Sunday, January 17, 2016

Photographing at ILAM

In July 2015, I visited for the first time the International Library of African Music, or ILAM, in Grahamstown, South Africa. I had approached Diane Thram, ILAM’s director, in 2013 about a proposal to photograph their 78 rpm record collection. I was looking to expand on a project to visually document every South African record ever pressed. Admittedly, an asymptotic endeavor, if not quixotic!

There are a number of significant archives of South African music in various institutions and private collections across South Africa and indeed around the world. Many of these entities have made great efforts to digitize the sound component of their collections but, interestingly, not the visual artifact itself—the object that carries the sound.

Naturally the primary focus of any music collection should be the music. For me, however, the visual components—the covers and even labels—of any recording can reveal much information or meta-data that can be useful if linked back to the audio. The images of labels alone, for example, carry significant information about graphic design histories: what fonts were used during which periods; how colors and label design are employed to differentiate and brand music styles or target various audiences and subsequently consumers; how coupling prefixes can categorize music styles. At the very least, matrix numbers can often aid in the dating of recordings and even illuminate such esoteric details as the identity of recording engineers.

It is possible that other nuanced micro-data may reveal more information for future researches, perhaps in unconventional ways. For example, when viewing a large set of images in a batch desktop application such as Adobe Bridge, visual patterns and shifts can uncover something about the whole label series that may not be evident when looking at any single label image.

With this in mind, I began documenting my own South African records around 2005. With access to online auction sites such as eBay and various encounters with antique dealers and junk shops, the collection gradually expanded. This endeavor became a useful tool for me to re-educate myself about the complexities of South Africa’s turbulent history through the lens of audio recordings, while enjoying some fantastic sounds.

Much of this music history, however, was still opaque to me, and for the broader public remained unmapped. I needed a tool to cross-reference the links between artists, their complex relationships with record companies, and at the very least a vehicle that could build dynamic discographies—a searchable database that was also visually appealing. At some point it became necessary to construct a website to host this visual archive and in 2010 I launched the South African Audio Archive at

At that time there were already a number of blogs and websites dedicated to South African music including: Matsuli, Electric Jive, Afro-Synth, Soul Safari, 3rd Ear’s Hidden Years Archive Project (HYMAP) and SAMAP to name a few.

The South African Music Archive Project or SAMAP has probably the most extensive database of Southern African music featuring well over 13,000 audio samples from six collections including the Ballantine Collection, HYMAP, Shifty Records and ILAM. The project developed around 2007 in partnership with Digital Imaging South Africa (DISA) and went online in 2009. 

As a visual artist, I found the experience of searching SAMAP useful but also frustrating. I wanted to be able to view the original artifacts while listening to the digitized tracks but SAMAP did not have the funding to visually document each record source. In my research, I found that a number of the participating institutions also had not photographed their collections. So I embarked on a project to do just that.

My project was straightforward: I would donate my time and modest photographic skills to document these and any other collections I came across. The particular institution would receive a set of the images and in return I would gain a visual knowledge of the scope of each of the collections. Using flatinternational to map the images, my plan was to crosslink these with the SAMAP database. Thus reconnecting image with audio across two databases while expanding the searchable footprint for applications like Google.

In 2012 I approached Christopher Ballantine with a proposal to document his collection. Ballantine, the LG Joel Professor of Music Emeritus at the School of Music, University of KwaZulu-Natal, had built his archive of significant 78 rpm records while researching his classic publication Marabi Nights: Early South African Jazz and Vaudeville (first published by Ravan Press in 1993). Ballantine has since greatly updated and expanded this seminal text and a second edition is now available as Marabi Nights: Jazz, ‘Race’ and Society in Early Apartheid South Africa (UKZN Press, 2013). This award winning book is accompanied by a compact disc containing 25 excellent tracks of South African recordings from the 1930s and 40s. The earlier, first edition came with the same tracks on a cassette tape.

