Songs of Migration Washington Post Review

In Hugh Masekela’s ‘Songs of Migration,’ a fantastic voyage

The Washington Post
Celia Wren

Photography Courtesy of The Kennedy Center
Photography Courtesy of The Kennedy Center

Hugh Masekela’s trumpet becomes a mining drill in “Songs of Migration,” the tuneful, quietly stirring musical tribute running through this Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater.

True, the internationally renowned musician’s horn does not literally transform into a piece of machinery. But as Masekela discusses the laborers who have historically traveled from far-flung regions to toil in South Africa’s mines, he pumps his trumpet as though it were a drill chipping away at rock. When he refers to the miners’ daily descent underground, he lets the word “deep” ring out for several seconds, in an anguished, falling cry.

Masekela’s salvos of showmanship are among the chief pleasures of “Songs of Migration,” conceived by Masekela with South African director James Ngcobo and written and directed by Ngcobo. Interweaving songs with snippets of storytelling, bits of stage business and a hint of dance, the production evokes the lives and musical legacy of migrant workers in late-19th-century Southern Africa. But the perspective ranges in space and time, too, encompassing a few traditional African American songs (“Rail Road,” “Hush”) and even sampling “Look to the Rainbow” (from “Finian’s Rainbow”) and “My Yiddishe Momme” for a broader meditation on diaspora and the hope, disappointment, homesickness, frustration and resilience that it unleashes.

A five-person band sits onstage at the heart of the show, which also stars the celebrated South African singer Sibongile Khumalo. (“Songs of Migration” first ran at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre and is now produced by Sibojama Theatre.)

In the opening moments, a small ensemble — including four terrific male vocalists from the a cappella group Complete — scurries out from the wings and snatches up suitcases stationed across the stage. Dancing gently in place, suitcases swinging, the performers conjure up a street in a busy African city. Later, they turn the suitcases into drums; later still, they churn their arms like railroad engine pistons in the lead-up to Masekela’s well-known train-themed song “Stimela.”

Amid such theatrical touches, the show’s two headliners take frequent moments in the spotlight. When he’s not playing his trumpet, the elderly Masekela — dressed in black, with a purple jacket — often breaks into gentle but exuberant dance, knees bent, hips shimmying, feet gliding in a delicate soft-shoe. Khumalo, looking stately in colored dresses with matching head scarves, does some mellifluous singing. But she acts and tells stories, too. In a speech that highlights the close connections between sound, emotion and memory, she reminisces about the street noises she heard growing up in Soweto, for instance. And in an amusing sequence, as the ensemble sings its way through an upbeat ditty, Masekela pretends to be a tipsy township resident getting too friendly with the ladies, and Khumalo quells him with an icy stare.

Now wistful, now buoyant in tone, “Songs of Migration” brims with universal concerns: the anxiety caused by separation from friends and loved ones; the problems of unemployment and worker exploitation; the difficulty of adjusting to a new environment; loneliness. But specific references to South Africa’s past surface, too: At one point in the show, performers briefly hold up signs referring to the 1955 Freedom Charter and to the notorious Sharpeville Massacre, for instance. Theatergoers versed in the history of Masekela’s homeland might be best positioned to appreciate these references.

Still, “Songs of Migration” is principally a trove of music, plus an irresistible leading man. Mining imagery notwithstanding, it’s the sound, and Masekela’s charisma, that run deep here.