Early Black Popular Music in Durban

In the early part of the 1900’s the music that symbolised identification with Victorian values for Zulu speakers was imusic.  Although essentially founded in European and American music, it was not simply a black imitation of Western metropolitan culture.  Afro-American music and minstrelsongs, together with various other forms of musical comedy and black humour, played an important role as a defense against white exclusivism and racism and as such impacted on the development of black popular music in South Africa, especially in Natal and Durban.

Understandably admiration for Afro-American values was well supported at Ohlange Institute, a private College north of Durban, founded in 1901 by Dr John Langalibalele Dube as a counterpart to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in America.  Musical performance formed an integral part of Ohlange’s educational programme, and some of Durban’s finest choirs emerged from the school. Apart from a brass band conducted by Clement Tshabalala, one of Ohlange’s first boarders, the school boasted the Nightingales Choir conducted by Isaiah Ngidi and the GTV Dum Choir under Walter Dimba, a future official of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU). The regular Ohlange Choir was under the baton of Charles Dube and Ngazana Luthuli. 

The music genre that dominated Durban’s black musical world for much of the 1920’s and 1930’s was ragtime, or iragtime as it became known to Zulu-speaking South Africans. One of the main role players in this genre was Reuben Tholakele Caluza (1895-1969).  As a pupil at Ohlange Institute, Caluza formed his own blackface minstrel troupe, called “Coons”, who performed regularly at Durban’s New Location.  Caluza’s growing interest in syncopated music led him to compose typical “music-hall songs’, most famously the ‘Ixhegwana or Rickshaw Song’ composed in 1917. ‘Izeghwana’ was the first composition by a black South African composer that merged topical lyrics in the vernacular with ragtime, the most polished form of musical entertainment of the time.

Early competitions organised by John Dube featured performances of dance songs such as ‘Umfazi Umaqed’ Isikhwama’ (My Wife is wasting Money).  Accompaniment for these songs was done on traditional drums and reed flutes.  Traditional music genres, together with Zulu versions of western songs and choir arrangements of Zulu folk tunes, developed into isiZulu, a musical category which over time became even more popular than imusic and iRagtime. In 1911 Dube and his wife Nokutela published ‘Amagama Abantu’, a collection of African secular songs.  The booklet comprised of Zulu wedding songs, love songs and ‘umququmbelo’ dance songs.

But hope does not kill: black popular music in Durban, 1913-1939  by Veit Erlmann, in: The people’s city: African life in Twentieth Century Durban edited by Paul Maylam and Iain Edwards. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 1996.

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