The Christopher Ballantine Collection, School of Music, University of KwaZulu-Natal

In August 2012, Kendall Buster and I visited Chris Ballantine’s office in Durban and he kindly allowed us to photograph his entire collection of roughly 500 shellac discs over two days. That same year I also documented a significant portion of (my Electric Jive colleague) Chris Albertyn’s 78 rpm collection in Durban.

If you navigate to the search page of flatinternational and type "Ballantine" into the source field you will see a list of interesting examples from the collection. The results also give a sense of how the visual discography works. Select a disc and then select a track. You will be taken back to the SAMAP page where you can listen to the track. At the moment there are only a few discs represented from the collection at flatinternational. But it is my hope that, in time, more will be added.

Hugh Tracey’s ILAM archive at Rhodes University in Grahamstown probably represents one of the largest collections of indigenous, sub-Saharan African music in the world. So it was critical in my mind to include ILAM as I continued my documentation project.

The story behind ILAM is itself interesting. In 1947 Hugh Tracey was hired by Eric Gallo to run African Music Research (AMR), a unit funded by Gallo Africa Limited with Tracey as director. Through this relationship, Gallo supported Tracey’s early recording expeditions throughout sub-Saharan Africa allowing him to build a substantial archive of African recordings. The relationship was mutual, Gallo would reap the financial benefits of any successful tracks that Tracey might find while enabling Tracey to continue his research into African music.

Tracey established the African Music Transcription Library (AMTL) that housed the field tapes from these expeditions as well as his broader archive of materials collected while he was director at the Natal studios of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) from 1936 to 1947.

In 1950 Gallo funded the building of offices to house Tracey’s AMR unit and AMTL Library on the premises near the Gallo pressing plant in Roodepoort, 25 km east of central Johannesburg. In July 1951 the fruits of their mutual relationship became evident in the publication of the first catalogue of Gramophone Records of African Music listing 350 78 rpm discs issued on the Gallotone and Trek labels. Trek was an imprint of Gramophone Record Company a subsidiary of Gallo’s. By July 1952 the commercially available recordings facilitated by Tracey's AMR unit had increased to 577 discs.

By 1953, Tracey felt a need to “relieve Mr. Gallo of his financial responsibility”, and established a more independent organization for his research. With the aid of a grant from the Nuffield Foundation that was then matched by various mining interests in Southern Africa, he established the International Library of African Music (ILAM) as a non-profit organization.

The work on the new library began in mid 1954. Though it is not clear to me whether Tracey continued to rent the premises that became ILAM from Gallo or build the library at a separate site. Both the former AMR and the new ILAM library were located at Msaho in Roodepoort.

Tracey, now as ILAM, continued his research into African music and began issuing the results of his many expeditions on the, now famous, Sound of Africa series consisting of 210 vinyl LP records. Earlier, more commercially viable recordings were also issued as 10” vinyl discs on the Music of Africa series and made available internationally on the Decca and London labels as well as Gallotone in South Africa.

Hugh Tracey sorting records from his Sound of Africa and Music of Africa series, early 1960s.

After Tracey’s death in 1977, ILAM was run by his son Andrew Tracey who, subsequently in 1978, relocated the organization to its current site at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. Today the archive's Director is Diane Thram, who assumed the position in 2005 after Andrew Tracey retired. In addition to what is a massive repository of African music and a fascinating collection of musical instruments, ILAM is also an active research institution attached to the Department of Music and Musicology and through them offers courses in Ethnomusicology.

Kendall Buster and I visited ILAM between July 14-17, 2015 just after the Grahamstown Arts Festival. We met with Diane Thram, who kindly toured us around the library and introduced us to a number of key people. We met Elijah Madiba, the sound engineer who was also responsible for the digitization project undertaken in 2007 that lead to the SAMAP database, as well as Liesl Visage, who both greatly facilitated the realization of our project.

Elijah Madiba and Siemon Allen in the ILAM Archive, July 2015.

With just three days in a bitterly cold Grahamstown our plan was ambitious. There was no way that we would be able to photograph every record  in the collection. But given that my main area of research covers Southern African artists and South African companies, we decided to limit our focus to commercial 78 rpm recordings that met those criteria. There are, of course, multiple central African labels such as Opika, Ngoma, Jambo in the ILAM archive and in these cases we photographed only one disc from the set as an example of the label and a marker for future documentation.

