Lentswe la Setjhaba (Voices of the Land)
I visit Mafa Makhubalo’s rehearsal on a sweltering September day at Collective Space, in the Junction of Toronto, where the dancers are literally dripping with sweat. It is 30°C and they are dancing hard. Mafa and three dancers, Kimya Hypolite, Tamla Matthews and Roushelle Reign, prepare to show a section of the work. The drummer, N’dere Nimon, has a djembe between his legs and is ready to play. Music begins and Mafa snaps his fingers to count the dancers in, while one of the dancers second that with heavy hand claps, and they kick into an incredibly physical combination with intricate footwork, impressive upper body strength, and pulsing rhythms. I think I stopped breathing for a moment as I took in their percussive and intense movements. Calm and strong, the dancers seem as comfortable on the floor as they are in their feet. Their dance is at times accelerated and sharp while other moments find a flow like a wave washing over them. Smooth meets staccato in these skilled and versed bodies.
The highly athletic section ends, and once they catch their breath – which doesn’t take long – Mafa asks to see it again, working to refine and nuance aspects of the combination. The dancers take a moment to let the beat soak into their bodies, counting in, preparing mind and body. The pulse in the room between bodies and beats is riveting. A fusion of contemporary, African, modern, breakdance movement, and gesture are being explored. The individuality of each dancer shines, yet they are united by the movement and their push to accomplish their very tasks. At times, it seems celebratory, raw, and full of release; at other times, it is controlled, defined, and rigorous.
As they prepare to show another section of the work, they all put on socks and rubber boots. This preparatory ritual is as performative as it is transitional. The performers, along with Mafa, stand straight together, then bend their torsos in a hunch so that their hands reach their boots. The music begins, and they clap hands together and on the inner and outer boot with tempo, speed and accuracy.
“I was born playing gumboot,” Mafa says. I speak with him over the phone days later, as he cares for his daughter. Mafa is a father of two. He has a 3-year old girl and the recent addition to his family – Azania Susumu Mohau, whose name means “Africa moves forward slowly” – was born five months ago. If he is under-slept, it doesn’t show. Mafa has energy to spare.
Mafa Makhubalo was born and raised in Sasolburg, South Africa. Growing up, gumboot was part of the fabric of his birthplace, and came to be an integral part of his practice, career, and way of life. Gumboot was born out of South Africa, created by miners who were denied the right to talk to each other while working. The different sounds created were distinct codes and messages to other workers. A physical language, form of protest, and dance form was born from their oppression.
Mafa grew up during the time that apartheid was being dismantled and transitioning to a new era. “Most of us were gangsters, and art helped us to move away from this.” He notes that many of his friends from his home town ended up in jail, and many of them are no longer alive. He reflects that dance and art came as a calling to help him and others move away from the harder lifestyle they were living. “We began asking: how can we fight without fighting? Art taught us to love. We had forgotten to love, because we grew up angry, we didn’t know why. It became normal.”
Mafa tells me that through his art form he found he could express himself, find possibilities, and the hope that life was not so narrow. “We stopped fearing our lives and ourselves. We found courage.” When he first applied to emigrate, he was rejected, as he didn’t know where Canada was, and he had confused Canada with the United States. He then did his research and got a letter of support from Toronto’s Ballet Creole. At that point, Mafa had to find his way, with no money, no friends and nowhere to stay.
Today, Mafa speaks of the long desire for a space, or a series where work can be presented without classification. “Without saying because I am from Africa, whatever movement I do is African dance. Give us an opportunity to explore what is our own voice, how to communicate with an audience, and how we relate to their presence.” Mafa notes that his voice and practice come from various influences and forms, and need not be classified under one umbrella. “We want to decolonize the art, but we need space to do this. We need to start from within for it to go beyond. We need to explore how one form relates to the other and learn to trust our own form so we can also open it up.” Mafa mentions that a series like Contemporaneity gives resources to explore facets of the many forms and influences of contemporary artists working in contemporary times. Allowing the artist to break out of old definitions, barriers, and taxonomies.
The project Mafa and his team are working on is titled Lentswe la Setjhaba (Voices of the Land). A section begins with the song Working Hard. Each in their own world, the three dancers seem to be getting ready for something. To go to work, to meet someone, to work up their courage. Their distinct worlds blur as they meet and come together in movement and motion. Mafa notes the song is “Afro-house, that’s what I’m exploring, that energy. When I listen to this lately, I become myself, more of myself. Also I wanted lyrics to be obvious. I don’t need to hide. I am creating living art, living experience. We are workers. What are we working for? Is it purposeful, or for the sake of work?” He goes on to explain that the dancers are each working with their own stories & struggles in the piece. “Being lost in aspects of ones’ struggle, when do you find yourself? When we let go, the nuance comes in and we can move forward.”
As they dance, rhythms meet movements, each a separate entity, but also layering over each other to create complex patterns and narratives. “Together we find that rhythm that moves us. Rhythm is a human internet, we are able to send signals to each other, connect, and Iisten to each other.”
Through these rhythms and connections Mafa is interested in questioning, “How does one adopt their own culture into different cultures, and still be able to have a sense of comfort in who they are? Gumboot tells stories, stories from those who came up with this form, it came from the pain of the miners. It is a revolutionary and protest dance, and we are using gumboot as a way of retaliating in our own field and world.”
Through themes of work, rhythm, and pattern, conversations are created between body and spirit, protest and resilience. As these songs, stories and histories radiate, they land us very much in today. In the moment. And very much in contemporary times.
-Jenn Goodwin. October 2017