'Isambulo', musical that takes you to church

Theatre musical 'Isambulo' is currently on at the State Theatre, Pretoria. / Sanmari Marai
Theatre musical 'Isambulo' is currently on at the State Theatre, Pretoria. / Sanmari Marai

Award-winning director Zakhele Mabena has produced another smash hit theatre musical called Isambulo.

The gospel musical is currently on at the South African State Theatre in Pretoria as part of the annual Mzansi Fela Festival. Isambulo is co-written and co-directed by Mabena and Sanku Bokaba.

The musical features some well-known professional musicians and actors such as Nhlakanipho Cele who won the I Want to Sing Gospel competition, Simphiwe Mini who acted in Muvhango, Generations and Zabalaza, Busisiwe Sibiya, Mathapelo Masilela, Bathabile Skosana and Pascaline Modiba.

Mabena said the reason he featured famous faces was that he did not have a big budget and preferred people who he had worked with.

Isambulo is about celebrating the African culture of worship in black society. Mabena said the gospel musical embraces diverse ways in which different churches worship God.

"This is the kind of a show that reaches out to any person of any age, beyond race or denomination. The show is full of spiritual life and charisma, and speaks to every soul."

The Soshanguve-born music composer said the idea of Isambulo came out of his observation of how churches entertain differences instead of imparting good morals.

"Churches always criticise each other about how they praise God. They forget their role in society is to knit the community together through the word of God.

"I wanted a production that will merge different churches in terms of music. This production celebrates the diversity of churches in South Africa.

"The musical has both dialogue and music. It is a very interactive production where we use the audience as congregants. It is a fusion of the old traditional hymns with new compositions, to create a new song that all can worship in."

Mabena is a winner of a Naledi Theatre Award for arranging music for Marikana The Musical in 2015.

Mabena said his passion for music developed at a young age in church, where he played keyboards.

After matric he studied popular music at Central Johannesburg College, majoring in sound engineering.

From there he joined Outrageous Records where they produced music for artists such as Zubz, and Tumi and The Volume. He also worked with musicians such as Pebbles, McKenzie, Ringo Madlingozi, Mathapelo, Unathi, and Dr Sello Galane.

Mabena has written music scores for television programmes such as Tshisa, Moferefere Lenyalong and It's Gospel Time, among others.

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