Elijah Madiba and Siemon Allen. Behind are the master tapes for the Music of Africa series.

The vast majority of ILAM’s commercial 78s consist of Gallotone and Trek recordings issued between 1948 and 1954 when Tracey worked for Gallo in their AMR unit. Of these, there are multiple copies of many issues, sometimes as many as twenty duplicates. I suspect these are what remain of Tracey’s sales stock that was advertised through catalogues at the time. In the interest of time we chose to avoid the duplicates where possible, and devised a strategy for keeping track of what numbers were already photographed. We drafted an informal grid noting each catalog number as it was shot. The image to the right shows one of our pages and the extent of the collection for this period. Gallo’s GE / GB prefix series was dedicated, for the most part, to black music (or Bantu as it was then termed). It is interesting to note that Gallo’s GB series went up to at least GB 3668 (issued in 1967) though Tracey’s collection drops off quite precipitously, with some exceptions, after GB 1600.

We arrived on Tuesday afternoon and spent the time setting up our photographic equipment and shooting a range of samples to determine the best exposures for various label colors, carefully making a list noting the ideal f-stop for each tone. But when we returned the following morning ready to begin our task, we found the building without power. At the time South Africa was in the grips of an energy crisis and the government had devised a solution for energy sharing known as load-shedding where power was turned off in various communities throughout the country on a rotational basis. Sometimes this process was structured and predetermined, but more often it was unexpected and of uncertain duration.

With the goal of finding an alternative source of light without removing our operation from the dark archival cocoon of the library, we spent the morning in downtown Grahamstown, investigating various hardware and specialty stores. We eventually found a potential solution at the local SPAR. Though far from ideal, our ‘Magyver plan’ involved fixing two battery-powered LED camping lights on either side of the copy stand. The camera was, thankfully, already battery powered. The LED lights were relatively dim and could only highlight a small circle roughly the size of the label area but it was good enough to get the critical information, albeit at a much lower camera speed and the risk of blurry images. The main lights did not come back on until late afternoon and by then, with our camping light rig, we had made considerable progress.

Gallo advertisement for 78 rpm record storage shelf, c1951

A curious anecdotal detail I discovered while researching this post is that the shelving system used by ILAM employs the same original unit advertised by Gallo in Tracey's Librarian's Handbook, published around 1951.

Over the next three days we took over 3000 photographs, thankfully completing the task of documenting most of the commercial 78s, which alas amounted to just one wall of the storage room. The collection of course is significantly more extensive and we photographed limited examples of other materials in the collection. Below I have outlined some of the more interesting finds from the commercial 78s and the broader collection.

Hugh Tracey with the Chipika Singers, ABC studios, Johannesburg, July 1930.

Tracey’s first exercise in documenting African music was to facilitate the recording of some of the earliest “authentic folk” music from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). At the end of July 1930 he brought nine Karanga men on a lorry from Fort Victoria to the studios of the African Broadcasting Company (ABC, then the private precursor to the SABC) in Johannesburg to record with a portable field recording unit that had sent by the UK-based Columbia Graphophone Company. With commercial intentions, the unit had come on the invitation of Polliack and Company, Limited who were the agents for Columbia in South Africa. Tracey’s trip with the men was aided by a grant from Witwatersrand University, through Percival Kirby, a professor there in the Department of Music. After the Columbia session the singers visited Kirby's office at WITS where they made further private recordings.

The Columbia engineers cut at least twelve tracks (six discs) with the group that became known as the Chipika Singers and were issued on Columbia’s mid-price, light-green Regal label. ILAM has five of these discs in their collection. The date of these recordings in many publications and in the ILAM meta-data for the photograph above is incorrectly attributed as June 1929. Interestingly the label of GR 38 has a small hand-written note in pen: "JHB. 1928." The "8" has been overwritten with a "9" at a later time in a different pen and then signed "HT". It is probably from these notes that Tracey was able to recall the date, though given that there was some confusion between 1928 and 1929, both dates must have been written long after the records came into his possession, as the correct date from Kirby and newspaper accounts is late July 1930. (Thanks to Rob Allingham for insisting on the correct date and leading me to the newspaper articles.)

