Thursday, September 15, 2011

South African Isicathamiya Music

Written by Azizi Powell

About seven years ago I happened upon the book African Stars- Studies in Black South African Performance (Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology) by Veit Erlmann. Here's an editorial review of that book:
Erlmann (anthropology, Freie Universat, Berlin) writes with sympathetic authority on the South African musicians, composers, and dancers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who paved the way for such contemporary figures as Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Unlike David Coplan's In Township Tonight! (Longman, 1986), which attempts to provide a comprehensive history of modern black South African performing arts, this study features concentrated, scholarly essays on several significant individuals. Quietly challenging those who view the evolution of the performance styles in terms of sociopolitical mass movements, Erlmann gives credit where it's due to such influential creative talents as African American choral singer Orpheus McAdoo and South African composer Reuben Caluza. For African studies and performing arts collections with an interest in world music and dance.
- Anne Sharp, Ypsilanti District Lib., Mich.
Although I found the entire book fascinating reading, I was particularly interested in its chapters on isicathamiya music. Here's some information from other online sources about that genre of South African music:
Isicathamiya (with the 'c' pronounced as a dental click) is a singing style that originated from the South African Zulus. In European understanding, a cappella is also used to describe this form of singing.

The word itself does not have a literal translation; it is derived from the Zulu verb -cathama, which means walking softly, or tread carefully. Isicathamiya contrasts with an earlier name for Zulu a cappella singing, mbube, meaning "lion". The change in name marks a transition in the style of the music: traditionally, music described as Mbube is sung loudly and powerfully, while isicathamiya focuses more on achieving a harmonious blend between the voices. The name also refers to the style's tightly-choreographed dance moves that keep the singers on their toes.

South African singing groups such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo demonstrate this style. Isicathamiya choirs are traditionally all male. Its roots reach back before the turn of the 20th century, when numerous men left the homelands in order to search for work in the cities. As many of the tribesmen became urbanized, the style was forgotten through much of the 20th century.

Today, isicathamiya competitions in Johannesburg and Durban take place on Saturday nights, with up to 30 choirs performing from 8 pm to 8 am the following morning
"In the mid-1800s, travelling minstrel shows began to visit South Africa.

At first, as far as can be ascertained, these minstrels were white performers in "black face", but by the 1860s genuine black American minstrel troupes had begun to tour the country, singing spirituals of the American South and influencing many South African groups to form themselves into similar choirs.

Regular meetings and competitions between such choirs soon became popular, forming an entire sub-culture unto itself that continues to this day in South Africa.

Orpheus McAdoo and the Virginia Jubilee Singers were among the most popular of the visiting minstrel groups, touring the country four times (some of his troupe's members, in fact, decided to stay in South Africa). McAdoo was a hero to South Africans of colour, as a model of what a black man could achieve.

This tradition of minstrelsy, joined with other forms, also contributed to the development of isicathamiya, which had its first international hit in 1939 with "Mbube".

This remarkable song by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds was an adaption of a traditional Zulu melody, and has been recycled and reworked innumerable times, most notably as Pete Seeger's hit "Wimoweh" and the international classic "The Lion Sleeps Tonight".

Here are three video examples of Isicathamiya choirs:

Solomon Linda And The Evening Birds Original Version, The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Uploaded by FLORENCOM on Nov 7, 2007

Solomon Linda And The Evening Birds Original Version, The Lion Sleeps Tonight (El león duerme esta noche) 1939

Ladysmith Black Mambazo - "Homeless"

LadysmthBlackMambazo, Uploaded on Jan 13, 2011

Zulu Isicathamiya choirs

Uploaded by 4824611; February 27, 2009

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  1. I first heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo -- and this style of singing -- when I was 15. I was hooked by the type of singing immediately, but never knew what the name of it was.

    Now if I could sing, that would be good.

  2. Yes, their singing is smooth. And they're stylin in those suits!

  3. In December 2004, I posted several comments about Soloman Linda's group's performance of "Mbube" starting with this comment on this Blues/Folk music discussion thread Lyr Req: Lion Sleeps Tonight

    "With regard to Soloman Linda's Mbube {The Lion Sleeps Tonight}, a very interesting book that I'm reading "African Stars: Studies in Black African Performance" {Veit Erlmann;Chicago, University of Chicago Press,1991} gives a fascinating account of the composition of this song. I quote from the book:

    "In 1939...He [Soloman Popolo Linda]decided to take a job offer as packer at Gallo's newly opened record pressing plant in Roodepoort [South Africa]. His choir soon attracted the attention of Gallo's talent scout Griffith Motsieloa, and before long one of Linda's songs,
    "Mbube {Lion}(Gallo GE 829, reissued on Rounder 5052, A5) topped the list of the country's best selling recordings for the African listenership. Like most isicathamiya tunes, "Mbube" was based on a wedding song which Linda and his friends had picked up from young girls in Msinga [a very poor section of Natal, South Africa] and whose words commemorated the killing of a lion cub by the young Soloman and his herdsboy friends.

    While neither the words of "Mbube" nor its anchorage in a wedding song were particularly original, in the view of [Linda's group] Evening Bird member Gilbert Madonda, it was Linda's performance style in conjunction with other innovations that revolutionized migrant workers choral performance styles [referred to as "isicathamiya" and also known as "boloha" or "umbholoho"]".


    Here's another comment that I wrote on that same thread on that same date:

    "I found the reference to "imbube" in the African Stars book that I mentioned earlier. That book mentions that "imubube" is the "first genuine isicathamiya style" and "its pioneer {is} Solomon Linda {page 165).

    "Isicathamiya" is an urban music that dates from 1891. The music was performed by & associated with Black African migrant laborers. However, isicathamiya's four part choral songs are very much indebted to Zulu wedding songs and their accompanying choreography. In the United States, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is perhaps the most well known isicathamiya group. The name of that group translates as "The Black axe from Ladysmith".

    If you are at all interested in African music, try to find "African Stars". It's a good read!!"


    That Mudcat Discussion Forum thread also provides information about how Disney and others were sued and the Linda heirs finally received a substantial settlement for the use of the song "Mbube".