The Wesleyan Argus | From Bulawayo to Connecticut: Nobuntu is definitely for women, by women
Taking the stage dressed in dramatic traditional attire representing six tribes of South Africa, the all-female Zimbabwean a capella quintet, nobuntu, fiercely defended women. Through a 13-song, 90-minute performance, the group, which is largely made up of mothers and wives, covered issues ranging from violence and marital stress to childbirth (and lack thereof). Duduzile Sibanda, a vocalist in the group formed in 2011, explained that Nobuntu’s definition of motherhood is not just about having children.
“[Nobuntu] is an African umbrella term for all that is good,” Sibanda said. “So we just decided that since we’re going to put messages about it, we just have to be mothers.”
As the first artists to visit the University for an in-person performance since February 2020, Nobuntu have made an incredibly exciting debut in Connecticut. Prior to the pandemic, the band achieved international fame, touring Europe and Canada. In doing so, they spread the influence of mbube, a South African oral tradition on which Nobuntu’s songs are based. While mbube is traditionally passed down from generation to generation, members of Nobuntu also write their own songs. Jhe group is also unique in that it is all-female: mbube was historically a male art form, but after some research, Nobuntu realized that women and children had been erased from the narrative.
“When civilization came, people left their homes for the cities,” Sibanda said. “They moved on their own, and women and children were left behind. So now, in the city, when they sang for entertainment, they remembered their wives and children. This is how mbube came out into the world. But years later, we came on the scene and we were like, ‘Okay, what? How come there are no girl groups doing this? And then when we started to do some research, we found out that it wasn’t just for men. In fact, everyone did. So how has it evolved? We are women, and men generally have.
The band not only stood and sang for the duration of the show, but danced, clapped and occasionally introduced traditional South African instruments into the mix. This incorporation of traditional dance forms and instruments into the show is also an unorthodox part of Nobuntu performances.
“We discovered that the traditional dance of southern Africa has not yet been widely discovered. It’s still something people don’t know much about in the world,” Sibanda said. “So we decided to consider a few dances so that we could share them with the world. And a few instruments, that is to say the drum and the mbira.
The group has an entire song in homage to the mbira, a percussion instrument that consists of metal keys attached to an upright wooden board, praising its sweet sound and the happiness it brings. The mbira, often referred to as a finger harp or thumb piano, makes a pleasant tingling sound that definitely inspires joy.
Nobuntu also draws inspiration from more contemporary forms of music, including Afro-jazz and gospel.
“You will find that it is 90% mbube with a touch of jazz, because we are different.” said Sibanda. “And we are inspired by different things. So you will find that the R&B inspired song, there is a reggae inspired song, there is a jazz inspired mbube song.
Most, if not all, of the songs performed during the show were in major keys, often sounding more positive notes. Through their songs, the artists created interactive spaces with the audience, with many people cheering and screaming like the band did. Calling to action in support of the serious issues facing women, Nobuntu was not intended to preach, but rather to motivate: after one or two songs, the members would explain their message and tell the audience which language – most often the ndebele – had already used.
The scene was rich and vibrant, a blur of black, white, red, green, orange, blue and gold. Their ensembles were intentional down to the smallest detail: Sibanda wore an orange jumpsuit, a traditional golden Zulu headdress reserved for queens and married women, and a corset worn by pregnant and married women. The other members wore similarly intricate clothing. Through music, dance, and wardrobe, the audience got a glimpse into each member’s distinct personality.
Nobuntu delivered a powerful performance, with its urgent message and rhythm maintaining a constant energy. Through the different languages spoken throughout the show, the group had a clear theme: to encourage women, young and old, not to tie their identities to motherhood and marriage, to always support each other and to shine at both individually and collectively.
Arushi Khare can be reached at [email protected]