Monday, January 29, 2018

Excerpt From A 1997 Article About Isicathamiya Music (The Music Style Popularized By Ladysmith Black Mambazo)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post presents an excerpt from the online page entitled "Articles from the 1997 Festival of American Folklife Program Book. That article is entitled "Songs of the Night: Isicathamiya Choral Music from KwaZulu Natal" by Angela Impey.

The Addendum to this article showcases a YouTube video of an isicathamiya competition.

The content of this post is presented for historical, folkloric, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

I present excerpts of online articles on this blog to raise awareness of those articles. Pancocojams visitors are encouraged to read the entire article and those article's source material.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all members of isicathamiya choirs. Thanks also to Angela Impey, and all others who are quoted in this post. Also, thanks to the choirs that are featured in this embedded YouTube video and thanks to the publisher of that video on YouTube.
Click the isicathamiya tag below to find more pancocojams post about this South African music genre.

by Angela Impey

The origins of isicathamiya are rooted in American minstrelsy and ragtime. U.S. vaudeville troupes such as Orpheus McAdoo and his Virginia Jubilee Singers toured South Africa extensively from 1890, inspiring the formation of numerous Black South African groups whose imitation of crude black-face troupes, song repertoire, and musical instruments signaled notions of cultural progress and self-improvement.

Even earlier, the educated, landed Black elite, or amakholwa (believers), whose Christian missionary education instilled in them the desire to imitate all things British, performed choral singing (imusic) - one of the main symbols of identification with Victorian values. Sankey and Moody urban revival hymns learned from the hymnal of the American Board Missions were central to the repertoire.

The Native Lands Act (1913) prohibited Black property ownership and forced thousands of indigenous peoples from their ancestral land. This devastating piece of legislation led to increasing political repression of all Black South Africans, regardless of educational, religious, and class status. In response, religious hymns were replaced with minstrelsy and other forms of African-American music and dance, as these performance models were considered better suited to emerging discourses of Black social and political dissent. The combination of four-part hymnody (imusic) and minstrelsy (and, later, "traditional" Zulu music) thus became the basis of much subsequent Black popular music in South Africa.

One individual who made a significant contribution toward exploring expressive forms able to satisfy an emerging nationalist, Black identity was Reuben Caluza. A choral composer who emerged from a Presbyterian mission background in KwaZulu Natal, his musical education spanned the whole spectrum of Black performance (Erlmann 1991:118). Although not an overtly political man, Caluza lived with strong commitment to Christian values and was sensitive to social injustice. His convictions became the main inspirational source for his songs. His first composition, "Silusapho Lwase Africa" (We Are the Children of Africa), was adopted in 1913 as the first theme of the South African Native National Congress, the precursor of today's African National Congress. Caluza's use of four-part harmonies and melodies taken from European and American hymn tunes, coupled with Zulu lyrics, did not simply imitate White choral music but "expressed the new relationships and values of urban groups, who expected fuller participation in the social and political life of the community into which they had been drawn economically" (Blacking 1980:198 in Erlmann 1991:121).

Caluza directed the Ohlange Institute Choir, which he toured extensively and which people of all classes and identities came to hear. His concerts, considered one of the earliest forms of variety shows for Black performers, combined imusic, brass bands, film shows, ballroom dancing, traditional drum-and-reed ensembles, and back-to-back dances (Erlmann 1991:122). Significantly, Caluza introduced ragtime into his repertoire. Although black-face minstrelsy groups had existed for a number of years and had come to be known as coons (isikhunsi), Caluza's ragtime renditions, which combined slick dance action with Zulu topical lyrics, more vigorously represented nationalist sentiments through their positive images of the ideal Black urbanite (Erlmann 1991:159).


By the 1920s, minstrel shows had gained widespread popularity throughout South Africa, extending deep into remote parts of the countryside, where traditional performance practices remained relatively unaltered. These shows particularly impressed Zulu migrant workers from the KwaZulu Natal regions, who combined stylistic elements of minstrelsy performance with ingoma (dance characterized by forward-stretching hands and high-kicking footwork) and izingoma zomtshado (Zulu wedding songs closely related in structure to ingoma songs) to form the prototype of present-day isicathamiya song and dance.

The vast number of Zulu men who entered the migrant labor system were made to occupy the marginal spaces of the cities: squalid, single-sex hostels, compounds, and impoverished locations. City dwelling demanded creative responses to the dislocation from home and family and to the new experiences of everyday life. With urban development in South Africa, Blacks formed trade unions, sports organizations, and entertainment clubs. Zulu isicathamiya groups developed a complex network of weekly competitions; they were prescribed and stately occasions, organized around set pieces, as had been the convention of school and mission competitions. Choral groups comprised men who shared regional and kinship ties. While isicathamiya competitions may have originated in Durban and KwaZulu Natal, they soon emerged among Zulu migrants in Johannesburg, where performances took on subtle stylistic differences.

The organization of choirs and the repertoire of actions, dance, and songs which characterized isicathamiya performance did not merely represent creative adaption and straddling of rural and urban, traditional and Western worlds. Rather, choirs and the web of competitions which held them in place became an important survival strategy for migrants in an increasingly fragmented and alienated existence.