The collection also includes 159 discs from Tracey’s first field expeditions undertaken in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) between June 1932 and July 1933. These recordings were embossed on plain aluminium plates with a diamond stylus using a very early portable machine. Tracey had received a Carnegie Fellowship grant for the project, through the aid of Harold Jowitt, then director of Native Development. According to his own accounts, he did not have the capabilities of preserving these fragile discs on tape at the time. And eventually they deteriorated to a point beyond making digitisation possible. Roughly 600 tracks altogether were recorded of rural material in languages such as Karanga, Zezeru, Korekore and Ndau.

When the Columbia field unit returned at the end on 1932, Tracey again arranged to bring sixteen Karanga men in January 1933 from Fort Victoria to Cape Town via train to record. Roughly thirty pressings were issued on Columbia’s ochre-coloured, AE and YE series label. Only eleven of these discs remain in the archive today. More significantly though, the collection does have 63 single-sided test pressings with their original WEA matrix numbers from these recording sessions. We photographed a small selection of these, but at some point it would be important to return and document the rest.

By many accounts, the first broadcasts in any African language in South Africa were made by King Edward Masinga on December 21st, 1941 (dates and accounts differ and some sources point to the Zulu Versatile Company as an earlier precedent in the 1920s). As the story goes that night Masinga read the 7pm news in Zulu from the Durban studios of the SABC after earlier in the day walking serendipitously past the building on Aliwal Street, entering, and approaching the director about a job. The director of the SABC in Durban at the time was Hugh Tracey. Masinga would go on to play a major role in South African broadcasting, including the translation of Shakespeare into Zulu for radio. In April 2015 he posthumously received a life-time achievement award at the annual MTN Radio Awards.

In 1944 Tracey and Masinga collaborated on a uniquely bilingual project and published a play—Chief Above and Chief below—in Zulu and English. Written by Masinga, the story is the retelling of an old Zulu legend, that is accompanied by dances and songs, also written by Masinga. (The book pictured above is from the flatinternational archive.) ILAM does have what appears to be radio broadcasts of the play from 1944 on a number of steel acetate discs. The discs are dated between December 20, 1943 and March 18, 1945 and it is my guess that the play was presented as a weekly or monthly radio serial. Notably, the discs carry the Gallo logo and the imprint of African Music Research (AMR) from Tracey’s time at Gallo in the late 1940s and early 1950s. My speculation is that these acetates are later transfers made by Tracey from an earlier format.

Amongst the commercial 78s themselves, one of the most interesting finds was a Homophon Company disc—up until then—a label I was not familiar with, let alone even aware that they recorded any South African related material. When I found this disc, I knew immediately that there was something significant about it. I asked Elijah Madiba if I could listen to the tracks. Alas, ILAM had not yet digitised them. So I embarked on some research around the meta-data associated with the disc

The double sided disc includes two tracks, one by Dr. W. B. Rubusana titled Kaffir Clicks and the second, O come Maidens come by Palmer Mgwetyana. About this word “kaffir” and its appearance here. It is a highly offensive, derogoratory term used to refer to black South Africans, notably during the apartheid era. The origin is Arabic meaning literally “non-believers”. (Interestingly, today one can sometimes hear the term in ISIS videos used when referring to “infidels”). Whether its appearance in this record title is intended as a deliberate racial slur or not, it’s seemingly 'benign' casual use (not unusual for 19th century publications) still gives a jolt to the contemporary researcher. 

While both titles appear in English, the attributions on each side are not. "Sitewetu ngu..." and "invunywe ngu..." seem to be spelt phonetically in Xhosa as if the recording engineer wrote down word for word how the performers chose to present themselves in their own language. Perhaps their intentions were that these records would eventually be marketed back in the country of origin—Homophon discs were certainly advertised in South African media of the day. I asked Elijah Madiba about these attributions and said that "sitewetu ngu" translates as "narrated by" while "invunywe ngu" is "sang by".

