HUDSON–The South African group Thula Sizwe will be joined by Hillsdale musician John Farrell Saturday night at the club Helsinki Hudson. It’s not just any group. Having found a way to thrive during the brutal repression of apartheid, the group performed at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela. Mr. Farrell, who travels frequently to Africa, is helping them become better known in this country.
The Helsinki gig is one of many stops on the 10-man Zulu singing and dancing troop’s 8-week tour. The Columbia Paper caught up with them at the Reformed Church in Hopewell Junction April 15, where an animated, multi-generational crowd filled the church to overflowing and lined up afterward to buy the group’s compact discs and t-shirts.
“It’s something we’ve been doing for thousands of years–singing to each other–and that’s important,” said Abel Diamini, the group’s leader, who comes from a family of musicians, speaks 9 of his country’s 11 official languages, and at age 56 can still kick his leg above his head.
They sing in the rhythmic, harmonious Isicathamiya style. The group’s call and response acappella style is accompanied by two African drums and the singers’ stomping feet and clapping hands. The style evolved from tribal performance during the last century when men left their rural homelands to find work in mines and cities and sang to entertain each other. The name means “walk softly.” They sing to praise God, celebrate life, tell stories and scare demons.
The name “Thula Sizwe” means “Hush and Listen.” They started singing in the 1980s while still in high school at a time when South Africa was still under apartheid. The group, all of whose members are black, needed special permission to sing together.
“Music is our job. It is our daily bread,” said Alfred Letsoalo, one of the group’s two drummers, when asked if members worked at other jobs at home in South Africa, where unemployment is high. The group comes from Soshanguve Township in Gauteng Province near Pretoria.
The fact that there are no jobs at home is what has led the group to travel to perform.
Unlike their highly successful countrymen who perform in Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which has recorded with Paul Simon, Thula Sizwe has yet to reach a larger audience.
This spring tour will take them primarily to school and church venues, where they perform for free, and eat and sleep in private homes. They hope to make enough to cover the $20,000 cost of their travel expenses and more so that they can support themselves and their families when they return home, where the average monthly salary is around $450.
“With 10 people, it gets really expensive in a hurry, and profits are divided by 10. No one with a good business sense would do this,” said Mr. Farrell who says he is seeing a lot of goodwill donations.
“The audience response is so positive. They inspire people to acts of generosity. It will work out fine,” he said.
“We don’t have things that we really need,” said Mr. Diamini, when asked about his home and whether students have access to computers in their schools. His family is still saving up for glass windows for their recently built corrugated metal home, which like other homes in their township, has no running water. “We need education, skills, jobs, economic opportunity and investment in our country,” he said.
Mr. Farrell, singer, songwriter, author and “peace educator,” is one of the group’s biggest supporters. He spends half his life on the road traveling to perform and had just returned from there when he happened to meet the group in 2005 in Putnam County, where he then lived. Thula Sizwe had just had a gig in New Orleans canceled because of Hurricane Katrina, and he asked them to record one of his songs, which began their collaboration.
This year, when he heard the group had failed in two attempts to get visas from the United States government, Mr. Farrell and his non-profit Bridges of Peace and Hope Foundation took on the task of booking gigs and arranging transportation and accommodations. In the process he has drawn heavily on the many friends he has made in his own music career. He is not just their producer and collaborator, booking agent and friend. He is driving them all over the Northeast in a 12-person van towing a trailer.
Mr. Farrell seems to embody the group’s motto “Sho sho losa.”
“It means ‘you must work hard in everything that you do.’ He is our friend, our father and our brother here in the U.S. We appreciate everything that you do,” said Mr. Diamini.
For more information on the concert at Helsinki Hudson, 405 Columbia Street, call 518 828-4800, email or visit helsinkihudson.com.