Having so thoroughly enjoyed The Tin Bucket Drum showing at the Kalk Bay Theatre it was a real pleasure to chat to actress Mpume Mthombeni and percussionist Wake Mahlobo at Ours in Kalk Bay yesterday.
This talented duo hail from Durban, where both grew up, Mpume in a religious home, the only daughter of a minister in the Zionist church and Wake in a large family of musicians.
Prevented by her father from following her dreams – to do karate, ballet (“My God, spreading your legs in the air – what a disgrace!”), athletics, enrolling at University to study librarianship and working in a job she had landed in a factory, Mpume eventually auditioned for a part in a show on Durban beach, a venture her father once again tried to put a stop to, but without success. “And I never stopped acting thereafter!” laughs Mpume.
“My father wanted me to be a good Zulu girl, get married, have kids and work on a farm. My mother hated the idea – she said I would turn black in the sun! She was behind me all the way – she would come to all my performances, proudly announcing to all that I was her daughter. I can still feel my mom’s presence when I am on stage. I believe I got my acting talent from my maternal grandfather who was a Scathamiya leader and my singing talent from my mom who was a choir mistress. My eldest son – I have two- also wants to go into music, but he must study in the field and learn as much as he can so that he can create his opportunities. Talent is not enough.
My acting career started in 1992 when I auditioned for and was accepted as one of the twenty intakes by the Kwasa Outreach Programme. I had just finished matric. We were trained for a year in drama, dance, stage management and sound management. After I took part in the performances on the beach, my father would not speak to me for a long time.”
A freelance actress, Mpume has since performed in a number of productions with various companies. She was invited by Neil Coppen, the playwright, to join Wake in The Tin Bucket Drum in 2010. In 2012 they did 10 shows in New York, an experience the duo both thoroughly enjoyed despite being “completely jet-lagged” most of the time. The show received excellent reviews and featured as Pick of the Week in the New York Times.
Together with two friends, Pinky and Smiley, Mpume formed the Durban Divas, the trio singing cover songs at various venues. She is also a director of the NPO Arley’s Workshop which holds creative workshops for youngsters. “We have held puppetry workshops – making puppets and creating puppet shows – and also have had a workshop with an ethno-musicologist, Sazi Dlamini, where we taught children how to make and play indigenous musical instruments.”
Speaking of her acting career, Mpume says: “I have never done a show that has not been challenging. The Tin Bucket Drum is not an easy play to do. The characters have to be in your blood … the story must come from within. As an actor you are painting a story. Acting has taught me to observe people closely, to be in the moment. You cannot just jump into a one-hander without experience. Sometimes I am quite out of breath when I am possessed by the characters I play.
This show brings me closer to my ancestors. I feel their spirits all around me. I was approached by a member of the audience one evening who asked me whether I was a sangoma. He said that, although he was a reborn Christian, he saw all my ancestors around me! I am not ready to finish with this play yet – I have not learnt all that it has to teach me.”
Unlike Mpume, Wake grew up in a family that nurtured his talent. His father was a singer and played most instruments. When he played the piano and would get his seven children to sing along. While he was still a young boy, Wake’s older brothers would take him to their band rehearsals where at times he had to restrain himself from picking out the drummers when he sensed that they were not quite “in the groove”. Starting out as a singer – also singing cover songs – he was eventually taken on as the drummer in the family group, Black Angels, before he could even reach the pedals properly.
“I was introduced to great musicians – Theo Bophela, Nelson Maguasa ….They were a great influence on me. I worked on the craft of drumming and would do exercises to keep my hands and wrists flexible. I have the ability to feel the rhythm of a piece and have been able help other drummers find their rhythm. I like to pass on my experience and knowledge to other people, especially the youngsters.”
Mpume: “You should open your own music school!”
Wake: “I have tried to do so for several years. The problem is that various departments promise funding and then you never see the money. I worry about the sustainability of the music industry. I would also like to teach our artistic young people that promiscuity and drink kills one’s precious talent. Too many of our artists fall down because of self-neglect and fame. I would like to run a project that teaches them to understand music and that art is business.”
Like Mpume, Wake would like to take The Tin Bucket Drum “as far as it will go” but he is also willing to pass it on to other talented musicians. “I would grab the chance to teach all that I have learnt through doing the show. It has certainly taught me to concentrate my mind. As the percussionist one’s timing has to be exact.”
Exact it is. His fine background thrumming perfectly complements the impassioned acting of Mpume in The Tin Bucket Drum. Friends off stage, the pair form a perfect team on it.
For more about The Tin Bucket Drum see
© Viv von der Heyden, www.scenicsouth.co.za