• Vocal and Ethnic Musical Traditions of South Africa

  • In a country with a dizzying patchwork of cultures and 11 official languages, it is not surprising that South Africa also boasts a rich and diverse set of ethnic musical traditions. Carnegie Hall’s UBUNTU festival provides an introduction to some of the varied traditions of this nation with performances by up-and-coming and established South African artists.

    While South Africa’s regional and ethnic differences result in an exhilarating variety of sounds, one unifying element among the nation’s music is a powerful focus on the voice. In South Africa, vocal and choral music arises from many different origins, including sacred music, work settings, and the anti-Apartheid protest movement of the 20th century.


  • Artists speak about the vocal traditions of South Africa.

  • Zulu Choral Music

    Ladysmith_Black_Mambazo Ladysmith Black Mambazo

    A later style of Zulu men’s a cappella singing is isicathamiya—a word derived from the Zulu verb cathama, which means “walking softly” or “tread carefully.”

    The leading proponent of this style is Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a group formed in the early 1960s by Joseph Shabalala that went on to win numerous singing competitions in South Africa before rising to international prominence in the mid-1980s after appearing on Paul Simon’s legendary Graceland album. The group takes its name from Shabalala’s hometown (Ladysmith is three hours east of Johannesburg), with black being a reference to oxen and mambazo being the Zulu word for “chopping axe”—a symbol of the group’s ability to chop down any singing rival that might challenge them. 

  • Traditional Cape Malay Singing

    Young Stars Cape Malay Singers 02 Young Stars: Traditional Cape Malay Singers

    Another choral tradition—not as well known in the United States—is the Cape Malay singing of the Cape region of South Africa.

    This up-tempo,energetic style combines the harmony and language of Dutch and Afrikaans folk songs with colorful inflections and ornaments from vocal traditions as far afield as Malaysia, Arabia, and East Africa. This blending of styles resulted from Dutch colonists who brought slaves from the Indian Ocean basin to work in the Cape region. Malay choirs are all male and predominantly Muslim, unlike the Zulu a cappella groups, and they perform publicly many times a year, most notably each January at Tweede Nuwe Jaar celebrations and in competitions. As part of the UBUNTU festival, New York audiences have a rare opportunity to hear a Cape Malay choir—the Young Stars: Traditional Cape Malay Singers, a 15-voice ensemble led by Moeniel Jacobs, part of a double-bill concert with the David Kramer Band, whose leader is a tireless champion of Cape musical traditions.

  • Western Classical Singers

    Yende_Pretty Pretty Yende

    In addition to traditional singing styles, South Africa has started to produce a steady stream of Western classical singers, with young performers in every major conservatory and opera training program around the world.

    Two of these young talents, sopranos Pretty Yende and Elza van den Heever, made their Metropolitan Opera debuts in 2013 within a month of each other—Ms. Yende in Le comte Ory and Ms. van den Heever in Maria Stuarda. They make their New York recital debuts during the UBUNTU festival.

  • Maskandi Music

    Kunene_Madala Madala Kunene

    Madala Kunene and Phuzekhemisi—two masters from South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province—headline a double-bill program that showcases spiritual aspects and high-energy styles in contemporary Zulu maskandi music.

    The Zulu, a Bantu ethnic group, are the largest ethnic group in South Africa with estimates of more than 10 million people—living mainly in KwaZulu-Natal, as well as in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique. The Zulu genre of maskanda or maskandi is a type of storytelling folk music and is distinguished by a guitar flourish that sets the tone at the beginning of each song. Often referred to as “the Zulu blues,” songs are performed with a picked guitar style and rapidly spoken sections of Zulu praise poetry called izibongo. Traditionally, a maskandi singer had one long song that evolved as the story of the musician’s life grew.

  • Music of the Xhosa People

    Dizu Plaatjies Dizu Plaatjies

    Traditional-instrument maker and master Dizu Plaatjies and his group Ibuyambo perform music of the Xhosa people and of other Southern African traditions.

    The Xhosa are a Bantu ethnic group and the second largest group in South Africa. Traditional music of the Xhosa people often features drums, rattles, whistles, flutes, mouth harps, and stringed-instruments in addition to group singing and hand clapping. Popular Xhosa songs include a wedding song, “Qongqothwane,” performed by Miriam Makeba as “Click Song #1,” and “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa),” a hymn written in 1897 by Enoch Sontonga, which was later adopted by the liberation movement, eventually becoming the national anthem of a democratic South Africa.


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