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A CurtainUp London Review
Spice Drum Beat: Ghoema
The show uses Kitchen Dutch or Afrikaans folk songs from the Cape Town area of South Africa which draw on the traditions of the community there who are descended from many strands of people who had their origins in the spice trade from Europe to what was the Dutch East Indies. The fascinating history of this melting pot of people, many of whom came as slaves in chains was the idea behind the musical and it is this narrative which links the songs.
Musically the show cannot be faulted in performance terms although it does have the feel more of a concert than a musical because the story line is travelogue gobbets rather than advancing a main plot. The talented singers and musicians work extremely hard but the songs are a problem for those who do not understand Afrikaans. Some are translated into English and the words projected onto the rear screen but the simplistic lyrics probably lose something in the translation as little of the double entendre is obvious to a more literal English audience.
Some of the songs like "Sugar Bush I want you so" are sexual. "The Handsome Cabin Boy" is about a woman who dressed as a man and went on board a ship like in the English sea shanty. There is reference to the Cape Town Carnival where these songs are sung each January. There was also the tale of the Virginians, Black American singers who during a nineteenth century visit were shocked at the level of discrimination and prejudice in Africa.
Even though I did not understand the words, I liked the actions of the cast synchronising their hands and knees while singing the "Hip Hip Hoorah" medley of songs. The performers have amazing energy and in one song, the men hold several old men puppets each of which appear to chunter and sing in a hilarious group number. We are told the difference between Moppies, comic songs and Picnic songs like Ghoemaliedjies, which consist of short refrains although both are based on the same rhythm.
It does seem churlish to criticise these hard working performers who excel musically. There was patently terrible tragedy and great privation of the early settlers in South Africa, many of whom were slaves ripped from their original communities but Spice Drum Beat is a too mellow account, understanding and sanguine like the affable performers themselves. As an offering on the international stage this feelgood aspect needs some work. Of course for most of South Africas history until recently, the stories and culture of these contributing people was suppressed by the racist, ruling class in government and education policy making. So in some sense Spice Drum Beat is a work in progress as this community find their theatrical and musical voice.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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