Isicathamiya! (and other adventures)

Thirty men jog on to a stage wearing crisp suits, two-toned shoes, and white gloves.  They stand shoulder to shoulder in a tight arc.  In front of them is a single man in a bright, contrasting suite and gloves.  Bending down as though drawing energy from the stage itself, he seems to explode upward, spreading his whole body wide and belting out a line of music like a call to arms – a summons filled with conviction and vision.  The men behind him respond and the music erupts on the audience – a solid wall of sound – full force, full volume, and four parts.  For over a minute, the leader continues to call out long, free phrases while moving across the full width of the stage, reaching as high and low as his body will stretch.  The men behind him continue to unleash wave upon wave of sound on the audience, each time adding subtle choreography: slight hand movements or knee bends or lifts.  And then the music changes.  The leader gives a call that is different from all those previously and the line of men respond in perfect lockstep, leaping into a rhythmic set of harmonies and movements.  The audience cheers and whistles, almost drowning out the powerful sound coming from the men.  This is Isicathamiya.

This Zulu a cappella choral music originated among South African migrant workers as early as the late 1800s.  If you have ever heard the group Ladysmith Black Mbambazo – made famous after singing with Paul Simon on the Graceland album – you know the sound.  What you may not know is that the style and the culture surrounding it is still healthy, active, and dynamic.  Throughout the year, there are festivals and competitions held in both Johannesburg and Durban.  These events are always on a Saturday night and usually run from 8pm to 8am.  This year, a new friend of mine from school invited me to go to the annual September ‘Heritage Day’ weekend Isicathamiya competition down in Durban.  She had been once before, back when she lived in Durban, and was keen to go again.  Being the choral dork that I am, I was (needless to say) pumped by the opportunity.

We got to the theatre a few minutes before 7pm and found a seat close to the center.  A good crowd had gathered but it was far from full.  The stage was brightly lit and empty apart from six sets of trophies lined neatly up on each side.  I was a bit surprised when the first performance started a few minutes after 7:00.  Nor was I expecting such precise attention to time throughout the rest of the event.  Each group was given exactly five minutes to perform.  If they went over five minutes, a loud buzzer went off and they had to finish as quickly as possible and get off stage.  I imagine there was some sort of penalty for going over time … I don’t know though since the event was conducted entirely in Zulu.  (Yes, we were a distinct minority – including us, there were only about five or six white people in a crowd of around 400.)  What little Robin and I understood, we had to gather by observation and deduction.  We watched the MC, the audience, the judges, the groups, the responses of the groups to both the MC and the judges, the responses of the audience to all of the above – lots of attentive watching and listening.  It was a fun and fascinating experience.  We lasted until about 1:15am.  In six hours, we had seen about 40 groups perform.  We didn’t know how many more there were left, but we knew the drive back to Joburg in the morning would be long and we needed a few hours of sleep.  On the way out the door, Robin noticed an usher holding a list and asked to take a look.  There were 60 groups still to perform!  We laughed a bit at the thought that we could go home, sleep, have breakfast and probably still come back in time for the announcement of the winners.  But then … there was still that long drive to consider.

Sadly, I forgot to bring my actual camera to the event and was only able to take a few video clips with my phone before it died.  The sound quality is terrible and you get no sense of the power in the voices.  Still, it gives you an idea of the look of it.  I have also included a link to a YouTube video about the musical style so that you get a better idea of the music.

I’ve had a few other small adventures since arriving in South Africa.  In early September, I went on an all-staff retreat to a campsite near a game park.  That was fun and interesting in its own way.  I didn’t see anything new, but I did get to see more rhino up close and in one place than I have ever seen before.  These are my favorite shots:

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It breaks my heart a little to think that, with poaching again on the rise, these amazing creatures could be extinct within my lifetime.

In a completely different kind of adventure, I have also been working on a variety of creative house projects.  The biggest project so far happened two weekends ago: I painted my fireplace and installed under-cabinet lighting in my kitchen!  These photos are again from my phone rather than my camera … so apologies for the poor quality.  They are in chronological order.

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