Nobuntu: Spirit Strong
Leah Nelson 10/2/18
This blog is a guest post by Leah Nelson, a Zimbabwean dancer, choreographer, actor, producer, and director with a passion for organizing for social change through the arts. A graduate from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Nelson performs and teaches nationally and internationally, as well as creating customized entertainment for major clients. Her most recent adventure in art and choreography is for The Bluest Eye, a Guthrie Theater production.
I first heard Nobuntu online. They were pre-world traveler stage in mostly Westernized dress imported by way of Chinese flea market imports that trended in Africa in 2013. Their hair, natural—Afri-centric styles, definitely round the way peeps hanging out, on the red polished verandah, representing their Bulawayo life.
The members are Zanele Manhenga, an alto singer-songwriter-poet-mbira player; Heather Dube, a musician-songwriter-dancer-percussionist (drums, shakers, mbira); Thandeka Moyo, a singer-songwriter-hosho player; Joyline Sibanda, a bass singer-songwriter-session musician-djembe drummer; and Duduzile Sibanda, musician-songwriter-session musician.They are produced by co-founder Dumisani Ramadu Moyo of 10th District Music. He brought knowledge of imbube music—think Grammy Award-winning Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He credits Nobuntu’s ethics, hard work, and talent for their meteoric rise in the last 5 years.
As a child of the 1970’s growing up in Salisbury (now Harare and the official capital city), I am reminded that I would not have been allowed to share the same classroom with their parents. And now I am honored to be a part of their Midwest experience. I am grateful that my family acknowledges and respects my grandfather’s Shona culture—for instance that lobola was expected with a church marriage—this is not always the case with Coloured people. Racism twists, causing confusion of origin and purpose. If you are aware of the history, you will then understand my marvel and encouragement that Nobuntu has risen above—like how I wondered how my grandfather could remain so smartly dressed when expected to walk in the muddy gutter if sharing a city sidewalk with whites … and still come home whistling. These are no victims.
As you listen to Nobuntu sing onstage, discuss on radio shows, lead township meetings, their subjects contain messages of empowering sisterhood, issues of domestic abuse in marriage, remembering where you came from, praising God. Multi-linguists, they sing to us in Shona, English, and Ndebele. Their neo-traditional clothing is influenced by the regalia of the Ndebele empires—bold colors or muted earth tones, with their natural sense of millennial stylings, making them look so Future. Their glorious voices that recall natural landscapes easily with the roll of an “RRR” or the click of a tongue—what language isn’t magnificent when it has an aural translation to “nxa”?
Nobuntu is called the first female a cappella group, and recognizes the South African Mahotella Queens who performed with Mahlathini as influences. They give props to Ray Phiri, who received world wide credits when he lent his gift to Paul Simon’s Graceland—we knew him for 20 years before on the airwaves of Radio 2. You hear the influences too of Church—missionaries could not stop the ngoma (drum) or a Mother’s Union meeting house rousing hymnal was made even more so by the presence of clapping and hosho. We see images of Sangoma. The presence of mbira should also not be taken for granted, as this instrument did not grace female hands until the latter part of the 20th century—when mbira legend Stella Chiweshe would get secret lessons from her uncle in order to learn how to play. We have sadly passed on Chiwoniso who joined her father Dumisani. She gained international status coming from mbira royalty, the Maraires.
When you hear their voices and their messages you begin to understand why Nobuntu is too much for just one continent. And so, this magnificent journey they have embarked upon from Townships to European Opera houses and now, in the last few years, the United States will (hopefully) not lead them unto Kardashian-land and away from their core beliefs! No twist! They are the riches and we are blessed with their strength of purpose, strongly guided by their deep love of God and Family—their sincerity in representing their Ancestors, and of course, their music and dance.
I already know our visit will be too short and the desire for them to come back again to warm our souls will be evident as soon as they take their last bow—but why go there so soon? Instead, prepare a warm “Salibonani” and let us receive the Strength and Spirit that is Nobuntu.
Nobuntu will perform Friday, October 5 in the Ordway Concert Hall. Tickets are available on the Nobuntu performance page or by phone at 651.224.4222.