This album comes as a result of Jasper Van’t Hof”s first collaboration with South African musicians. Having discovered the young Zulu choir Phikelela Sakhula in Durban, Van’t Hof made recordings with them and invited them to Europe for a concert tour.
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In October 1998, Jasper van’t Hof made a three-week tour of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. He was no stranger to the country. Over the previous four years, he had made several lightning trips to perform at the Johannesburg International Arts Alive Festival, but his schedule had allowed him little time to venture from the hotel and festival spaces to listen to South African music. The intention of his trip was therefore to listen, to discover new musicians and musical styles, and to better understand Zulu musical sensibilities.
Following the previous Pili-Pili-productions, which were developed in collaboration with musicians from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Ghana, Senegal, Guinea etc, Jasper van’t Hof had hoped to use the trip to source Zulu musicians with whom to collaborate.
During his tour, Jasper van’t Hof attended a range of musical happenings in Durban. He was taken to township hostels where Zulu migrant workers reside for many months of the year without their families, and where they congregate on weekends to display their manhood by way of powerful high-kicking ingoma dancing. Here too, he heard men performing on decorated guitars, violins and concertinas in what is known as “maskanda”, a delicate and technically skilled plucking style derived from the traditional umakhweyana gourd-bow. He sat through an all-night isicathamiya competition involving male choirs in immaculate matching suits, two-tone shoes and shimmering white gloves.
Jasper van’t Hof travelled to rural northern KwaZulu Natal, where he watched a variety of dance performances involving young and old. Here, against a dramatic landscape of rugged mountains and dry thornveld, ingoma troupes performed powerfully choreographed dances, battalion-style, in skin beshu (apron) and feathers, brandishing fighting sticks and shields, while the women ululated, clapped and shouted their praises.
One afternoon, towards the end of his trip, Jasper van’t Hof visited a derelict building besides the bustling bus station in downtown Durban. The building had once operated as a vibrant theatre, but, due to lack of city council support, it had rapidly degenerated into a shadowy sanctuary for drug dealers, car thieves, prostitutes. Amateur musicians sometimes rehearsed in its dark, cavernous halls and on certain afternoons, young couples used it to practice their ballroom dancing.
On pushing his way past a massive corrugated iron sheet that operated as a back entrance, Jasper van’t Hof entered a loud booming hall where he was barely able to make out a group of about ten young singers. They were rehearsing a new repertoire, a cappella style, moving rhythmically to the lilt of the song. Despite the rush-hour street noises that resonated through the half-light of the hall, the power, sweetness and conviction of their performance was overwhelming. Jasper van’t Hof knew immediately that he had found the group with whom he wished to produce his album Incwadi Yothando: Phikelela Sakhula – which means in English: ‘We are Young, But We are Growing’.
There do not exist a wide variety of instruments in the Zulu musical repertoire. Rather, they are known for their exceptionally powerful and often complex vocal music. Singing is always polyphonic (in multiple parts) emphasizing the high level of communalism and cooperation in Zulu society. Performances are always accompanied by movement, and rhythms are often accentuated by imfece (leg-rattles). Vocal melodies reflect speech tones, rhythms and textual nuances. Zulu lyrics are significantly communicative, dramatizing historical, political, social and moral issues.
Being an historically warring people, much Zulu music and dance is derived from battle songs. Perhaps the principal form of Zulu ‘drumming’, for instance, is that which is produced by the ceremonial beating of the battle shield. In order to emphasize the rhythm of a song, warriors would either strike their shields with their assegais or clubs, or beat them on the ground with great force. The Zulu people do play various bows, which consist of a single string amplified by an attached gourd or by the mouth. They also have a history of bamboo or reed flutes which were performed by young herd boys. Today, however, many of these instruments have vanished, having been replaced by guitars, concertinas, mouth organs and radio-cassette players. The adoption of western instruments has not necessarily meant the adoption of western musical styles and practices, however. On the contrary, western instruments are, in most instances, reconstructed to suit the tuning systems and playing styles of Zulu performers, and always shaped by the form and structure of traditional performance practices. Through the years, and largely due to a migrant labour system and urbanization, a range of extremely vibrant modern styles have developed, known variously as isicathamiya, maskanda, mbaqanga, ingoma, and isicathulo.
Perhaps one of the most extensive repertories of Zulu songs is referred to as amahubo. Amahubo songs are performed variably at weddings, at the funerals of heads and chiefs, to prepare for battle, and at major ceremonies involving the praising of a clan, a region or the Zulu nation. They are referred to as “amagama abadala” (songs of the old people) or “amagama amadlozi” (songs of the ancestors). Their performance requires the participation of many, reinforcing communal life and identity. Amahubo songs are therefore central to Zulu spiritual, historical, ritual and social life. While these songs recall things of old, they have undergone something of a revival within recent years, and are performed by maskanda guitarists, isicathamiya choirs, and are part of the repertoire for schools choir competitions.
Isicathamiya is a style of male a cappella singing popular amongst Zulu male migrant workers in Durban and Johannesburg. Literally meaning “in a stalking approach” or “tiptoe guys”, it describes a distinctive performance style that is rooted in turn-of-the-century African American minstrelsy and ragtime. Minstrelsy troupes toured South Africa extensively from the 1890s, making a particular impression on Zulu men, who blended aspects of these imported styles with traditional high-kicking ingoma dances and izingoma zomshado (wedding songs) to form a slick, highly stylized performance tradition that has survived relatively unaltered for almost a century. Best-known through the internationally acclaimed group, Ladysmith Black Mambaso, isicathamiya groups cogregate every Saturday night in hostels and secluded downtown halls. The choirs, which are appointed names such as The Real Happy Singers, The NBA Champions and The High Stars, compete in matching outfits and shoes, and are judged on the basis of their elaborately choreographed movements, the articulation and sweetness of their 4-part harmonies, and the relevance of their lyrics to the life experiences of the particants and followers of their music.
Jasper van’t Hof, Marlon Klein, Bo Stief, Owusa Boafo, Ivan Santos, Peter Thiehuis, Dra Diarra, Rosanna Tavares, Manfred Schoof, Crocodile gumboot Group
Phikelela Sakhula zulu choir: Sibusiso Ngidi, Vlisumuzi Zulu, Sipho Patrick Kweyama, Jet Cele, Bheki Shandy, Vincent Diomini Bheki, Simangele Khumalo, Latu Khanyile, Maureen Gwicana, Pinky Mtshali, Paulos Mfuphi