“Kaffir Clicks” could refer to the Xhosa language likely spoken by Rubusana and so it is my guess that this side of the disc represents spoken word examples of Rubusana's style of speaking rather than songs. A 'curiosity' perhaps for what I assume was a British audience. Something, I suspect, not that dissimilar from how Western audiences responded to Miriam Makeba’s “Click Song” 50 years later.

Homophon was a German record label—the discs were pressed in Berlin—though the company had offices in London prior to World War One. On each side there are four distinct numbers: the overall catalog or coupling number (991), a matrix for each track (60174 and 60206), and then two additional alpha-numeric numbers in the lead-out of the shellac. Thanks to some esoteric notes available at I was able to determine that these numbers refer to dates. Though Homophon has a rather Byzantine dating system, this is still better than most 78 rpm discs that have none at all. Rubusana’s recording has G28P, which translates to July 28, 1911, while Mgwetyana has G31P or July 31, 1911. While it is not clear whether these represent the actual recording dates, I suspect that they almost certainly do. The fourth number, 1913A, also refers to a date, 1st September, 1913, but it is unclear whether this represents a pressing or issue date.

Both Rubusana and Mgwetyana were part of a South African delegation that attended the historic first Universal Races Congress held over four days at the University of London from July 26-29, 1911. The meeting, with 2100 attendees, had been organised by the Ethical Culture Society to discuss the state of race relations across the world and included participants such as W.E.B. du Bois. I am almost certain that these recordings were made while these two men attended this historic meeting in London and that the numbers on the shellac refer to the specific recording dates.

Dr. Walter Benson Rubusana was a notable South African leader and sometime political rival of John Tengo Jabavu. Interestingly Rubusana become the first black African ever elected to serve as a member of the Cape Provincial Council. He was elected president of the South African Native Convention in 1909 before becoming one of the vice-presidents of the organisation that became the African National Congress after attending their inaugural conference in Bloemfontein in 1912.

The Homophon recording is one of, if not the first of any South African political leader, black or white. While it is likely that the record was issued in 1913, it is significant that the recordings predate Zonophone’s historic 4000 series of South African material launched in 1912. Within the history of black Southern African recordings these two tracks are only preempted by the mostly religious tunes cut in 1907 by the Swazi Chiefs and issued on the Gramophone Concert Record (GCR) label. 

I found it odd that Hugh Tracey, as one of the earliest collectors of African music did not have any Zonophone and GCR discs in his collection. However, this Homophon disc qualifies as the oldest recording in the ILAM collection. In my view it is a recording of great historical significance and warrants further research. 

Many thanks to ILAM, Diane Thram, Elijah Madiba, Liezl Visagie and Chris Ballantine for making this project possible.

Kendall Buster and Elijah Madiba in the ILAM recording studio, July 2015.

Photographing at ILAM

In July 2015, I visited for the first time the International Library of African Music, or ILAM, in Grahamstown, South Africa. I had approached Diane Thram, ILAM’s director, in 2013 about a proposal to photograph their 78 rpm record collection. I was looking to expand on a project to visually document every South African record ever pressed. Admittedly, an asymptotic endeavor, if not quixotic!

Read the full text in the post: Photographing at ILAM.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Kwela - Discography (1951-1962)

Tin whistle jive, also referred to as penny whistle jive—the music which subsequently became known as kwela around 1958—was one of the first indigenous popular musics from South Africa to enjoy commercial success and international notoriety. With its roots in the marabi tradition, the music at times blended elements of rock ’n roll, blues, jazz and swing into a language of irresistibly catchy tunes ideal for dancing, and as a result generated significant cross-racial appeal.

The appreciation of kwela by both black and white audiences is highlighted in this October 9th, 1958 image below from Jet magazine, an African-American weekly periodical published out of Chicago. Here a white “house-wife”, Jeanne Hart, dances the “kwela" with a transplant from Sophiatown, Cameron Mokaleng, in a London club. I suspect they may have been dancing to Tom Hark, Elias Lerole’s smash hit which topped the British Hit Parade around June 1958 and set the bar for kwela’s international rise.

