Decades ago, a group of children in an all-male school in Zimbabwe started a choir to keep themselves entertained after classes.
As the years passed, they earned support from their school, their community, then travelled to Scotland and then around the world.
They’ve acted as ambassadors of African music and dance on the world stage, including at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria.
Five of them are continuing that journey, and will be performing in Qualicum Beach on Saturday, March 31.
Black Umfolosi is a group of male singers and dancers who seek to keep mbube music and dances, such as the gumboot dance, alive around the world — especially for Africans, said Thomeki Dube, a founding member of the group.
“A lot of African culture tends to evolve quite a lot once there is something that is very dynamic coming over… (on) the television,” said Dube. “People watch a lot of stuff from the West, and a lot of young people enjoy and think that is cool. We also think it is very cool, but… we believe strongly that we need to keep this one going as well.”
Mbube music has its history in African mines, where male workers from the early 1900s formed singing groups to entertain themselves. It’s an a capella style which the world is perhaps most familiar with through the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight in The Lion King.
Gumboot dancing also finds its origins in African mines where workers wearing Wellington boots (due to flooding) would communicate with each other by slapping and stomping boots, or express themselves and their culture by recreating traditional rhythms this way.
The students who started Black Umfolosi were aware of the dance because students and friends would return to school after working in mines, Dube said.
The choir adopted the dance into its performances as members became more serious about continuing the group after school, Dube said.
While they saw support from the older generations, and began to break into the international stage in the ’80s, many other groups have tried and failed to succeed.
Black Umfolosi itself lost some members in the early 2000s during difficult political times in Zimbabwe. Still, the group not only survived, but pushed for change, said Dube.
“We had to be resilient and to be firm in our dream,” he said. “We have to be part of the change if ever there is going to be any change. So we speak through music, we speak through dance, and that way, then the people with the power will feel the pressure.”
One of the group’s well-known songs is Unity, which the group wrote in response to socio-political problems at the start of Zimbabwe’s independence movement in the ’80s.
“People still felt that they were different, and they would segregate one another according to which part of the country they’re coming from,” said Dube. The song calls on widespread unity, “regardless of colour, religion, creed or whatever political affiliations,” he said.
Another of their songs speaks on the effects of climate change, and others are about love generally.
While bringing these kinds of messages with its music, Dube said, Black Umfolosi has continued to innovate to keep these genres of music and dance alive by introducing modern choreography and singing on current issues to bring messages that mean something to people now.
Along with other groups who have worked to do the same, Dube said, “I would say we’ve played a pivotal role in transforming this kind of music to a level that is acceptable world-over now.”
Black Umfolosi performs Saturday, March 31 at Rotary House (211 Beach Rd. in Qualicum Beach) starting at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35 and can be purchased by contacting Joyce Beaton at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Covet boutique in Qualicum Beach (702 Memorial Ave.).