As the traditional Zimbabwean a cappella group Nobuntu travels the world, it spreads a message of peace, acceptance and tolerance. But there’s one thing Duduzile Sibanda, one of the group's singers, says she simply will not tolerate: bad sound.
“When you're singing a cappella, the sound has to be perfect,” says Sibanda. "There's no instrument that's going to hide it. It has to be super perfect. You know, the sound will make or break you.”
Listening to Nobuntu’s distinct take on vocal music, it’s easy to understand why. The five-person group — all women — creates tones and rhythms unlike anything in Western music. Even though the members all speak and understand English perfectly, the group tours regularly through Europe, where the language barrier can be daunting.
“English is universal,” says Sibanda. “But then when you go to places like Germany, when you go to places like the Czech Republic, then language becomes a problem. Communicating about the sound becomes a problem. So that's been one of our highest challenges.”
Sibanda says Nobuntu’s particular type of traditional music is difficult for sound engineers to work with because it’s not something they’re used to. The vast majority of their time preparing for a show is spent on soundcheck.
“The sound engineer has to amplify it in a very, very different way,” she says. “It usually takes hours for it to come out right. Sound engineers can be very tricky sometimes, just to come to an understanding. We nail it 90 percent of the time.”
Nobuntu definitely “nailed it” last year when the group first came to the Lakewood Cultural Center. Rita Sommers, the center’s administrator, says the 2018 performance sold out almost immediately, making the decision to bring Nobuntu back, this time for two shows, an easy one.
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“I think there's a real interest in world music, music from other cultures,” says Sommers. “The warmth of [Nobuntu] leaps out of their photos and out of their videos. Part of our mission at the Lakewood Cultural Center, through the Presents series, is to provide a real mix of different kinds of performing arts, and they are outstanding [singers] and really engaging as performers as well.”
Although a cappella music in the United States and Europe is popular with both male and female singers, that’s not the case in Zimbabwe, according to Sibanda. Nobuntu, she says, is the only all-female professional a cappella group that performs the male-dominated genre know as “mbube.” Despite that fact, the group has been well received almost everywhere, a fact Sibanda attributes to a global shift in perceptions.
“I think we are in the era of the woman,” she says. “Women are being uplifted. Everyone, if you touch on [the subject of women], everyone is just excited about it and wants to know more.”
And while showing off their country’s music is part of the thrill of performing in Nobuntu, there’s a more practical reason that performing it is so important to the group’s members.
“Nothing is written,” says Sibanda. “We never wrote anything back in our history when it comes to music, like chorally. Our music is passed down orally — you get taught it by your grandmother or your great-grandmother, so nothing is written down. That's what we get to teach as well, that our music is still undiscovered.”
Time is running out, she says, to bring this music to the world. While the spread of ideas around the world is mostly a good thing, traditions and cultural ideas can get lost in the shuffle.
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“We're slowly becoming one global village,” says Sibanda. “Things are almost becoming the same everywhere. Even in Africa, you'll find that children do not know about their tradition anymore because of the media and how things have changed In the world as a whole.”
Preserving a small part of Zimbabwe’s musical culture, Sibanda says, is the ultimate goal of Nobuntu.
“We're just trying to be traditional ambassadors and cultural ambassadors, to show the world out there where we come from and how we used to do things back then,” says Sibanda. “We just hope we give it to them — the beautiful culture, the beautiful tradition — and they take it and run with it, because we want people out there to know how we live, who we are.”
Nobuntu will perform at the Lakewood Cultural Center on Saturday, November 9, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, November 10, at 2 p.m.