywhistle which is evocative of township jive music of the era. “Bafana” are ‘boys”. So the title literally means “Pennywhistle Boys”. Devised by Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba in the early nineties, this is a revival directed by the same team with musical direction by Themba Mkhize and choreography by Todd Twala.
The show compacts folklore of the time, such as Drum magazine’s journalist creed “Live fast, die young and have a good looking corpse” and shebeen queens such as were found in the “Back o’ the Moon” and the music of the day, much of it based on the American legends of jazz. It really is a toe-tapping show and deserves a much bigger audience than it got on the Friday night I was there. In fact, it deserves to be sold out every show because it is truly wonderful. The night soil cart scene and the bug scene alone are worth the price of the ticket.
Making use of audience participation (ladies should wear their dancing shoes), this is a fun and upbeat production performing old standards in a variety of genres. It is a feel-good show making extensive use of the music of the African jazz composers of the fifties, including Bra B Ngwenya, the African Manhattan Brothers, the very famous Meadowlands and King Kong by Todd Matshikiza, as well as Handsome Boy by Dorothy Masuku.
Those of us who missed King Kong in the early sixties can still hear one of its original cast members,Bra B Ngwenya, a member of the Woody Wood Peckers which played in the original King Kong. Bra B Ngwenya, now 77 years old, also performed in the original Kwela Bafana. He is once again performing in this wonderful production.
The band members are Bra B (keyboard), Lunga Mgcina (saxophone), Sabelo Masondo (double bass), Siphiwe Kubheka (drums) and Wandile Molefe (keyboard). The cast members are Joel Zuma (Fezela), Dumisani Mhlanga (Poison), Simphiwe Nkabinde (Spikes), Andries Mbali (Styles), Sihle Ndaba (Ntombi) and Velephi Khumalo (Sis Peggy).
While this production may not be able to compete entirely equally with the big, glitzy Phantom of the Opera which is just finishing its run at the Teatro or Cabaret which will be produced in the near future at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino it is nevertheless probably one of the most stunning musicals of 2012 and may well land up on the list of nominations for Best Musical 2012.
Kwela Bafana is on at The Market Theatre until 24 June 2012. Tickets start at R50 for those born in the fifties or those who remember the fifties and go up for younger people.