Auxilia Katongomara Saturday Leisure Correspondent
THE journey of the now revered traditional dance outfit, the winners of the Chibuku neShamwari Traditional Dance Competition, Umkhathi Theatre Works began way back in 1997.
The group was founded by a team of seven young men who found themselves jobless after secondary school but realised they had artistic talents.
After a number of caucus meetings on what to do with their talents, the young men decided to create their own group Umkhathi Theatre Works.
The name was derived from the situation and time that they found themselves in. They reflected on what troubles they were going through as olova in the high density suburb of Njube.
Creating a group was not difficult for them but penetrating the volatile industry was not a stroll in the park.
Since the group was not into the latest dances that probably most young men of that time were into such as contemporary and isipantsula style, they thought nobody could really take them seriously.
But 16 years down the line, the group has become a force to reckon with in the arts industry as it has written its own success stories.
For those who have seen Umkhathi Theatre Works perform lately, Botswana dance, setapa will quickly come to mind.
The group exudes confidence when dancing setapa despite the fact that the dance is foreign. They have in fact mastered the art of almost all of the ethnic traditional dances of Zimbabwe and beyond.
Saturday Leisure traced the roots of the multi-award winning group which is still in a celebratory mood after scooping the annual Chibuku Neshamwari Traditional Dance crown and pocketed $4 000.
One of the founder members of the group, Matesu Dube chronicled the journey of Umkhathi Theatre Works saying they were founded in 1997.
“By that time, we did not have anything to do and we thought, well let’s start our own group and that is how Umkhathi came into existence,” said the soft spoken Dube who is now the director of the group.
He said among the founding members were: Maqhawe Moyo, John Phiri now based in South Africa, the late Mthandazo Sithole, UK-based Richard Mahachi, Alexander Mhlanga and South Africa-based Tsaka Ndlovu.
He said although they were of different ages, they hailed from the same neighbourhood.
“After forming our group, we recruited others but it was not easy because we really struggled to be in the limelight. There were radio plays on Radios 2 and 4 and that is how we managed to make it into the limelight,” he said.
Dube said from the earnings of radio plays, they were able to buy costumes and other materials to assist them in their endeavour to make a mark.
“Our vision was to create employment for ourselves and in 1998, our name was growing and we had tours to Lower Gweru and Masvingo. We started performing at primary schools in Bulawayo and beyond,” said Dube.
He said the group’s popularity was boosted when they performed at the launch of the Blue Train.
“It was in 1998 and we felt so happy to be chosen to perform at the launch of the Blue Train that was attended by several Presidents from Southern Africa.
To us the event was a big one and proved that we were heading in the right direction”.
“Around 2000, we participated in a competition held at the National Aids Council stand at the Trade Fair and we won the drama competition which saw us earning a ticket to represent the country at a conference in Durban, South Africa.
“This was indeed an opportunity for us to rub shoulders with big groups in the industry,” he said.
The following year they were invited to perform at the Mitisong Festival, in Botswana, where he says they were greatly appreciated and learnt the setapa dance.
They have featured at the festival more than 10 times. They featured at the Harare International Festival of the Arts in 2002.
However, it was during this time that the dance groups were sprouting from every corner of the country and the question is how did the group survive the stiff competition?
“We remained focused on the traditional dance genre because most of these dance groups focused on contemporary dances. We were in demand as most people preferred traditional dances for corporate functions and weddings,” he said.
Dube said their big breakthrough was in 2004 when the group was invited to Scotland. This was the group’s first international tour.
“We were invited to the Aberdeen Youth Festival and there we met several other groups from across the world. It was one of the defining moments for the group.
“I remember there was a lady from Ireland who gave us lessons on dance and how to be professional dancers, she imparted to us invaluable information,” said Dube.
The group did not forget the theatre side that helped them make a name, as they became more famous after featuring in Christopher Mlalazi’s play Soil of the Son and Nkulumane.
They also worked with Lewis Ndlovu of Drums of Peace on a theatrical piece titled Drums.
While the group was beginning to bask in the glory of success, the economic meltdown that hit the country a few years ago, did not spare
Umkhathi Theatre Works.
“Between 2005 and 2006, things went down and the arts were not spared at all. It was hard for us to go international as there was mass exodus of Zimbabweans to various countries and as such it became hard to get visas. We were limited to local shows and countries such as Botswana where there were no visa restrictions,” he said.
The group was dealt a double blow of missing international tours and the exodus of key group members.
“It was at this time that some of the senior group members left for greener pastures.
Luckily we had a junior team and we had to promote some of them to the senior team, although the standard of our work depreciated, we managed to soldier on and here we are today,” said Dube.
The groups performs isitshikitsha, amabhiza, muchongoyo, chinyambera, Jerusarema, mbakumba and amantshomane.
After the introduction of the multi-currency, Umkhathi attended the Gcwala Ngamasiko Festival in Cape Town in 2009.
“In 2011, we won the Chibuku Neshamwari Provincial finals and went for the national finals where we finished in second position.
In the same year we scooped the National Arts Merit Awards (Nama) Outstanding Dance Group award,” said the director.
Umkhathi’s recent triumph comes after a successful tour of the United States of America in May. The group had a two month tour of the US at the Dance Africa Festival.