"We're here and suffering," sing the Nthuthuko Brothers, "just as we come from difficulties in Zululand.... we're going up and down, between town and homeland.... We're going here and there, riding the train, see you later my sweetheart" (Meintjes 1993:4).


Isicathamiya song repertoire spans a wide range of styles and orientations, ranging from Zulu wedding songs to renditions of Beach Boys hits. However, basic to the performance genre is an underlying Christian commitment - expressed not only in frequent references to biblical texts and Christian hymn texture but also in the ritual action which patterns the competition. Choir members will customarily congregate in tight circles prior to a competition and pray for spiritual direction during their upcoming performance. (The gathering of men into tight circles with the leader in their midst also recalls isihaya, the cattle enclosure in a traditional village. Being the most sacred space in the homestead, it is considered a powerful, male domain where men likewise request guidance and spiritual strength from ancestors prior to going to war [Erlmann 1996:190]).


Angela Impey is a South African ethnomusicologist presently lecturing at the University of Natal, Durban. She received her doctorate from Indiana University in 1992, worked as music coordinator of the Johannesburg International Arts Alive Festival, and has worked with numerous outreach programs in southern Africa to facilitate research, documentation, and performance of indigenous music.

Works Cited

Erlmann, Veit. 1996. Nightsong: Performance, Power, and Practice in South Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

_______. 1991. African Stars: Studies in Black South African Performance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Meintjes, Louise. 1993. "The Hobo Judge Wears No Coat Tails; Zulu Choristers Do." Unpublished paper."


Amazing Zulu ISICATHAMIYA choirs

VIVIDPRO, Published on Feb 27, 2009

Zulu Isicathamiya choirs
Here are a few comments exchange from this video's discussion thread:

Mabonga Khumalo, 2010
"i'm so glad this sacred music have been protected to survive the attack of modern day vultures. as a proud Zulu, it is a privilege & honour to finally see this old traditional music being airwaved on the internet for the whole world to enjoy. i use to go YMCA, during my time in Johannesburg to watch real men competing on a saturday night. well dressed, caring a lot of respect with them. may this legacy be protected for the next generation. thanks for posting.

Peter Gibbs, 2013
"I had a chance to see one of these competitions in Durban... it lasted all night and included a fashion show. I think I sitll have some of it filmed, but I had the sense during my time in Durban that the culture (especially the musical culture) was on the verge of being swalled up by modernity... I heard some of the older kids sing in one of the schools there as well. You just can't not smile. :)"


"Hey Peter, Thanks for the comment. Yeah! thats why I did this video, unfortunately this cappella style of singing is quietly dis-intergrating with all the Kwaito, Afro beat and House taking over in the dance halls but at least at this stage, there is still a national competition held once a year where these back room basement choirs gather for competition to prove who the best choir is.....going to try to film that this year." 

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  1. Here's an excerpt from a 2016 article about isicathamiya competitions in South Africa: 'Singing makes us strong': The power of South Africa's Zulu gospel

    Friday 24 June 2016 10:18AMJanak Rogers

    "Isicathamiya is a traditional Zulu style of singing which emerged from South Africa at the turn of the 20th century. First brought to the international stage through Paul Simon's album Graceland, it's still being performed in raucous all-night competitions, as Janak Rogers witnessed.


    This afternoon there are only three groups performing, vying for small kitty they've all put a stake into. Some competitions have up to 30 groups, who sing and dance all day and all night in the hope of earning something worth taking home.

    Today, at best, if they win, they'll make a few dollars each.

    For Mdumxeni Xaba, the 34-year-old lead singer of Bergville Green Lovers, it's not about the money.

    'Our music is very broad, it tackles many things,' says Xaba. 'We sing about issues of HIV and AIDS, the youth, unemployment, xenophobia, crime—lots of things. All the challenges that are facing the country.'

    Mdumxeni Xaba is a teacher by day, but his deepest passion is music.

    'We sing about our lives, about the community,' he says. 'Many people here don't have jobs. But when they sing, they don't think about crime or doing bad things. Singing makes us strong.'"...

  2. In the video embedded above notice the white gloves that the isicathamiya singers wear during their competition.

    That fashion accessory in these competitions can be directly traced to the Black American minstrel/vaudeville troupes such as Orpheus McAdoo and his Virginia Jubilee Singers extensively toured South Africa in 1890s and some years afterwards.

    Wearing white gloves was a fixture of blackfaced minstrelsy. Although that accessory was the mark of a fashionably dressed man and woman in Europe and the United States in the 18th century (and for woman up to much of the 20th century), I believe that racist White people associated with black faced minstrelsy used that accessory as one way of poking fun at Black people "putting on airs" and "pretending to be better than they were" {that is to say, better than racist White people thought that Black people were.

    However, to the formal dress suit wearing members of South Africa's isicathamiya groups, white gloves were (are) what they were meant to be- an accessory of a well dressed man. In addition, I believe that member of these a capella groups may also have worn (wear) white gloves for the same reason that mimes wear white gloves, to help direct attention to the movements of their hands as they sing.