Black Umfolosi mines Zimbabwe’s cultural heritage

The dangers of working in an African mine are well known. The working conditions are poor and hazardous.

The dangers of working in an African mine are well known.

The working conditions are poor and hazardous. And, for their efforts, the miners don’t make much money.

However, despite their plight, the labourers know how to boogie in their gumboots.

The proof?

On Saturday night, decked out in their miner’s uniforms — brightly coloured overalls, hardhats and gumboots — Zimbabwe-based Black Umfolosi managed to shake loose a reserved Whitehorse audience at the Yukon Arts Centre.

They delivered a kind of African tap dance.

They stomped their feet and slapped their boots, legs and hardhats to create different percussive sounds and toe-tapping rhythms.

The uniforms — in slightly drabber colours — and the dance itself came straight from those dreary African mines.

“The gumboot dance was created by miners,” explained Thomeki Dube, one of Black Umfolosi’s founding members.

“They would go and stay in mining compounds, away from their homes, on a contract that lasts for maybe a year.

“When you’re out of the mine you’re bored, you don’t know what to do.

“So then they started improvising music without any instruments.”

The miners discovered that they could use their gumboots or ‘wellies’ for instruments by stamping and slapping them.

The dance quickly became popular and, when the miners returned to their villages, they brought it with them.

“That’s how the dance started spreading, in the entire region of southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, where we are,” said Dube.

The story of the birth of the gumboot dance is very similar to that of Black Umfolosi, although the latter ended up spreading much further.

The a cappella group began more than 25 years ago in a boarding school set up after the Zimbabwe war for independence.

There was no electricity and nowhere for the children to play sports.

To pass the time, the children created a debate team, comedy groups and a choir.

 “Every weekend, we would gather around the campfire and sing some community songs,” said Dube.

“Someone would just start to sing a song and everyone would join in.”

Sensing that the group had potential, the kids formed a formal choir, with assigned parts, and practised songs.

There were many popular choirs in the region, the most successful being South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo

“We thought, well, we are from the same tradition, we speak the same language, we dress the same way, we eat the same food,” said Dube, who was 15 at the time.

“If they can make it, why can’t we make it?”

The youth began to perfect their singing and dancing as they performed throughout Zimbabwe.

They soon caught the eye of some international booking agents and began to travel to Botswana and Swaziland for shows.

In 1991, a year after an exchange to Scotland and the UK, the Zimbabwean performers staged their first European tour.

By 1992, they had reached Canada.

“We started as a big group — 35 students that were just doing it for fun,”

“As time went by, some would drop out, to become doctors, to join the army or to become a teacher.”

The group was whittled down to the five members that were most serious about continuing on.

These five wowed audiences with their a cappella singing in both English and their native tongue, Sindebele.

The songs were also accompanied by Zimbabwean dances.

Some of the dances were traditional — such as the warrior dance, which the group performed in elaborate fur costumes.

Others were less traditional.

One particular dance, the group explained during the show, was typical of underground bars where young people go to squander their paycheques.

“It’s so good to be in Whitehorse,” one group member said at the beginning of the show.

“We love it here.”

This elicited laughter from the audience, which had to brave Saturday’s dangerously cold temperatures to see the show.

However, the performer’s comment was probably sincere.

After all, Zimbabwean’s have much more to worry about then just the cold.

Economic collapse has caused unemployment rates of 85 per cent and the world’s highest rate of inflation — 11,000 per cent.

“It is really terrible,” said Dube.

“You can buy a loaf of bread for $2 and the next morning it could be $15.”

The Mugabe government has tried to force manufacturers to keep their prices down.

Instead, because they can’t make a profit at the artificially low prices, manufacturers stop producing and shelves go empty.

“Everything gets sold on the street, on the black market,” said Dube.

“It has ripped the country apart.”

“You can only blame our government and its economists, because that’s where everything starts,” he added.

“When the country’s politics is crap, it automatically means that everything will go negatively.”

Black Umfolosi hopes its music can provoke positive change at home.

So along with its songs of love, Black Umfolosi composes songs with strong political messages.

“As artists, we try to be a sort of vocal newspaper,” said Dube.

“We can show how other people live and run their countries and, maybe, the politicians will hear our songs.”

In Africa, rivers play a large role in people’s everyday lives.

That’s why, 25 years ago, the group chose Black Umfolosi, a river in South Africa, as its name.

“We, as Black Umfolosi, want to be inspirational to the young people,” said Dube.

“We see ourselves playing a positive role in our society, just like the rivers.”