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Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Isicathamiya (with the 'c' pronounced as a dental click) is a singing style that originated from the South African Zulus. In European understanding, a cappella is also used to describe this form of singing.


Solomon Linda, early figure of the Mbube genre

The word itself does not have a literal translation; it is derived from the Zulu verb -cathama, which means walking softly, or tread carefully. Isicathamiya contrasts with an earlier name for Zulu a cappella singing, mbube, meaning "lion". The change in name marks a transition in the style of the music: traditionally, music described as Mbube is sung loudly and powerfully, while isicathamiya focuses more on achieving a harmonious blend between the voices. The name also refers to the style's tightly-choreographed dance moves that keep the singers on their toes.

South African singing groups such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo demonstrate this style. Isicathamiya choirs are traditionally all male. Its roots reach back before the turn of the 20th century, when numerous men left the homelands in order to search for work in the cities. As many of the tribesmen became urbanized, the style was forgotten through much of the 20th century.

Today, isicathamiya competitions in Johannesburg and Durban take place on Saturday nights, with up to 30 choirs performing from 8 pm to 8 am the following morning.

Worldwide recognition[edit]

The Western breakthrough for this style was Paul Simon's album Graceland (1986), which featured such tracks as "Homeless" and "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes", in which Simon was backed by the haunting voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The group itself has since gone on to enjoy great popularity and recognition, including songs such as "Hello My Baby" and also recordings of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door", the Rugby World Cup theme "The World in Union", and "Mbube" (a song composed in 1939 by Zulu worker Solomon Linda - The song, with additional lyrics, is also known as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight") — this last having given its name, meaning lion, to the genre.[1] "Mambazo" members are also born again Christians and frequently demonstrate the close relationship between isicathamiya and gospel music in songs such as "Amazing Grace" and various Zulu hymns. "Mambazo" is the primary a cappella group from South Africa to garner worldwide attention; all other widely known South African musicians use some form of instrumental backing, though some groups such as the Mahotella Queens, who sing against an electric guitar "Mbaqanga" melody, occasionally sing without instrumental backing.

List of recorded isicathamiya choirs[edit]


  • Veit Erlmann (1995). Nightsong: Power, Performance, and Practice in South Africa. University of Chicago Press. 
  • National Public Radio: "Zulu's 'Tip-Toe' Choir Competition."
  • Reality 7 [1]

Further reading[edit]