During the high-stakes struggle against Apartheid in the second half of the 20th century every note of music created by a South African meant something. Black South Africans made music as direct protest, as a form of lament, as a way to respect their ethnic roots, as a way to express dedication to the struggle. White South Africans made protest music as well, or protested Apartheid by making music with black South Africans; some even made music to support the regime. In such politically charged times, even South African music that ostensibly made no statement made a statement by not making a statement. (Watch the documentary “Amandla!” for an inspiring overview of South African music and the many ways is helped bring an end to Apartheid.)
Even before formal Apartheid, South African music told stories of survival through struggle. ISICATHAMIYA, which is a Zulu word that means, depending who you ask, “to stalk like a cat” or “tip toe guys,” originated among 19th black South Africans forced to work in gold and diamond mines. These workers sang Christian hymns, they sang about their home villages, they sang about their difficult lives…all in a heartbreakingly harmonious acapella form that was quiet enough not to wake their nighttime guards. As part of isicathamiya the miners created a form of toe-tapping dancing called “isicathulo,” which in Zulu roughly means “gumboots.”
Singers tapped their feet in a polyrhythmic Morse Code while dancing to communicate with each other down mine shafts. (More: Rosa’s Gumboot Lesson | “Choral Music From KwaZulu Natal” | A thesis by Erid Akrofi EdD about how Zulu indigenous beliefs influenced IICATHAMIYA: “It should be noted that rhythm is so important in Zulu indigenous music that without it dance will be lifeless and meaning cannot be communicated in music making….”)
The most internationally prominent Isicathamiya group is Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which formed in the early ’60s after soprano Joseph Shabalala had a series of dreams featuring lush Zulu harmonies. The all-male acapella group charmed local audiences for two decades with their soulful interpretations of isicathamiya songs coupled with playful isicathulo dancing before becoming a true international sensation in 1986 after singing with Paul Simon on “Graceland. (Wikipedia on Ladysmith Black Mambazo | “Hello My Baby” performed live on the Graceland tour.)
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