Not all refugees are in Calais or aiming for here. This enthralling piece from Mark Dornford-May’s Isango Ensemble of Cape Town tells another story, an African epic beating and yearning with the voice of a great continent. Musically magnificent, poignant and joyful and vigorous, it is based on Jonny Steinberg’s book, the true story of Asad Abdullahi al-Yusuf, a stateless Somali refugee of a proud tribe – “thirty-five generations!” – cast wandering across the troubled bosom of Africa.



Steinberg met him in the Blikkersdorp township five years ago, hustling, running errands, surviving in a shack with his family. He learned the story and step by step we watch the unfolding of a life. First the modern Asad, Ayanda Tikolo, is seen: nervy, on alert for attacks, nobly sad-faced. Our awareness of that haunts all his younger selves, as they dance and travel past us. There’s the eight-year-old Asad (an irresistible small child performer , Siposethu Juta or Phielo Makitle) who saw his mother shot in the civil war in 1991, escaped to Kenya to a UN refugee camp, learned scraps of English. He finds brief protection from an adult woman cousin (Pauline Malefane) but when she is shot must nurse her, forced to clean her intimately even through her periods “I had no choice” and keep her alive.



Chased on alone to Ethiopia the boy grows up – Zoleka Mpotsha then Luvo Tamba take on the role in this skilled, relaxed, freewheelingly disciplined barefoot ensemble. Asad finds casual work, marries, and travels to the promised land of wealthy South Africa. Where, as an asylum-seeking migrant “stealing our jobs, bringing crime”, he meets hostility and violence from a black community, itself embittered by the souring of the Rainbow Nation promise.


It could be grim: and there are moments almost unbearably moving, especially in the deep silence after the child’s mother is shot, broken by the chirping of crickets and then a high wailing note from the boy, taken up in deep harmony , almost reminiscent of a Byrd lament, by the rest: hairs rise on your neck, as soul of Africa keens for its losses. The music by Mandisi Dyantyis and Pauline Malefane, on six huge marimbas and any number of percussion junk, is complex, sophisticated and hugely operatic. And there is a dignity in Asad, and his sense of tribe and culture, which underpins the whole story. Asked for his name, from childhood he sings his tribe’s tune of identity, and through the tale he finds succour in the diaspora of his kin.



But it is unsentimental and tough-minded about this too: at one key point a relative refuses the child help, being only by-marriage; in South Africa the hostility of a people disillusioned and degraded by generations of apartheid weighs heavy on the struggling Somali small-tradesmen. In a strange moment of pride Asad says he will live in the suburbs; the South Africans mock him, only white people live there; and he protests that he is not black…his lineage is long and noble, that “blackness’ means something different to him. But after losing his first wife and son because she cannot stand the prejudice, he is the one who finally rejects tribalism by marrying a woman of outcast, ‘unclean’ tribe. The theme of clannishness and culture which can be either pride and protection or imprisoning prejudice is subtle and strong and honest. It echoes with many things, from ISIS to UKIP and raises the piece above the mere glory and uplift of music and dance, to a serious moral significance.


The final moments reflect Steinberg’s tale of Asad’s final remarks. He gets his American asylum papers at last, ruefully remembering how as a little child he dreamed that “America is always safe, there are no guns, everyone is rich”, and faces another future as a migrant there. But he won’t read the book. Too many lost loved ones, too many rejections. “The story is not for him” Steinberg writes. It’s not therapy for a man who survived and grew noble without it. It’s for the rest of us to learn from. Grave, exhilarating, honest, unmissable.

box office 020 7922 2922. to 12 Nov
rating: five   5 Meece Rating


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