10 Isicathamiya

Matthew Mihalka

Isicathamiya is a performative vocal style in South Africa that is primarily associated with Zulu migrant works. ‘Isicathamiya’ translates roughly as ‘on tip toe’ or to stalk/walk carefully, which is reflected in some of the signature dance moves used in performances. As with many styles, it is a synthesis of various indigenous and foreign styles. Indigenous traditions include the Ingoma dance, a stomping dance of the Zulu people, and choral singing found amongst many of the Indigenous people in eastern South Africa. Isicathamiya was also influenced by minstrelsy and the various musical traditions brought by minstrel groups, particularly ragtime, along with the hymnody spread by Christian missionaries.

Blackface Minstrelsy

Developed and popularized during the 19th century, the minstrel show was one of the earliest forms of theatrical entertainment within the United States. In the decades preceding the American Civil War white performers used burnt cork on their face to portray black characters. Performances included a variety of acts including songs, dances, and comic skits that drew heavily on music produced by blacks and reinforced racial stereotypes. After the Civil War black minstrel show tropes emerged, including a group led by African American singer and impresario Orpheus McAdoo. McAdoo toured South African during the 1890s and his group is credited with influencing the creation of isicathamiya.

Isicathamiya contrasts with, but also was influenced by, an earlier South African vocal style called “Mbube.”  Translating as “lion,” Mbube was more forceful in its sound than the harmonious blend desired in Isicathamiya. Similar to Isicathamiya, it was typically performed a cappella by Zulu migrant workers who used the style to create a sense of community and held weekly competitions. The most well-known song in this style, which also helped give the genre its name, was “Mbube” by Solomon Linda and his group the Evening Birds (1939). While the recording includes some light instrumental accompaniment, the emphasis is on the vocals, particularly the soaring male falsetto of the lead singer and the powerful accompaniment provided by the lower singers. A recording of the song was found by American ethnomusicologist and folklorist Alan Lomax and given to his friend, American folk musician Pete Seeger. Seeger created his own version of the song, “Wimoweh,” a transliteration of the Zulu phrase repeated in the accompanying vocals, with his folk group The Weavers. A live version recorded in 1955 in Carnegie Hall served as the inspiration for The Tokens’ 1961 song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the most commercially successful version of the song.

Groups for isicathamiya range in size from four to over twenty members arranged in parts partially inspired by the four-part homophonic textures of Christian hymns. Ensembles mostly consist of bass singers with a fewer number of higher singers, including the tenor lead. The singers frequently perform in a call-and-response pattern between the lead singer and the accompanying larger ensemble. Performances also emphasize the group’s visual presentation, as they typically perform in coordinated elegant attire, which may include matching suits, white gloves, and two-toned shoes. The dance moves are stylized and synchronized as well, frequently performed up on the toes while also incorporating the stomping movement of the Zulu Ingoma dance.

While the style has been disseminated through recordings and concert performances, it was initially fostered during weekend competitions held in major urban centers such as Durban and Johannesburg. During competitions groups performed for a designated judge, with the ultimate prize usually being rather nominal. The competitions served as a point of pride and dignity and helped establish ‘homeboy’ networks between people from similar areas.

Isicathamiya Competition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJSV-2u3VlA


Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Ladysmith Black Mambazo” by Bryan Ledgard is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Formed in the early 1960s by Joseph Shabalala, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is one of the most renown Isicathamiya groups. Ladysmith is the hometown of Shabalala while ‘Black’ references the black ox which is considered the strongest farm animal and connects to Shabalala’s early life on his family’s farm. ‘Mambazo’ means axe in Zulu and serves as a symbol for the group’s vocal strength.

The group achieved international recognition after collaborating with Paul Simon on his 1986 album Graceland. Simon initially gained prominence as part of the folk duo Simon & Garfunkel in the 1960s before embarking on a solo career in 1970. Graceland was released following a period of personal and professional issues for Simon. Inspired by recordings of South African music, Simon collaborated and recorded with South African musicians in Johannesburg.  These actions were in violation of a United Nations’ cultural boycott of South Africa due to their apartheid government. The album was commercially and critically successful, garnering international attention for Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

One of the songs on Graceland,  “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” begins with the first 58 seconds performed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It starts with the vocal group alone singing the Zulu text “o kodwa you zo-nge li-sa namhlange, (A-wa a-wa) si-bona kwenze ka kanjani, (A-wa a-wa) amanto mbazane ayeza.” Simon enters at 0:15, sometimes singing in call-and-response patterns and at other times harmonizing with the singers. The group returns at 4:32 with some backing vocals, though in the music video for the song they are featured throughout. Positioned behind Simon, they perform many of the signature Isicathamiya dance moves, frequently dancing up on their toes and incorporating some kicks and stomp-like motions.

Additional Links/References:


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Music in World Cultures Copyright © 2021 by Matthew Mihalka is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book