Cape Crusaders: Isango Ensemble

Isango Ensemble Isango Ensemble
Posted: Fri May 4 2012

In anticipation of their three-week season at the Hackney Empire, Time Out visits the Isango Ensemble, an opera company formed in one of Cape Town's infamous townships

'I imagine that 99 per cent of white South Africans have never been in a township,' says my guide cheerfully. 'They think you will be killed there. It's nonsense: I have been in townships in the middle of the night; there are obviously certain areas you don't go to, but then there are certain areas of London I wouldn't go to at three in the morning.'

My guide is 56-year-old Yorkshireman Mark Dornford-May, co-founder and director of Isango Ensemble, the award-winning opera company which visits London in May and was formed here in Khayelitsha, a sprawling township of prefab corrugated iron units on the outskirts of Cape Town, that's home to a million black South Africans. The shacks are packed together, seemingly bound by haphazard electricity cables and washing lines. It is approaching lunchtime and the fast food joints' braziers are sizzling with local delicacies such as 'smileys' (sheep's heads) and 'walky-talkies' (chickens' heads and feet). Women are chatting outside the hairdressing salons and uniformed schoolchildren are trotting along the streets. This is a teeming city with a myriad of stories, one of which is Isango Ensemble, and its 30-strong company whose members all hail from here.

Dornford-May's mother-in-law lives in Khayelitsha and his wife, opera singer Pauline Malefane, grew up here. Khayelitsha translates as 'new home' and like other townships it is the product of apartheid - in part the clearing of Cape Town's District Six. In 1966 the district's black residents were forcibly relocated from that comparatively integrated quarter near the port to the dusty wasteland of the Cape Flats, more than 20 miles from the city centre. Consequently, Khayelitsha, and other townships, have an overwhelmingly black population.

Rather than opting to present a 'rainbow nation' version of South Africa to the world, Isango (which means 'gateway' in Xhosa) has specialised in bringing the rich indigenous culture of its black population to bear on classics from the Western theatrical canon, often finding a new context for the stories within a township setting. The company's story began in 2000 when Dornford-May was running Wilton's Music Hall in east London. One night a South African multimillionaire called Dick Enthoven came to a show and found himself sitting between Lord Browne, the chairman of BP, and someone from a high-rise in Tower Hamlets. 'His feeling was that if theatre could work like this in London, it could perhaps start to bridge some of the economic divides in his own country,' explains Dornford-May. 'I told him I would come and work with him if I could form a company from singers based in the region.'

Enthoven funded the first three years of Isango and paid for the ensemble's award-winning films, 'UCarmen eKhayelitsha' and 'Son of Man'. Dornford-May's meeting with Malefane came about during rehearsals for the production of 'Carmen'. The foreign principal's voice wasn't working with the timbre of the South African singers, and visiting conductor Charles Hazlewood suggested one of the girls in the chorus could do it. 'And that was Pauline,' the director smiles. 'About a week later I fell in love with her and married her and that was it.'

On its last London tour in 2008, the Isango Ensemble (whose patron is Sir Ian McKellen) scooped an Olivier Award for its version of 'The Magic Flute'. On my visit, I attended its latest opera production, 'La bohème'. Puccini's masterpiece of youthful love and loss in bohemian Paris is sung in English, with a smattering of Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu. The orchestra is replaced by marimbas, steel pans and, most impressively, the soaring voices of the chorus, who, as part of a true ensemble, leap on and off stage to act and sing. The story itself, while faithful to the original, has also been South Africanised. The Paris of 1830 has become a modern-day township in the winter month of June; Students' Day (commemorating a 1976 massacre in Johannesburg) stands in for Christmas Eve; Café Momus is a shebeen full of slackers and - a familiar occurrence in township life - the electricity supply is intermittent.

The effect is stunning. Joyful South African dance routines emerge naturally from the story; the vocal lines, embellished with occasional yelps, clicks and ululations, inflect the milieu in which it is now set. The tenor role is sung powerfully by Mhlekazi Mosiea, starring as ardent poet Rodolfo (here called Lungelo), and duetting with the ivory-voiced Malefane (as Mimi). Meanwhile, where orchestral strings
would swell, the soaring voices of the chorus bring thrilling colour to the arrangement, the ensemble's sopranos resounding high above the principals.

What makes this production of 'La bohème' particularly poignant is that tuberculosis, which finally kills the heroine Mimi, is a serious issue in this country. The airborne disease, which for most operagoing Westerners is merely a historical dramatic device (although, it should be noted, London is now the TB capital of Europe), claims the lives of 25,000 South Africans each year. Hence the involvement of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which is partly funding the production. 'It is incredibly relevant,' says Dornford-May, 'because the statistics are frightening. Seventy-five per cent of children aged between eight and ten that have been tested are TB positive. That is a real problem for us.'

Dornford-May's use of the word 'us' is telling. He is no visiting do-gooder, but someone who has now made his life here and is committed to South Africa and its people. His aim is to bridge the racial divide of his adopted country through the arts; he is currently planning to build a theatre in Khayelitsha out of shipping containers. South Africa, whose population is 80 per cent black, finally threw off apartheid with the 1994 election which returned the African National Congress-led government, coinciding with Nelson Mandela becoming the first black president. However, apartheid's legacy is less easily dismantled - with communities of people separated on the basis of their ethnicity still not tending to mix socially.

This is where Dornford-May believes Isango can contribute. 'I feel our mission is to help, as much as possible, to build a nation,' he explains. 'This is a fractured place, but hopefully people can come and mingle at a show. We have a nine-year-old daughter who goes
to a smart school, and one of her teachers, a white lady in her fifties, came up after one of our shows and said, “That was fantastic; I was sitting next to this young black man and we were laughing together.” And I realised that it was a completely unique experience for her - she had simply never done that in her life. So if we can make that happen, that's good.'

Our tour ends at the house of Ntuthu Ntshona. The charming 24-year-old soprano, dancer and actor has been in the company for 18 months. 'I love this job,' she enthuses. 'The cast are like a family.' One suspects that she has inherited her good nature from her mother, Violet, with whom she lives. Violet, it transpires, is something of a saint. In her small, four-room bungalow she operates a 'safety home' for abandoned and abused children, some with serious illnesses such as Aids and TB. She receives no government subsidy and pays for the nappies and food for the 14 infants that live with her through her meagre pension and charitable donations.

'Education is the Power' is painted in curly white letters on the sky-blue wall outside. When we visit, the children are sitting in the tiny front garden listening to a story read by a uniformed volunteer, shaded by one of the few trees in the township. They are smartly turned out, all giggles and showing off the English phrases they know. The children need little encouragement to sing for us. Violet sets down a baby she has been carrying and leads them in an Afrikaans version of 'London's Burning', followed by a song involving clapping and jumping. The impromptu display is rounded off with a rousing rendition of the South African national anthem, 'Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika' ('The Lord Bless Africa' in Xhosa) the infant citizens proudly standing, beaming ear to ear, hands clasped to their tiny hearts.

This is just one of the stories of Khayelitsha; someone making a difference with the talents they have. Just like Violet, Ntuthu and her colleagues of the Isango Ensemble, who tread the stages of the world, are symbols of hope, resilience and triumph over adversity. That spirit will soon be among us as Isango Ensemble returns to London next week, bringing not just a slice of township life, but investing its productions with modernity, relevance and, most importantly, thrilling entertainment.

Isango Ensemble performs at Hackney Empire in 'La bohème', 'The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists' and 'Aesop's Fables', May 11-June 3 2012. Donate to Violet Ntshona's 'safety home' at>