Concert Review: Coming Of Age In Stuttering Style, Or Music Appreciation Class En Masse

April 3, 2015



21 Songs For 21 Years Of Democracy / Joburg Theatre / Musical director Victor Masondo


There will always be a reason to celebrate the anniversary of something, though celebrating the Struggle when Nkandla looms, Eskom is crumbling and a South African has been appointed the host of the most influential satirical news show in the United States might seem a step too far for some.

Still, this show is subtitled Victor Masondo & Friends and that phrase alone should be enough to warrant a look – or a listen. It’s immediately evident why Masondo is so universally liked and respected. He’s a cheerful sweetheart as an MC, with just enough steel behind some of his humorous observations to underline that his wisdom and experience makes him worth paying attention to beyond simply his entertainment value.

The format of 21 Songs involves Masondo and a set backing band – drummer, percussionist, five backing vocalists, two keyboard players and a guitarist – playing a few songs on their own and then providing the platform for a rotating cast of big-name stars, from Dorothy Masuku and Kurt Darren to Johnny Clegg and Steve Kekana, who play two or three songs each and then clear the stage for the next performer.

This set-up gives the show a bit of a festival feel, though set-up time between is minimal, so there’s not that awkward waiting period between slots. Not that you’d have known to be in the opening night audience, mind. People were having loud conversations during songs, taking calls and getting up to go out and come back into the Mandela at the Joburg Theatre. No problem here if you’re outdoors and heading for the concession stand to get something to keep you hydrated in the heat, but more than a little distracting in a formal venue, during what has been billed as a theatre production rather than a club gig.

On stage, there were a couple of issues as well. Experienced sessioneers though they are, the band was under-rehearsed and, while the missteps were probably only noticeable to other musicians, there’s a sense that players of this calibre should be able to deliver at a higher level than they did.

The best part of the show was Masondo’s managing it as a sort of music appreciation class, pointing out that skin colour and political persuasion cannot change the way a person reacts to piece of music they instinctively enjoy. That small insight was a more effective way of conveying the assumed (given the title) message of the piece than anything else communicated through the marketing or lyrics.

Dorothy Masuku showed that age need not slow a lady down and Kurt Darren clearly enjoyed the impact of a different set of backing vocals on his hits Kaptein and Loslappie. Johnny Clegg, a regular on the Mandela stage, made his cameo an excerpt of his successful touring show. Later, Steve Kekana was a revelation – sounding like Harry Belafonte, Smokey Robinson and all points between while also offering real insight into the genesis of his enduring classics.

A workable concept that was very well received, 21 Songs could, with more polish, be an intriguing production not only to bring back every so often (anniversary-allowing), but to tour as a showcase for the wide range of material that falls under the banal tag “South African music”.