Isicathamiya Nights

Today, we reflect on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, observed annually on March 21st to commemorate the day 69 peaceful protestors were killed by police at a demonstration against racist apartheid laws in Sharpeville, South Africa. In Canada, we acknowledge that much has been done to combat systemic discrimination and racism, but know that much work lays ahead to further lift up and empower racialized communities. 

As this day has its roots in a South African struggle for equal rights, I feel it is appropriate for the RESOUND Choir community and friends to reflect upon a powerful South African choral tradition called ‘isicathamiya’. Twenty years ago, as an exchange student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, I was awed by an unforgettable isicathamiya experience that I wish to share with you. 

The year was 2002. It was a humid Saturday night in March, and I was in the backseat of my ethnomusicology professor’s Toyota sedan in Durban, South Africa, zipping through back roads to get downtown for a 10 pm show. Two fellow exchange students were squeezed in beside me,  Anya from California, and Astrid from Norway. Rasmus, from Finland, sat in the front. We made small talk about the latest Bollywood film showing at Musgrave Mall and the best place to get roti on campus as faint smells of campfire smoke from the western townships wafted in through the windows. As we swung onto Chris Ntuli Road, I absently fiddled with the buttons on my digital recorder and checked the battery indicator again – fully charged. We were headed to the weekly isicathamiya competition at the YMCA, and our professor, Dr. Angela Impey, was our ticket in. 

The week prior, we had been introduced in class to the choral tradition of isicathamiya, a Zulu singing and dancing style with indigenous, American, and European roots. Over time, isicathamiya had evolved into what we were about to witness – a weekly Saturday night competition ritual, lasting several hours and involving choirs from all over KwaZulu-Natal province. Dr. Impey had offered to organize a ‘class trip’ of sorts for any students interested in attending an isicathamiya event, and I had jumped at the chance. 

We parked on the street, unfurled ourselves out of the backseat, and walked up to the two-storey brick building where several men, dressed immaculately in matching suits, shoes, and gloves, were waiting to greet our professor. It was clear by their enthusiastic welcome that we were expected, and we were ushered inside a small gymnasium and given seats in the front row. A low stage occupied the front of the room, and groups of women sat with us in the audience, casting curious glances and murmuring “Sawubona!” in greeting. Men gathered in small groups to the side, practicing choreography and catching up on the latest news. 

What followed was pure magic. We looked on as choir after choir took the stage – each member shuffling slowly down the side aisle, in synch, elbows bent: Isicathamiya – “to tread like a cat”. The Kholwa Brothers. Red Dazzlers. Durban Heavy Stars. Natal Express. Zulu Champions. Each choir, in turn, formed a semi-circle on stage, framing the lead singer. Powerful, resonant voices, punctuated by percussive calls and whistles, blended seamlessly together and lifted to the ceiling. Their tone ranged from strident with pride to shuddering with heartache. From time to time, Dr. Impey told us in hushed tones, their a capella Zulu lyrics would bring up social concerns – sometimes serious, such as an unfaithful spouse, but sometimes light-hearted, like a man who burned everything he attempted to cook. Other times, lyrics included local gossip, boastful messages about the choir’s achievements, or stories of injustice faced during apartheid, the racist system that discriminated brutally against nonwhite South Africans from 1948 – 1994. Women would sometimes leave their seats in the audience to help encourage or dramatize certain sections.

During a brief pause in the action, Anya whispered to our professor, “What do these choirs think of Ladysmith Black Mambazo?” Our professor leaned over with a twinkle in her eye and said in a low voice, “They don’t think too highly of Ladysmith – they mock them for needing microphones!”

An hour passed, then two. My digital recorder filled quickly, and even though the competition was just heating up, it was time for us to say our goodbyes. Isicathamiya competitions last all Saturday evening, starting around 10 pm and ending at dawn the next morning. The reason for this is two-fold: most of the choir members are migrant workers who work during the day and travel great distances to get to Durban on time for the competition. The other is that isicathamiya’s popularity rose during a time when apartheid laws in Durban prohibited the movement of Black South Africans after 10 pm until sunrise. And so, it is an all-night affair. 

As we piled back into the car, conversations were muted as we each pondered what we had just seen. We were inspired and awed. The adversities that these choristers had experienced, had felt, had fought – we could not even imagine. And yet – through music, power and dignity and identity were claimed, and reclaimed, each Saturday night. With each polished shoe, with each synchronized step, with each perfectly placed note – the human spirit was renewed and refreshed.

And although the choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo may be teased in isicathamiya circles for being a little too ‘delicate’, they accomplished a lot, in partnership with Paul Simon, to vault Black South African music to the global stage. I hope you can find their beautiful resilience in the midst of “Homeless”, sung here live with Paul Simon in Hyde Park, London.

Author: Laura Grenon