Despite the geographical specificity of their title, the performers of the Soweto Afro-Pop Opera draw their influences as widely as the so-called ‘Rainbow Nation’ from which they hail. Those expecting something obviously or exclusively South African will be taken aback when the ensemble, made up of four singers and seven backing musicians (a keyboardist, saxophonist, drummer, two violinists, a violist and a cellist), launch into Ave Maria.
It’s not hard to sense an upward swing in the room’s mood when the troupe move on to livelier material. Though thought has clearly been given to the variety of the setlist, the ballads pack far less of a punch than faster-paced numbers. One particular hit is Pata Pata, a Xhosa song popularised by Miriam Makeba in 1967, and which (despite my British anxiety about audience participation), I agreed to join one of the performers in dancing.
The 12.55 slot doesn’t really help this ensemble in their attempt to create a festive atmosphere. Even inducing applause seems like drawing blood from a stone, a fact which gives the room a frigid atmosphere that is not of the performers’ making. Things begin to pick up, however, with Jonny Clegg’s Asimbonanga (Mandela), a 1987 hit which calls for the release of Robben Island’s most famous inmate. The short preambles given by the performers, and providing context to the songs, are some of the most enjoyable parts of the show, though some (such as Asimbonanga) may have benefited from more detailed explanation.
Though purporting to be a family-friendly variety show, the Soweto Afro-Pop Opera has a serious mission: that of culturally bridging Britain and South Africa. Soweto Afro-Pop Operademonstrates performatively that Ave Maria is as much a part of South Africa’s confluence of culture as the Pata Pata, and that, for a country with no fewer than eleven national languages, variety is not merely apposite, but inevitable.