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South Africa's Phuphuma Love Minus steps onto Paris stage

By Alison Hird

South African male choir Phuphuma Love Minus are performing Imfihlakalo Yezulu in Paris. The troop celebrate a singing and dancing tradition known as Isicathamiya. Through its a cappella chant and slick choreography, the show takes us to the heart of Zulu culture in the early part of the 20th century when dispossessed migrant workers in the goldmines sought solace and dreams of a better life through song and dapper clothing.

11 young men tiptoe their way around the stage in patent shoes, sharp suits and white gloves, they’re performing a slow dance that accompanies a form of a capella singing known as Isacathamiya.

Built on a system of call and response, it's particular to the Zulu culture and was born in the townships of Johannesburg.

"It was 1913, during the time of labour migration," choir director Nlhanhla Mahlangu told RFI "when people were taken from their homelands into the city of Johannesburg to start working in the mines after the discovery of gold.

The men sing mostly in Zulu, but the lyrics can include elements of English, and, unsurprisingly for migrant workers who'd been uprooted and forced into slave labour, many songs deal with a sense of loss.

"When you are taken from your homeland into a foreign place like the city of Johannesburg when it was not even a city, just an open field, obviously it’s about how I miss my family, how I miss my children, my cows, lands, everything they have lost and [the hope] of finding a better life," Mahlangu continues.

Isicathamiya was not the only artform to come out of the South African gold mines as dispossessed black workers struggled to express themselves. Gumboot, where miners communicated through elaborate dance steps wearing cumbersome gumboots, was born out of similar circumstances.

But unlike the loud gumboot, performers of Isacathamiya put the emphasis on quietness and discretion.

"The word Isicathamiya is taken from the Zulu word cathama, which means to step light," explains Mahlangu. "When you are in a compound of the mine, obviously one of the rules of the compounds was that you’re not supposed to gather and sing songs from [your] homelands. So what they did was hide themselves, try to sing softly and step lightly so they’re not seen. So the aesthetic of Isicathamiya comes from the fact I’m trying not to sing and I’m trying not to dance, I’m trying not to be loud and I’m trying not to be big in terms of my sound and my movement. That actually forms itself into a new language of singing and dancing."

As blacks were not allowed to buy land and property of their own, Mahlangu says they compensated by buying smart clothes.

"They would buy expensive shoes and suits from the very same white people who were oppressing them and dress in them and start showing off to each other to say 'my suit is better than yours'. It was indeed a colonial response but as it got practiced and practiced it became part of our heritage which we are performing today."

Screen shot of ARTE video: male choir Phuphuma Love Minus perform their elegant "isicathamiya" Zulu singing and dancing tradition at Musée du Quai Branly on 25 March 2017. Screen shot from ARTE

During the 1970s and 80s, Isicathamiya became very popular on the South Africa music scene. Paul Simon gave the art form worldwide recognition when he invited the Ladysmith Black Mambazo Choir to record on the 1986 album Graceland.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo remain the world’s most famous and inspiring performers of Isicathamiya.

And while there are thousands performing up and down the country, and regularly competing for best vocals and most elegant look, Phuphuma Love Minus are one of the few to tour internationally. 

Their show has generated a lot of enthusiasm and interest here in Paris. It's visually stunning and the men have a mastery of four-part harmony. You don’t have to be sensitive to South Africa’s segregationist past, but as Mahlangu says, it’s hard to put it aside.

"The performers had no intention of making a political statement but in South Africa whatever you say or do, even if you’re sleeping, you’re affected by politics. Everything is political in my opinion. Maybe it's my revolutionary consciousness that makes me say that," he adds.

"Yes it's the music of migrant labour. Why migrant labour? It was because of colonialisation, the music itself exists because there was a problem. So for me it is a political statement [even if] for others it is beautiful, happy natives dancing."

Music will not necessarily change the world but it most definitely played a role in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid.

"I’m not that naïve to believe that if you all just sing and dance everything will be beautiful. I think there’s a lot of fundamental issues that need something else. But the struggle of South Africa in apartheid is the only struggle in the world that was fought, and won, in four-part harmony."

The show runs at Paris's Musée du Quai Branly through to 2 April 2017. Follow Phuphuma Love Minus on facebook

 

 

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