Gumboot-dancing Black Umfolosi reflects a rich African heritage
Want to stay fit and positive through the monsoon season? Consider taking up gumboot dancing. No this isn’t some quaint activity for expat Brits pining for the pubs of yore but—as performed by Zimbabwean quintet Black Umfolosi—an insanely vigorous dance that was born sometime in the mid 20th century in the gold mines of southern Africa. The miners, coming off shift together and waiting for the elevators, developed a tradition out of wanting to get the dust and dirt off their nondesigner footwear.
“It involves the slapping and stamping of gumboots very fast and with quite complex rhythmic patterns,” says Thomeki Dube, who does much of the songwriting and choreography for music and dance quintet Black Umfolosi, reached at his home in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. “It’s called Ingquzu and we’ll definitely be doing some when we come to Vancouver. No matter what the weather.”
Originally many of the steps and routines of Ingquzu were parodies of military officers and guards who controlled the mines and workers’ barracks, accompanied by jeers and jokes at their expense in a local dialect they couldn’t understand.
Black Umfolosi gets its name from the Umfolozi River in the South African province of Natal, where the ancestors of the group once lived. The river also inspired a regiment of Ndebele Zulu warriors who, in the 1830s, rebelled against their king and migrated north with their families into what is now Matabeleland, Zimbabwe.
“They carried with them all their cultural traditions,” explains Dube. “And our songs and dances reflect this particularly rich heritage. But we are also influenced by all the other tribes in Zimbabwe—the Shona, the Kalanga, the Shangaan and others—that live around us.”
The band—an octet back home, a quintet when on tour—was formed in 1982 by students at Bulawayo’s George Silundika primary school. Dube and lead singer and occasional songwriter Sotsha Moyo are the last of the original singers in the band. They perform a number of music styles, including mbaqanga township-jive songs and, above all these days, mbube. The rich harmonic singing tradition is best known in the west through Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who collaborated on Paul Simon’s hit 1986 world-music and folk-pop album Graceland. “But it’s the music of a whole culture,” Dube stresses.
Black Umfolosi’s hallmark mbube is characterized by rich four-part harmonies, comprising Moyo’s high and sweet lead, and deeply resonant bass voices. Recording it can be problematic due to the importance of the heavy bass, and the fact that mbube involves movement to accompany each song.
“If you’re working with an engineer who doesn’t know the background of the music he can make it sound very light,” says Dubé. “And when you’re in a studio you normally have to stand still, but you can’t sing good mbube like that. We like to move our bodies so we get into the mood—and then it will come from the soul.”
Black Umfolosi plays St. James Hall on Friday (November 27).