Ipi Tombi

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Ipi Tombi is a stage musical by Bertha Egnos and Gail Lakier.

The title is also written various other ways in various sources (e.g. Ipi-Tombi, Ipi Ntombi, Ipi Thombi, Ipi Nthombi, Ipi N'tombi, Ip'nthombi and so on). These are all corrupted transliterations of the original isiZulu phrase "iphi intombi", meaning "where is the girl?". [1]

The original text

A wildly popular, yet controversial, musical show created and produced by Bertha Egnos with her daughter, the lyricist Gail Lakier. It utilized what became known as a "Jim comes to Jo’burg" scenario about a rural Zulu man struggling to adapt to urban life, padded out with flimsy costumes, vigorous indigenous dances and catchy popular songs.

Given the problems of performing the play in South Africa because of the racial segregation imposed by the Apartheid regime, the show initially opened in Perth, Australia, in 1973 - where it made a huge initial impact before the backer disappeared with the takings leaving the company stranded in Sydney.

Translations and adaptations

The piece went on to become a legend – praised by many, performed all over the world in one way or the other, and vilified by others, including Black intellectuals and BCM Organisations, for what was perceived as its blatant exploitation of its cast and the cultural heritage it represented.

Many of original the cast members became well-known performers in their own right, a number touring the world in off-shoot Ipi Tombi companies, doing extracts from the show. Some of the songs became international hits, notably Mama Tembu’s Wedding (attributed to Margaret Singana) and the so-called "click song" immortalized by Miriam Makeba. Deriving its roots from King Kong and similar productions, Ipi Tombi in many ways reaffirmed existing notions of “African culture” which were utilized by many subsequent productions.

Performance history in South Africa

1974: Having finally received the required permits to play in a "white" theatre, the show opened in South Africa on 25 March 1974. It initially played at whites only venues, such as the Brooke Theatre in Johannesburg, before going on to also play in Soweto and other townships to great enthusiasm.

1976: Performed at the Piet van der Walt Theatre Pretoria.

1997: Civic Theatre, Johannesburg, 29 May to 14 June. The cast has been chosen from a varied cross-section of local dancers and actors, many of whom have performed on stages in Europe and the United States. Some of the singers and dancers are children and grandchildren of members of the original musical cast. Bertha Egnos remains at the helm. Working alongside Bertha is internationally accalimed South African actor Ken Gampu who is responsible for the management of the cast, and Carlo Spetto, the staging director.


Pretoria News, 5 January 1976.

Loren Kruger 1999a. The Drama of South Africa: Plays, Pageants and Publics Since 1910. London: Routledge.: 137, 141.

Percy Tucker 1997. Just the Ticket. My 50 Years in Show Business. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press. 1997: pp. 296-7.

Report by Craig Canavan, Pretoria News, 23 May 1997.

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