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On Tuesday evening at Appalachian State University's Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts, the internationally-acclaimed female a cappella quintet from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Nobuntu, took the stage to deliver a passionate and powerful concert highlighting the belief that engaging in music within local and global communities eclipses racial, tribal, religious, and gender boundaries.
Information provided by the venue explained that the name Nobuntu is "an African concept that values humbleness, love, unity, and family from a woman's perspective." The women in the musical group sing Mbube (a style of South African vocal music traditionally sung a cappella and made famous by musical group Ladysmith Black Mambazo) to celebrate, communicate, and perpetuate their exquisite culture and heritage through the art of music. In their performance of traditional Zimbabwean songs, original music, and rearranged renditions of Gospel music and American hits such as Paul Simon's "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes," the ensemble's voices were natural, pure, and true. The use of traditional instruments (including the Djembe Drum and the Mbira [thumb piano]) as well as enticing, lively, and authentic South African dance enhanced the beauty of the melodies and the power of the narratives.
While a handful of the songs (such as "Amazing Grace") were performed in English, the majority were in the language of Ndebele, one of the main languages of Zimbabwe. The messages of the songs were explained by the women of Nobuntu, but even without a loose translation, the passion and the heart of each song was powerfully conveyed through tenacious emotion. Two of the most poignant chorales at the beginning of the concert were "Cry Song" and "Uthixo." The former was a cry against abuse to all peoples, advocating for all to speak up and make a change, and the latter was a sacred song of praise to the Creator ("Uthixo" is Ndebele for "the Creator"). In each of these songs, the vocalists' love and passion radiated from their souls – it was heard in their voices individually and felt in their unifying harmonies. I was compelled to close my eyes and find comfort, absorbing the refined intensity of their melody, its thorough sweetness complementing its genuine depth.
From this place of expansive, powerful warmth and comfort, Nobuntu offered a dazzling performance of "Cula," a song encouraging the world to sing on every occasion. More than simply declaring that music brings joy to your heart and your mind, the women offered a physical expression of the sentiment, stepping away from their microphones one by one to engage in heartful, organic dance movements. Though the ensemble employed precise body and hand gestures to further articulate their stories and emotions throughout the concert, their unrestricted, boundless dancing served to communicate irrepressible joy. Witnessing such free, joyous movements seemed intimate; the women were flourishing in their celebrations. In this festive moment of rapture on stage, I was obliged to keep my eyes wide open, and they soon became damp.
These tears were cheerful, but as the women advanced to a song entitled "Moya Moya," my emotions changed. As the other four women sang this emotional and gripping chorale, Heather Dube portrayed the character in the song's narrative. She embodied a young woman lamenting her inability to birth a child, grappling with society's view of her as incomplete and inadequate. Bringing the pressures of being a woman in a South African tribe to life, Dube collapsed, cowered, and cried. Nearly forgetting Dube was representing a character, I felt her pain churning inside me, along with the pains of so many other young women. When we lose sight of the truth that we are all deserving of love, we are burdened by an unbearable weight. Disclosing the sincere severity of this weight, Nobuntu labors to unite these young women and provide a reminder of their worthiness.
Amid a genre dominated by men, as the first all-female ensemble in Zimbabwe and the first all-female Mbube group in the world, the women were proud and thankful for the opportunity to travel the world performing Mbube. Reflecting on their ten years together as Nobuntu and celebrating their achievements in both "Obabes beMbube" and "Avumile," the quintet exuded fervent elation. For the audience, the confidence and excitement of the women was as infectious as the clicking sounds used throughout the songs, especially in "Click Song," were unique and curious. Satisfying such eager inquisitiveness, Nobuntu taught the audience a verse of Ndebele music featuring various click sounds. While arguably a futile attempt because the clicks, and the language itself, is incredibly nuanced, the audience understood the rhythm and participated with enthusiasm! Through this difficult practice, I personally acquired a new appreciation for the intricacies of Ndebele and the other 15 official languages spoken in Zimbabwe.
Dressed in bright, ornate regalia from various South African tribes (including Zulu bridal attire and a pregnancy corset among other adornments tailored to each vocalist), the women of Nobuntu came alive, beaming with pride, joy, and happiness. The quintet concluded the concert in a group embrace following their final song, "Impi," a warrior song praying for peace from war and thanking the Almighty for incessantly fighting for us. Shining with large smiles and unyielding joy for the entire 90 minutes, the exceptional performances of Duduzile Sibanda, Zanele Manhenga, Heather Dube, Thandeka Moyo, and Joyline Sibanda were momentous and memorable.
These Zimbabwean women, with their captivating, pure voices and genuine transnational messages, transcended language boundaries and severed constructed confines of tribal, racial, and religious positionings. When I need guidance finding joy, as we all do from time to time in this fickle, modern world, I will remind myself of the unharnessed jubilance of Nobuntu's Mbube music, pull up one of their recordings online, and press play. Just as in the theatre, closing my eyes, the music of Nobuntu will shroud me in joyous bliss.