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January 14, 2010

What is Isicathamiya?

By Carlos Palomares

Even if you don’t know the name, you have probably heard isicathamiya (pronounced is-cot-a-ME-ya).

Isicathamiya choirs are made up of mostly of basses, joined by a couple tenors, an alto, and a lead voice.  Their sound is recognizable by the emphasis of the bass voices. In South Africa, isicathamiya groups of 10 to 25 men perform the popular song-and-dance a capella singing style at weekly competitions. Outside of South Africa, however, music lovers became more familiar with the sound of isicathamiya with the release of Paul Simon’s 1986 multi-platinum record, Graceland, which included isicathamiya by Ladysmith Black Mambazo (who appear at Hill Auditorium on January 31, 2010).

Before Graceland, Solomon Linda’s adaption of a traditional Zulu melody,“Mbube,” was an international hit in the 1930s. Pete Seeger translated and adapted “Mbube” into the hit “Wimoweh,” also known as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

While the roots of isicathamiya can be traced to Zulu culture, European and American musical styles influenced its stylistic development. During the Dutch and British colonial period of South Africa, local people adapted western instruments and music to their own styles. Missionary music, American spirituals, and minstrel shows traveled through the colony, influencing the local musicians.

In the early to mid 20th century, Zulu migrant workers traveled from rural areas to urban areas to work in the mines of South Africa. In a biography of Joseph Shabalala, the leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Christopher Ballantine remarks, “Poorly housed and paid worse, [the migrant workers] would entertain themselves, after a six-day week, by singing songs into the wee hours every Sunday morning. Cothoza Mfana they called themselves, ‘tip toe guys,’ referring to the dance steps choreographed so as to not disturb the camp security guards. When miners returned to the homelands, the tradition returned with them. There began a fierce, but social, competition held regularly and a highlight of everyone’s social calendar. The winners were awarded a goat for their efforts and, of course, the adoration of their fans. These competitions are held even today in assembly halls and church basements throughout Zululand South Africa.”

Listen to isicathamiya:

Amazing Zulu Isicathamiya Choirs

“Zulu’s ‘Tip-Toe’ Choir Competition”

The NPR 100: Graceland

Further reading:

See the UMS Teacher’s resource guide available on the Youth Education page.

The South African ethnomusicologist Angela Impey’s “Songs of the Night: Isicathamiya Choral Music from KwaZulu Natal,” is a great article to check out for more information about isicathamiya choir competitions.



Ballantine, Christopher. “Joseph Shabalala: Chronicles of an African Composer.” British Journal of Ethnomusicology, Vol. 5 (1996), pp. 1-38.


Carlos Palomares was the UMS Production Manager/Artist Services Coordinator from 2007-2010. He received his MA in Ethnomusicology at Michigan in 2007.