In November 1958, a month later, the same image could be found 15 000 km away accompanying an article in the Singapore Free Press describing the new London scene with the headline “Now they’re all doing the kwela”. And a subsequent article in the Singapore Times compared the rise of kwela with that of rock ’n roll and pondered whether this new style would supplant rock in popularity. (“Kwela and Rock ’n Roll”, Singapore Times, January 10th 1959) Indeed for a brief period record executives seriously considered investing in the new craze as the next ‘big thing’ to follow the rock phenomenon.

By the end of the 1950s kwela LPs, EPs, 45s and 78s could be found in countries across the globe including the UK, USA, Argentina, Spain, France, Germany, Rhodesia and of course South Africa. It is from these varied sources (including many original South African 78 rpm recordings) in the Flat International archive that this chronological discography has been compiled.

I approached this project in a similar way to the Makeba Track Less Travelled compilation featured at Electric Jive by first digitizing all the kwela and flute music in the Flat International archive. The total tallied up to a generous 516 tracks. Of course, many titles were issued multiple times on different formats and this process allowed me to select the best quality versions where possible. Using Apple’s Smart Folder system I was able to access all the tracks chronologically in a virtual single folder without having to duplicate massive amounts of data. Seeing the tracks as a list also generated possible scenarios for how aspects of the style developed. Screen grabs of this track list, or more specifically—Kwela Discography—can be viewed below. I then combed through the list and selected the best material along with historically significant tracks to produce perhaps the first extensive survey of this music form. The first two compilations of Tin Whistle Jive and the Roots of Kwela, Volume One (1951-1956) and Volume Two (1956-1957) can be heard at Electric Jive. Over the next few months we will continue to post additional volumes covering a significant gamut of the style up until its eventual demise around 1962.

The liner notes of many kwela LPs and EPs marketed in the UK and South Africa in the late 1950s describe the roots of the music in this way: “The Pennywhistle of today originates way back when African herd-boys fashioned a pipe from bamboo. They called this pipe a 'Mahlaka' and it gave them enjoyment in their lonely vigil whilst herding their fathers’ cattle.” (Columbia, SEYJ 105) “As time went on these were replaced by tin whistles as the bamboo was not strong enough and did not last. These tin pipes have been greatly improved and are what we now call ‘penny whistles’. The penny-whistle became the popular instrument of little African boys and they could be heard playing on street corners where they attracted much interest and attention.” (Columbia, SEYJ 102)

In the 1930s and 40s, as herd-boys migrated to cities looking for work, the affordable German-made tin whistle became a reliable substitute for the indigenous reed counterpart. (Allingham, Rough Guide to World Music, p. 641) The versatile whistle could be stored in one’s belt, produced at a moments notice, or played while walking. “[M]usicians who could not afford band instruments imitated big band music on penny whistle [and] several of South Africa’s jazz saxophonists started their musical careers on this instrument.” (Lara Allen, Circuits of Recognition and Desire in the Evolution of Black South African Popular Music: The Career of the Penny Whistle; p. 39). Frederick Maphisa recalls buying his first tin whistle in 1936 for 2s 6d. Often he would walk to central Johannesburg from Western Native Township and busk outside cinemas where lines would queue. (Allen, ibid, p. 35) 

Lionel Rogosin, Come Back Africa, 1959.

By the 1950s groups of pre-teens and teenagers could be seen playing in townships like Alexandra or attracting huge crowds on the street corners of Johannesburg. Sometimes a make-shift band was put together with any number of whistlers and a guitarist for rhythm; as can be seen in the extraordinary footage in Lionel Rogosin’s 1959 quasi-documentary Come Back Africa. Often these performers would play a “cat-and-mouse” game with police avoiding arrest for public disturbance (Allingham, p.641). But clearly as the film reveals, the police like the rest of the racial-mixed crowd look on with awe at the street performances. Perhaps the presence of Rogosin’s camera tempered their typical reaction.

Lionel Rogosin, Come Back Africa, 1959.

