Zimbabwean quintet Nobuntu bring joyful a cappella music to Santa Monica

By Bliss Bowen

Nobuntu has taken an historically male art form and made it all their own

Nicknames can be tricksters — seemingly affectionate, even while caging people with restrictive labels. Nobuntu, a female a cappella quintet from Zimbabwe, smartly opted to claim their nickname as a defining opportunity.

“Back home, they call us ‘obabes bembube,’ which means ‘the babes of mbube,’” explains Duduzile Sibanda, known as Dudu, a vivacious presence in the band. “People always say that a lot. So we thought, ‘This is cool. Maybe we should honor it and actually write stuff about that.’”

What they wrote became “Obabes beMbube,” Nobuntu’s third album, which cheerily transforms condescension into uplifting self-affirmation. They will celebrate the album Saturday with their first California concert, at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

Nobuntu’s genre of music, mbube, was first popularized as a genre by South Africa’s renowned male ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo; and Nobuntu’s radiant women are collectively upending Zimbabwean tradition by singing traditional mbube, an a cappella form that has long been performed by men. Not because its themes are unique to men, but because men (like those in Ladysmith Black Mambazo) made it popular and commercialized it. Thus do the ladies of Nobuntu scandalize genre purists unsettled by women singing lead (an annoying tribulation once shared by women bluegrass pioneers such as Hazel & Alice). When blending their thrilling, bell-like voices in harmony, they manage to simultaneously recall LBM as well as Sweet Honey in the Rock’s gospel soul.

Per Dudu, she and her bandmates — Joyline Sibanda (no relation), Heather Dube, Zanele Manhenga and Thandeka Moyo — were “born and bred” and still reside in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city and the capital of the Ndebele tribe. They began touring Europe after releasing their 2013 debut, “Thina,” 2015’s “Ekhaya” then exalted home. Whereas those albums mixed mbube with gospel, jazz and R&B, Dudu says “Obabes beMbube” is “90% mbube.” Their voices are punctuated by clicks, cries, handclaps, some acoustic percussion and occasional mbira (thumb piano). Dudu is quick to identify other differences between mbube and a cappella.

“Usually in doing mbube, you don’t just stand there and sing. We dance as well because mbube is comprised of a lot of traditional songs — songs that were sung way, way back by our ancestors. They keep on rotating and keep on remaking those songs.”

The title track of “Obabes beMbube” urges a radio DJ to play women mbube artists, and the frog-centered folktale of “Nobuntu Click Song,” sung in Ndebele, is similarly playful. Anchored by Nobuntu’s take on “Amazing Grace,” the 13 mostly original tracks are unified by themes of healing and basic human values.

“Our name, Nobuntu, means ‘mother of humanity,’” Dudu notes. “‘No’ stands for ‘mother’ in our language, the Ndebele language, and ‘nobunto’ is all the good aspects that make up a human: respect, love, being grateful, being loyal. We decided, Why not be the mother of that? In our music we spread messages of love, messages of respect, messages of being loyal. We always try and advocate for peace, for people to stop abuse and violence. As women, we thought, what better person or gender to try and advocate for all those good things?”

They are currently spreading those heartfelt messages on tour during a midterm election season that’s unusually heated even by contemporary standards — an observation that sparks a hearty laugh of agreement from Dudu. It’s not an optimal time to get acquainted with America, although Zimbabwe is no stranger to political turmoil; violence followed the landlocked southern African republic’s July 30 elections, which were preceded by a 2017 military coup that ended nonagenarian president Robert Mugabe’s 30-year rule. But Nobuntu’s focus was more spiritual than political when writing new songs.

Nobuntu takes over where Ladysmith Black Mambazo left off

“We try not to involve ourselves in politics and anything political,” Dudu says. “We say there have always been problems, and there have always been issues, way before politics, that are never looked at. Those are the things that we want to touch on and really look at and say, ‘Hey, aside from politics, did you know that women are getting raped every day? Aside from politics, did you know that children are suffering at schools?’ There’s a lot going on.”

Zimbabweans, she says, “have adapted” and learned to fend for themselves while political bullies fight between themselves. By way of example, she points to Nobuntu’s “pad bank shows” at home — charity concerts where people pay admission with packets of sanitary pads or tampons that are donated to recreational youth centers, for girls who have no jobs or hope outside the art they create. Like a countryman who recruits jobless youth to help rebuild hospital pediatric sections, it’s a practical way to alleviate one everyday consequence of poverty.

“Really dwelling and talking about politics and what is going on in the country is draining, and it won’t bring you anything unless you stand up and do something about it,” Dudu says. “We decided not to stop our lives because of what is happening in Zimbabwe. You know? That’s where we are right now.”

Nobuntu perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 10) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $40, $55 or $75. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.org.

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