There’s some debate about the origins of isicathamiya, although the general consensus seems to be that this Zulu style of performance was heavily influenced by the American ragtime troupes that toured South Africa in the mid-to-late 1800s. However isicathamiya, characterised by a cappella singing and tightly-choreographed dance moves, only really gained momentum in South Africa in the 1920s and ’30s, when there was massive urban migration, with many men leaving their rural homes to look for work in the cities. As a result, the theme of many of the original isicathamiya songs centred around nostalgia and the feelings associated with the men’s separation from their families and loved ones.
As the men became fully urbanised the popularity of isicathamiya is said to have waned, with it only really resurfacing again with the rise of African superstars, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. With the changing times, and the changing political and social landscape, the themes of the songs moved onto topics like HIV/Aids, issues with crime, and local political heroes. Artists like Joseph Shabalala, used the platform that isicathamiya offered to raise important issues facing black South African society.
But while the subject matter may have changed, the core principles and practices of isicathamiya remained the same, with weekly competitions still taking place between the different singing groups. While the style may have had its origins in America, many scholars believe that the different components that make isicathamiya what it is, are heavily influenced by Zulu traditions, not western ones. They reference the value of competition in Zulu society, the role that the bull plays in isicathamiya performances, as well as in traditional day-to-day Zulu life, and the formation of the isicathamiya group, which has the leader at the centre of the group, much like the formation of kraals, where the umuzi wendoda (the kraal head) is surrounded by the huts of the wives and children. There is also reference to traditional competitive rituals making their way into isicathamiya: ukuqhatha, a playful contest among herd-boys often features in isicathamiya choirs, with the inkunzi (bull) and izingqwele (boys who defeat their rivals) playing starring roles.
As time passes isicathamiya choirs are likely to adapt and change, so who knows what will inspire the performers of the future, and whether Zulu customs and rituals will have any influence over the songs these choirs sing. It’s an ongoing debate, but an interesting one, and one worth observing over time…..
For a full discussion on the relationship between isicathamiya and Zulu indigenous beliefs read Eric Akrofi’s paper on the topic published by Unesco.