Todd Twala, UMOJA

Published: Saturday, January 14, 2012 13:14 | Interview by Gillian Fisher
Todd Twala, UMOJA
Todd Twala, UMOJA

Eleven years after premiering in London, award winning musical extravaganza UMOJA is back with a vengeance for a run at Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre. The show’s creator Todd Twala describes the production; the experiences that led to its formation, the places the show has taken her and what UMOJA means to her and her beloved homeland. With a laughter filled, oscillating voice and an incredible warmth this is a woman with an enormous heart, which she has poured into this production along with considerable soul to form a glorious celebration of South African culture and the people who make it.

How would you describe your show UMOJA?

UMOJA is a collection of all the music and dance of South Africa. It’s a celebration of every part of our music from gospel to jazz, to steel drums and the story of how it evolved. There’s a narrator that takes people through the show, explaining how the music grew from tribal music into acappella, then how it picked up English rhythms, and how and why it kept evolving and growing into South Africa’s music today.

This is UMOJA's 12th year, has the show changed in that time?

The show hasn’t changed at its core, but because there’s so many South African songs, you know, once in a while we do alter the set list if we tour a country for a second time. Like in our London tour we have ‘The Dream’ instead of ‘Paradise Road’ for example. There are so many songs, that we can keep on rotating them a bit and keep people’s interest.

The show consists of 30 performers, how do you find them?

Now, they come to us. In South Africa we have auditions every Thursday for UMOJA, so many young people want to be in the production. But we have a criteria. Now South Africa is free and has democracy, we want these kids to be educated. These kids want to take part and be famous instead of going to school. But they have opportunities, and they need to use them, so when you join UMOJA, you have to have finished your Standard Twelve. We also check your background; see that you deserve the opportunities. A lot of kids in South Africa come from disadvantaged families, their parents are not educated and they are struggling to make their way. By being in UMOJA they have an opportunity to make a life for themselves.

It’s the same objective that we had when we started with UMOJA, of helping the disadvantaged kids.

Was music and dance a big part of your childhood in South Africa?

Yes, yes! What we’re doing now in UMOJA represents what has been part of my life.
During Apartheid times, there was nothing we could do as South Africans, but there were a lot of concerts, music shows, a lot of things that involved music. That was the only thing that we had to keep us going. A lot of times there would be small productions or a small concert put on in a hall. In the weekend, you’d go and sing and find friends; music has always been part of my life. Music kept us going, that’s why I’m celebrating music with the concept of UMOJA. I wonder every day if we didn’t have music, how we would have coped? Music kept us sane.

A lot of kids in South Africa come from disadvantaged families, their parents are not educated and they are struggling to make their way. By being in UMOJA they have an opportunity to make a life for themselves.

You grew up just outside of Johannesburg, and had some horrific experiences during your childhood. Yes I was born in an urban town called George Goch, but in 1968 we had to move, we just woke up and there was a bulldozer outside. We had to go to Soweto. They wouldn’t ask you where you wanted to go, they’d just give you a number, ‘This is where we’re taking you to, go get your things in the van.’ Then they’d go and dump you in Soweto.

What do you think of the current situation in South Africa?

I think it’s excellent. When I think of other countries that have just changed to democracy, some of them have the whole country run into turmoil, like look what’s happened in Iraq. In South Africa, we changed and things are going well. Ok there are hiccups, problems here and there, because you can’t expect things to be 100 percent smooth, but so far, 85 per cent of my country I’m happy with. Apartheid was there for 300 years; you can’t expect things to be sorted out in ten years.

But so far, I’m happy with the changes. Today I have the freedom to educate my children in the way I want to. Today I’m a director of my own big production. I’m a prominent businesswoman; I’m a respected citizen of South Africa now because of democracy. Today for the youth of South Africa there are opportunities and there is freedom. Now the problem is knowing how to use it.

When people are free, some of them don’t know what to do with that freedom. They expect the government now to take care of them, feed them, but it’s up to you now. Since being free, you have access to everything, it’s for you to pick up the key and enter the door that you want to enter.

Todd Twala, UMOJA

How do you feel UMOJA has served the cause of South Africa?

I think UMOJA is doing good justice to South Africa. First because it’s run by two black women, and secondly it’s done by young South Africans who are genuinely doing it from their heart. These aren’t kids from acting institutions; these are ordinary young people with raw talent who have been trained by Thembi and I. UMOJA is different from other shows I have done, in that it’s completely authentic, it’s done by South Africans about South Africa, and it’s based on their own experiences, not based on unconnected peoples’ perceptions. Me and Thembi, we did our research and we lived that life that we portray on the stage. I grew up in that environment.

You’ve toured all over the world; do you have a favourite place to perform?

Yes, I do have a favourite place, for me it was New Zealand. I loved the landscape, the sheep grazing in the grass; it reminded me of South Africa in the villages. If I had to settle somewhere else in the world it would be in New Zealand. But South Africa will always be my home. I would never trade South Africa for anything! For me that’s the most beautiful country in the world. I believe there is a reason why God put me in that country.

How long have you and your creative partner Thembi Nyandeni known each other?

Since we were kids, I was 13 and Thembi was 14. And we’re still friends 40 years later.

Did you click right away?

Not exactly, no. When we were forced to move in 1968 it was the middle of the year and so I was the new girl. I was also a clever child, intelligent. Thembi was the leader of a group of girls who were bullies, so they were bullying me. But Thembi realised, ‘No this one cannot be bullied. I’d rather be a friend to this one.’ So she stopped being their friend and became my friend and protected me.

But from there our friendship began and is still the same today. We are still as close as we were then. Our friendship I think was made in heaven, so the two of us can accomplish what we have today. I feel everyone has a calling, and mine and Thembi’s is UMOJA.

Don’t miss UMOJA, which is showing at the Peacock Theatre from January 31 to February 19, 2012.

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