"Ah, good, friendly ones," says Themba Ndaba. "Yes, good ones."
He should know. Ndaba is part of the "African Footprints" performance group, an ensemble from South Africa that has toured internationally — including Israel — bringing its mix of merry and mellifluous song and dance to dozens of nations globally.
Next stop: Philadelphia, where the troupe will perform as part of its first U.S. tour, Feb. 29 to March 2 at the Academy of Music.
As a multiple instrumentalist, Ndaba is key to the group's success, bringing the soulful sounds of his South African nation to the ears of others as a musical heartthrob of sorts. But a sentimental journey to Israel several years ago echoes yet in the black South African's musical mind.
"The Holy Land," he muses of his 10-day stay there with the group. "It was like a class for me."
And the blackboard was chalked in with lyrical lessons during this sandals and soul tour, in which the "Footprinters" brought their shoe business before the footlights in Haifa "and another city, near Haifa."
But it was also the down time he spent that left Ndaba so up tempo about the tour. "I went to a music shop in Haifa; prices were so reasonable. And then to a flea market. So interesting."
The next sound you hear is clearly of a clarinetist/flutist/ saxophonist who found discordant images to his liking while touring.
"I was able to visit Jerusalem, so different from Haifa," where everyone is casual and "it's not so religious a place as Jerusalem, where I saw people with these hats [yarmulkes], black suits and white shirts."
Unorthodox images to a man whose own background is immersed more in the impoverished icons of his homeland.
"All of the performers come from low-income, disadvantaged backgrounds and were trained to perform by the show's producer Richard Loring when he started a school for disadvantaged South African youth interested in performing arts," according to notes provided by the company.
No disadvantage now, as Ndaba's vantage point is on a global scale. And what linked the 10-year-old ensemble and their Haifa hosts was, of course, the music.
Israeli tunes are tied in to South African songs through a connection that crosses thousands of miles.
"They are both very social music," says Ndaba. "You feel the movement of music" in both countries.
Something in the way it moves him … Not that he didn't feel a connection to that kilowatt energy before. "Hatikvah" is a hat trick of the heart no matter where you call home, and his muse proves it.
"One of my teachers," he notes, "is from Haifa," and the Jewish citizenry of South Africa "has a history of support [of freedom] that is very important for all people there."
And Ndaba — no matter where he goes — is on familiar and terrific terrain. After all, he says, "music is the universal language; we can all relate."