Ngema: Director of `Sarafina!' on Stage. MUSIC: INTERVIEW

MBONGENI NGEMA (pronounced Moan-GAY-nee En-GAY-ma), the multi-talented director of ``Sarafina!,'' still sees himself as a musician first and foremost. Mr. Ngema's South African father was a guitarist, and young Ngema taught himself to play by listening to his father and people such as American jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery on recordings and radio. He wanted to be a professional musician. ``But you were always discouraged by everybody,'' Ngema said in an interview.

``Artists are like useless people, particularly musicians - there's no future. There's a shortage of work in South Africa, in industry, and the music industry is even worse.

Nevertheless, Ngemi went ahead with his musical career, forming bands that played at weddings or in schools.

Eventually his tenacity paid off in an unexpected way, in 1976, when his friend Lucky Mavundla asked him to write music and play in the band for his play ``Isigcino.''

``I'd never seen any theater before that,'' says Ngema. ``I started liking what they were doing on stage. Backstage the musicians would entertain each other, mimicking what the actors were doing, because it was a funny play. One night the lead actor was not there, and I volunteered to take his part. Since that night everybody's never stopped encouraging me that I should act.''

So Ngema became an actor, and in 1981 he collaborated with Percy Mtwa in creating ``Woza Albert!,'' which toured the world for more than five years. In 1982 he wrote the play ``Asinamali,'' for which he also wrote all of the music and did the choreography. Today, Ngema plays guitar, trumpet, and keyboards; sings and writes music and lyrics; acts, directs, and choreographs.

Now that ``Sarafina!'' has proved to be such a success on Broadway, Ngema hopes African culture and music will become more and more popular in the United States.

``I think the more visibility we get, it will help. In South Africa we're fighting two struggles: the social and economic struggle and also the race struggle. If our culture becomes more visible, then ... maybe it can help influence the larger community in South Africa and in the outside world to change things.''

Ngema's next play, a musical titled ``Township Fever,'' will feature both South African and American blacks. This summer, Ngemi will tour with various members from the cast of ``Sarafina!,'' in support of his new album, ``Time to Unite.''

The Monitor's Feb. 28 interview with Mbongeni Ngema was published with the wrong photo. The picture, identified as Mr. Ngema, was actually of Hugh Masakela.

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