All through South Africa's apartheid years, music was a saving grace for many black South Africans. Pulsating tribal rhythms and gospel music offered both an escape and a confirmation of their identity. But Todd Twala, one of the country's top choreographers, feared that modern South Africans were in danger of losing that musical heritage and decided to do something about it. What began as a plan to give disadvantaged black youths the opportunity to dance and learn something about life has evolved into Umoja, a massive showcase of South African music and dancing that has travelled the world. It won rave reviews in London's West End and Mebourne and will play Hong Kong later this month. 'During apartheid we were not exposed to the outside world, but fortunately music was our best friend,' said Ms Twala. 'Since then, things have changed, people have started looking to the outside world and forgetting their own music.' Ms Twala blames foreign music, in particular American pop, which has been widely available since the apartheid regime crumbled in the late 1980s. She insists that there is more at stake than South Africa's musical roots, and that music is the key to young people's culture, identity and self-respect. 'I don't want teenagers to think that Americans are better than them, I want them to understand that they have a rich culture,' she says. The inspiration for Umoja came from a desire to do something for young black youths in poor communities and townships. They looked to Ms Twala as a role model. Not only did she have three decades of experience as a singer, dancer and choreographer, she also had the wealth that went with success. In 1996, Ms Twala teamed up with long-time friend and production designer Thembi Nyandeni to give dance classes in townships. They hired a recreation centre and word soon spread about their project. 'Our intention wasn't to do a show. We just wanted to teach them steps, get them dancing and tell them what life is about. It was more of a social club than a dance school,' recalls Ms Twala. But the need for a creative outlet was so great, and the determination of the dancers so strong, that the project snowballed. The show that would become Umoja began as a stage production called Baobab, a cabaret-style show that Twala's group performed to corporate functions in South Africa and then the world. She describes Umoja as a journey through her country's musical legacy. The title of the show means 'spirit of togetherness'. 'It's about how our music has changed, beginning with the tribal drums and growing from there to R&B. It is about why we have gospel music, jazz music, guitars and then the technology in new music,' she says. The show bursts on the stage with life and colour. Fantastically bright costumes and a strong rhythm help add to the experience. And the 34 performers on stage, aged 18 to 25, are testimony to Ms Twala's belief that it pays to follow your dreams. 'South African teenagers are changing in their thinking. They are starting to appreciate their music more, it's taking them back to their roots and giving them an identity,' she says. Umoja will be performed from October 29 to November 2 at the Hong Kong Academy For Performing Arts, Lyric Theatre, Wan Chai. Tickets cost $245-$495 from HK Ticketing. For further inquiries, call 3128 8288.