of the Night:
Isicathamiya Choral Music from
by Angela Impey
Just before they take the stage, members of an isicathamiya
choir in Johannesburg, South Africa, prepare for a song competition by
congregaiing in a circle to pray for spiritual guidance during their performance.
Photo © T.J. Lemon
Picture a dark, dilapidated hall in downtown Johannesburg. In it are
only a few rows of broken plastic chairs and one or two bare electric
light bulbs hanging from warped ceiling-boards in the center of the room.
At one end of the hall is a low, wooden stage, in front of which are positioned
a wooden table and single chair.
It is a Saturday night, approaching midnight. People are slowly drifting
off the dimly lit streets into the hall. The majority of them are Zulu
migrant workers who live in the city for periods of up to eleven months
of the year, working in factories, gold mines, or in the dark shadows
of the inner city as night watchmen.
Once in the hall, they begin to congregate in tight groups, leaning inward
toward one another and singing softly, haltingly, in close harmonies,
a cappella. They are preparing for a competition they call isicathamiya,
which literally translated means "in a stalking approach" or
"tiptoe guys," descriptive of the soft-footed dance styles,
actions, and songs they perform. The choirs are made up of "home
boys" - men who come from the same villages or regions of rural KwaZulu
Natal, an area to the northeast of South Africa. These weekly isicathamiya
competitions which take place in the cities serve to assert home ties
and to affirm regional identities.
This is the stage of the evening they call iprakthisa (practice
time). It is the time to perfect voice parts, to make final corrections
of lyrics, to remind themselves and each other of the finer details of
their carefully choreographed dance steps. Later they will compete in
front of a judge, and the choir who exhibits the most synchronized actions
and the most creative song arrangements will be awarded a small sum of
money. Sometimes they may win a goat or a cow, but it is the pride and
prestige gained from being awarded first place that is the incentive which
attracts the participants to the competitions.
Each choir is immaculately dressed in combinations of three-piece suits
and matching bow ties, two-tone shoes, white gloves, pocket handkerchiefs,
and shining costume jewelry. Across their bodies the leaders of each choir
wear white sashes loudly embroidered with the name of their group: The
King Star Brothers, The Hundred Percent Brothers, The Khalabhayi Boys.
While the choirs prepare themselves for the competition, delegates from
each group comb the streets in search of a judge. The judge must be a
White man; he must be unknown and therefore unbiased. He is often a hobo
found sleeping under a bridge, or an inner-city kid found slouched outside
a rough city discotheque. He will be approached with great humility and
skillfully lured into the hall with offers of beer, cigarettes, and a
night of sweet music. He will be seated at the table facing the stage
and told to select the three best choirs of that evening. For the remainder
of the night, and often into the following day, he will have to dedicate
his attention respectfully and absolutely to the choirs. (In Durban, the
South African Traditional Musicians' Association [SATMA], an organization
which presides over the standards and practices of isicathamiya choirs
in KwaZulu Natal, has replaced the convention of seeking a White adjudicator
with one in which an educated Black person - a teacher, nurse, policeman,
or member of a non-isicathamiya choir - is sought to make an informed
judgement of weekly competitions.)
The singers will begin their performance from the back of the hall and
will parade past the judge, subtly drawing his attention to themselves
as they pass him by pointing out their matching cufflinks and socks, or
the beaded badges of the new South African flag they may have pinned to
their lapels. They will salute, smile, and stare imploringly at him, all
the while maintaining, with absolute rhythmic precision, the delicate
steps, shimmering hand movements, and respective vocal parts of their
STYLISTIC HISTORY OF ISICATHAMIYA
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
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).
THE SACRED DIMENSIONS OF ISICATHAMIYA
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].)
Some choirs specialize in religious repertoire, retaining strong stylistic
and lyrical inspiration from African-American spirituals, Methodist hymns,
and Sankey and Moody revival hymns. Most choirs, however, include in their
songs elements of prayer, such as the cadenza with which many will conclude
their song (Erlmann 1996:220):
Chorus: Ile! Khuluma Nkosi kimi.
He! Speak to me, Lord.
The connection between tradition, Christian sentiment, and expressions
of protest has always been strongly interwoven in the genre, such that
Old Methodist tropes will frequently appear alongside descriptions of
political turmoil and praises to a chief.
Isicathamiya has survived for almost a century, providing a cultural space
for Zulu migrant workers whose reality in the cities has been one of dehumanization
and dislocation from home, family, and community. Through performance
they have been able to dramatize and temporarily discard loneliness, nostalgia,
Like countless similar semi-urban South African performances genres which
developed during the harsh years of Apartheid rule, isicathamiya has been
a medium through which a particular cultural group has been able to think
aloud about itself and the changing environment around it. That the participants
of isicathamiya have sought dignity through the very symbols associated
with their oppressors - those forces which have denied them dignity and
selfhood - demonstrates how symbols can be claimed through performance
and reinvented to serve the needs of another in powerful ways.
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.
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.