During the high-stakes struggle against Apartheid throughout the bulk 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 a capella 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 sort of Morse Code while dancing to communicate with each other down mine shafts. (In class we’ll try a bit of isicathulo.)
Mbaqanga music rose in the 1960s as Western instruments and musical styles like doo-wap and jazz mixed with local Zulu melodies. “Groaners” like Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde (nicknamed the “lion of Soweto”), and vocal groups like the Mahotella Queens (more on both below) became increasingly popular among both black and white South Africans, inspiring the white South African government to raze townships that supported it, fearing they’d create a place for the mixing of races.
While isicathamiya and mbaqanga live on, as do styles like “Sotho-traditional” and “Zulu-traditional” which revisit and reinterpret traditional ethnic musical forms, South African youth today may just as well be fans of reggae, punk, metal, goth or “kwaito,” a churning blend of house and hip-hop infused with African melodies and rhythms. Since 1994 there has also been a resurgence of Afrikaans music, some of which hearkens consciously back to an age during which South African Afrikaaners had more political power, though just as much of which is straight pop.
Wikipedia: music of South Africa | Afropop.org’s description of mbaqanga | More about isicathamiya: “Choral Music From KwaZulu Natal” | Rosa’s Gumboot Lesson | Voëlvry music (“free as a bird” or “outlawed”): Afrikaaner anti-establishment music from the ’80s | the complex resurgence of Afrikaaner music | the soundtrack of the movie South African movie “Tsotsi” — “Tsotsi” helped bring kwaito to an international audience