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Ladysmith Black Mambazo + Calvin Gospel Choir

In his essay All Musical Cultures are About Equally Complex, Mantle Hood asserts just that; that though music around the world is greatly varied, any music of a specific region is tied to the very fibers of a culture and is complex and intricate in its own right. Hood goes on to show that the “cultivation” of a genre is the result of sociocultural contexts and happenings, using the vast difference between the music of Black America and traditional African music as an example.[1] This is a helpful context when studying the music of another area of the world, as musical traditions reflect the broader culture surrounding the music and more is revealed than an unaware ear may be able to tell. Hood’s assertion of musical traditions as cultivated can especially be seen in musical tradition of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a Zulu musical tradition called Isicathamiya (pronounced “is-cot-a-ME-Ya”).

Isicathamiya is a choral musical tradition originated in Southern Africa among the Zulu people in the South African region. It came as a result of confrontations between multiple musical traditions in the British and Dutch colonial period in South Africa in the 19th century. A large part of isicathamiya’s development is due to the labor migration that came as a result of the rapid industrialization the region was facing in order to keep up with the burgeoning mining industry. The native Zulu people were displaced and used as cheap labor sources for the growing mining businesses of the white colonial powers and immigration from other areas of the world followed.

It was in this ethnic and cultural displacement that isicathamiya was born. Housed in all-male barracks, the migrant workers began performing vocal renditions of traditional Zulu songs. Elements of these performances were merged with traditional Zulu songs as well as dances.[2] Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s founder, Joseph Shabalala, describes isicathamya’s origins this way:

Poorly housed and paid worse, migrant workers would entertainment themselves after a six-day week by singing songs into the wee hours every Sunday Morning…they called themselves ‘tip toe guys,’ referring to the dance steps choreographed so as to not disturb the camp security guards.[3]

For these physically uprooted workers, isicathamiya became a way to remain culturally rooted and to maintain their Zulu identity in the midst of colonization while at the same time adapting to the new conditions; the music was its own form of resistance and in turn became something entirely its own. As migrant workers returned home, they took the new musical practices with them and isicathamiya spread throughout Zululand South Africa, marking the creation of a new and distinct tradition. This tradition was preserved throughout the 20th century in the form of competitions in church basements and assembly halls, ensuring that isicathamiya would be passed down along generations.[4] 

Due to its cultivation among unsettled populations, much of the imagery of isicathamiya music has utilized imagery of a dichotomized “here” and “there.” “Here” represents the unpleasant but temporary condition of the now, while “there” refers to an idealized past and forward-looking hope of return.[5] This imagery was complimented by the introduction of Christianity to the region by Western missionaries and many isicathamiya artists, including the founding members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, would be educated in mission schools. Messages of deliverance now had both historical and religious precedent among the people and isicathamiya would merge these longings into a unified expression.

The period of colonization set the precedent for the apartheid-era in South Africa in the 20th century and the themes of deliverance remained relevant and prophetic to the Zulu experience in South Africa. Isicathamiya, in the same way it was in its origin amongst colonization, remained a way to preserve a Zulu cultural identity in a government that institutionally degraded this identity. Despite having no party-specific language, the very existence of isicathamiya music in apartheid South Africa was political as it spoke directly to the experiences of an institutionally oppressed people.

It was in the apartheid era that Ladysmith Black Mambazo would rise to prominence in South Africa. The contextual and cultural importance of the music was not lost on Joseph Shabalala, the founding member of the group. In the documentary On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps To Freedom, Shabalala states that he felt as though he had a “mission to preserve this culture.”[6] And so Ladysmith Black Mambazo carried the torch of isicathamiya as the musical embodiment of Zulu culture and resistance to the cultural oppression of the apartheid. The political controversy surrounding the music would become the subject of international headlines as Paul Simon embarked to South Africa, ignoring the cultural boycott placed against the apartheid regime, to make his Graceland album. Simon felt that it was fascinated by the musical traditions of the region and felt that it was crucial to raise the voices of the artists who were trapped behind the repressive government. The album was a huge success and Ladysmith Black Mambazo—and isicathamiya— was introduced to the world.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s music embodies the traditions, the protection and the endurance of the Zulu culture. Isicathamiya has been cultivated amongst cultural encroachment, adapting to its changing environment while preserving its core cultural identity. The work of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the broader genre of isicathamiya are perfect testaments of what art can mean to the cultures and histories of a people and further proof of an idea we hold dear in the Student Activities Office of Calvin College: that music matters.

- Jordan Petersen

[1] Hood Mantle, All Musical Cultures are About Equally Complex, (Center for Ethnic Music, Howard University)

[2] Erlmann, Veit. "Migration and Performance: Zulu Migrant Workers' Isicathamiya Performance in South Africa, 1890-1950." Ethnomusicology 34, no. 2 (1990): 199-220.

[3] Carlos Palomares, What is Isicathamiya? (UMS 2010)

[4] Eric A. Akrofi, Zulu Indigenous Beliefs: To What Extent Do They Influence the Performance Practices of Isicathamiya Musicians? (University of Transkei South Africa)

[5] Erlmann, Veit. “Migration and Performance: Zulu Migrant Workers.”

[6] Shabalala, Joseph. On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom. Film. Directed by Eric Simonson. USA. 2001.

February 2017
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