Play 'Ekasi Lam' pays tribute to kwaito & its impact on township life

The soundtrack of the kasi takes centre stage in cultural maverick Jefferson Tshabalala's latest theatre production

01 September 2019 - 00:03 By Kgomotso Moncho-Maripane
Lucky Ndlovu (front), Mathews Rantsoma (middle) and Kopano Tshabalala (seated back).
Lucky Ndlovu (front), Mathews Rantsoma (middle) and Kopano Tshabalala (seated back).
Image: Supplied

The Lefifi Tladi poem Ga Re Itshebeng describes the necessity for black people to hear themselves speaking frankly and holding nothing back. This is captured in the work of theatre practitioner and cultural maverick Jefferson Tshabalala.

His latest work, Ekasi Lam - An Ode to Kwaito, engages with township life by using kwaito as a literary and musical lens. It is both affirming and scathing in its message as it presents the idea that kwaito gives an accurate portrait of township life.

Ekasi Lam comes after Born To Kwaito, a book by Sihle Mthembu and Esinako Ndabeni to offer a theatre production that pits pride and nostalgia against a critique of the music genre, offering insights into how the majority of Mzansi lives.

"Ekasi Lam tells the story of growing up raised on kwaito. There haven't been many works that have paid tribute to this music genre," says Tshabalala.

"If anything, we dismiss it as a background soundtrack to our lives. We haven't made a deliberate effort to bring it to the fore and consider it analytically. I don't want South Africans to feel that there is no artwork centred around Kwaito.

"There are minimal academic papers written on kwaito by a few black writers. The majority of the people who have taken time to really consider kwaito have done it from an outsider's voyeuristic point of view. There's a need to correct the misconceptions and subversions of how kwaito is described in the existing texts and studies."

Fresh from its National Arts Festival premiere, Ekasi Lam is still in its early incarnations. Stylistically, the show needs to cohere, but its soul is intact. It has a strong foundation from which to evolve and morph.

 I want to find creative ways to stage the cultural experiences of black people in this country. It's about offering versions of black people that are not 'coony'
Jefferson Tshabalala

The casting of predominantly young performers represents the identity of kwaito's political character - it's a point where youths from slightly different generations can engage.

"My chief interest is in the black experience in this country. I want to find creative ways to stage the cultural experiences of black people in this country. It's about offering versions of black people that are not 'coony'. I want theatre goers to be exposed to what black people have to say," says Tshabalala.

Ekasi Lam is inspired by the award-winning show Location| Lekeyishene| Lokasie - Tshabalala's commercially successful production that uses the back stories, idioms and lingo that shape township life to capture how black people make "gold" from the barren reality of their surrounds.

Location|Lekeyishene|Lokasie is an innovative, upbeat, informative and interactive piece of theatre that's consumed by mass audiences in the townships. Its drawcard is the audacity with which it breaks the rules of theatre in order to put the message of the show across so that it resonates with the masses.

"When we talk about our ambitions and aspirations, we tend to talk about the big house and suburbia, and then the bigger sociopolitical themes like acquiring land and generating wealth. We tend to ignore the day-to-day realities of our lives," Tshabalala says.

"I'm interested in the people who are talking about #blackgirlmagic; #blackboyjoy, the people who are in taxis at 4am so that they can get to a place where there's WiFi to tweet about their lives and their experiences.

Theatre practitioner and cultural maverick Jefferson Tshabalala.
Theatre practitioner and cultural maverick Jefferson Tshabalala.
Image: Supplied

"I'm interested in portraying the story of the journey before they get to the office park WiFi," he says.

"I don't see theatre as being aloof or refined. I want to open it up by making work that's about the lived experience of the majority and that speaks of the everyday things that people know and care about."

Tshabalala says the trajectory of his theatre-making shifted viscerally when he realised that he isn't the target market for his productions. He took a hiatus from theatre to "cleanse his palate" and rethink his motivations, and to try to move away from the theatre-making rules that serve only a theatre-going crowd.

He went back home to Port Elizabeth and immersed himself in less formalised versions of theatre, using his skills as a writer and dramatist to refine other genres that he works in like poetry and stand-up comedy.

In addition to Ekasi Lam and Location|Lekeyishene|Lokasie, Tshabalala is directing comedian Mpho Popps in a show called Black in My Day, which is touring nationally. Black in My Day chronicles the experience of a young man as he tries to raise his daughter.

• 'Ekasi Lam' is on at the Market Theatre until September 8. 'Location|Lekeyishene| Lokasie' has a regular slot every first Sunday of the month at PopArt, Maboneng. Or catch it at your nearest township nationwide.

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