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MAGIC AT MIDNIGHT (article first published : 2007-03-25)

We timed our arrival for around midnight, allowing things to get into stride. Our point of call was eThekwini's YMCA Community Hall, on downtown Beatrice Street… If you're thinking, “please not another swoop by The Scorpions”, rest assured, it's safe to read on. This reporter, your average-white-South-African-50-something-male, was on a quest to cross the cultural divide. With singer-turned-arts-administrator Linda Bukhosini as my guide, I was dropping in on an all-night Isicathamiya social, for a close-up encounter with the gentle art form made famous by KZN's super-group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Today, this a cappella song-and-dance phenomenon represents a way of life for many thousands of Nguni language speakers who live along our eastern seaboard. Both fun and serious business, regular Isicathamiya gatherings occur in communities all over KwaZulu-Natal, and as far afield as Gauteng, Swaziland and Maputo. Traditionally held in the dead of night, there's nothing dead about them. They're every bit as alive and kicking, pardon the pun, as the kalinetics class your suburban gym hosts most week-days after work.

Up to 20 groups, sometimes more, come together in community centres, competing to get the edge on each other. Run by local committees who encourage groups to pool resources by rotating weekly entry fees to cover costs, these events happen most Saturday nights, leading up to the Big One, Durban's annual Isicathamiya Festival.

The latter pivotal event draws practitioners in their thousands to Durban's CBD, all keen to show their paces on the Playhouse (or since last year, Durban City Hall) stage, encouraged by a full house of supporters. Hosted by the Playhouse Company since its inception more than a decade ago, the initiative was the brainchild of Bukhosini herself, and has been linked in recent years to the Playhouse's annual Traditional Arts Festival. Working as part of the backstage support team two years back, I was intrigued by the quiet intensity of it all, and I marvelled at the rare spectacle of an African city, normally deserted at night, pulsing with life as hundreds of groups quietly waited their turn to go onstage.

So here we were in Beatrice Street, for me to learn how this yearly phenomenon starts, with all its endearing quirks and foibles brought to light close up. As the night progressed, a tradition steeped in integrity unfolded, and I found myself increasingly humbled, given my colonial roots, to learn how this uplifting art form has evolved to become the life force it is today. My insight was fast-tracked through Bukhosini's interpretative skills opening me up to the in-depth knowledge shared by respected local Isicathamiya elders such as regional co-ordinator Alpheus April Mfuphi, and senior champions, Shandu Madonsela and Hamilton Mbatha.

Like a desert rose that flourishes in harsh conditions, Isicathamiya sprang up a century ago, a hybrid form of expression developed by migrant Zulu workers who'd left their homes to find work on the mines. Its name speaks for itself. The word Isicathamiya itself may not have a literal translation, but is derived from the Zulu verb -cathama, which means walking softly, or tread carefully.

Thousands of workers in hostels would keep their spirits up, singing and dancing at night. Of necessity, they downsized their traditional Zulu song and dance routines to avoid disturbing mine management asleep nearby: so the muted characteristics of contained choreography and song delivered under the breath replaced the bold, powerfully explosive old style known in Zulu culture as Mbube (which so proudly evokes the lion).

The images conjured in those early mine hostel routines served to combat men's longing for their homes. Songs recalled the grasslands, mountains, birds and wildlife they'd left behind. Then over the decades workers returned home, and Isicathamiya found its way into the rural areas. While its themes changed, it retained its tradition of upholding public morale, adapting itself to different community needs.

Nowadays a song might focus on the need to protect one's health, to combat HIV and AIDS, or it will underline the need for a man to uphold his role as a role model and protector of the family, in the face of wife-eating and child abuse.

Visually, flashes of wit and fun come to the fore in the night's traditional fashion parade, an interlude known as Oswenka. This ends with a judging session to choose the week's best dressed men and women. Then it's back to business, as groupies acting as cheer leaders accompany their artists to the stage, weaving encouragingly around them as they go. The succession of acts has a strong sartorial element, showing off one group after another in fine form, each practising their own trademark performance style, each spearheaded by a stand-alone lead singer.

Typically, senior groups are decked out in two- or three-piece suits, performing in traditional white gloves, ties and two-toned shoes. Then a bunch of young bloods appears, stepping out in fine style with their funky ear-studs and black t-shirts, the latter embellished with hand-painted, polka dotted ties (sometimes they even put on dark sunglasses for a few bars during the song to make a point). Then stand by for more smooth and dapper trendsetters, coolly sporting beige, green, red or plum…

The culture that lies behind the names of Isicathamiya groups, too, is itself a source of delight. A breakaway group, I gathered, had re-launched itself with the in-your-face label, ‘Real Solution' - bringing the point well and truly home. Some of the names proved familiar, others weren't, but all suggested their own brand of identity. They included, among others, The Natal Try Singers (one of the oldest groups established in the mid-30s), The NBA Champions (NBA is the vehicle registration for Babanango, from whence most of the group members originate), High Styles, Madiba Home Boys, Combination Brothers, Pietermaritzburg Fighters.. and so the cavalcade rolled out.

With regret, we left around 4am, having been royally entertained. I felt welcomed, part of the fun, and doubly resolved to take a crash course in isiZulu.

Better late than never. - William Charlton-Perkins




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