As Rob Allingham points out this music eventually “attracted a white following, particularly from rebellious suburban teenagers referred to as ‘ducktails’”. (Allingham, World Music, p. 641) Rogosin’s film shows a number of these ducktails viewing the penny whistle performers in various street scenes. Notably, it was the ducktails who would subsequently play a role in popularizing the music for white South African audiences.

Lionel Rogosin, Come Back Africa, 1959.

Of course the penny whistle’s history in South Africa is more complex and can also be traced back to the influence of British military marching bands from as early as the 1910s. Some of the instruments and very often the clothing of these marching bands was adopted and adapted by black musicians as Lara Allen reveals: 

"In the late 1930s and early 1940s the marching style and parade costumes of Scots regiments had a marked influence on developing black urban popular culture. […] Scottish fife-and-drum and pipe-bands were more precisely imitated by groups of black males known as scottishes, playing penny whistles and drums. […] Willard Cele, Jake Lerole, and Ntemi Piliso, who became well known musicians later on, were all at various times members of the Alexandra-based Scottish band originally known as the Alexandra Scots and later as the Alexandra Highlanders. The membership of Scottish bands varied, but usually included fifteen to twenty-five penny whistlers and two to five drummers. Members ranged in age from adolescents to men in their early thirties. The most striking aspect of these bands was their uniform that, as far as cost would allow, simulated exactly the regalia of Scots Pipers: white spats, glengarries and tartan kilts with sporrans." (Allen, ibid, p. 33)

Very little, if any, of the music in this form was recorded; though there are hints at it, for example, in the 1957 tracks King Flute and Solid by the Aron (Jake Lerole) and Michael on the Troubadour label where the rhythm section almost alludes to a military-styled drumming.

Interest in the scottishes declined after the second world war. Many performers shifted to other instruments; for example Ntemi Piliso who was already playing saxophone in big jazz bands like the Harlem Swingsters. (Allen, ibid, p.36) Similarly artists such as Albert Ralulimi and Barney Rachabane all cut their teeth on the penny whistle before moving onto other instruments.

Many young aspiring musicians tried to emulate the sound of majuba or African jazz with this more affordable instrument. Jake Lerole recalls playing an early form of kwela in shebeens from 1948 with a dance band comprised of penny whistle, guitar, concertina and home-made percussion instruments. (Allen, ibid, p. 38) As the form developed, groups featured a lead flute accompanied by four or five rhythm flutes. While artists like Spokes Mashiyane would perform solo accompanied by guitar, eventually a variety of instruments including home-made ones became the standard. Some groups included a bassist operating a babatoni or refashioned tea-box as an upright bass. The tea chest bass was also common to many skiffle bands in the UK during this time, including Lennon and McCartney’s Quarrymen. As this 1958 Daily Mail headline suggests—“Kwela Scatters the Skifflers”—much of the popularity of kwela in the UK stemmed from its grassroots approach and similarity to the skiffle. (Columbia, JS 11014)

Willard Cele in Donald Swanson's Magic Garden, 1951.

The first recordings of the music that would eventually become known as kwela were in the form of a twelve bar blues made by Willard Cele in 1951 and featured in Donald Swanson’s classic film, The Magic Garden, but it was only between 1954 and 1956 that the commercial appeal of this music began to be recognised in South Africa, notably with the rise of Spokes Mashiyane. Prior to 1958 the music was generally categorized on record labels as flagelot jive, tin whistle jive, penny whistle jive, flute jive and so on. 

A British scout, looking for a catchy theme to accompany a new British television series about illicit diamond smuggling in South Africa, selected the 1956 tune Tom Hark by Elias (Lerole) and his Zig Zag Jive Flutes. The Killing Stones, was released on March 23, 1958 and its theme song prompted an interest by viewers leading to a UK record issue on 78 rpm (Columbia, DB 4109) and 45 rpm (45-DB 4109). By mid 1958, Tom Hark had sky-rocketed to the top of the British Hit Parade. 

The term kwela can loosely be translated as “step up” or “climb up” in a number of South African languages, but it was also a slang term that referred to apartheid-era police vehicles. When people were arrested policemen would order them to “step up” into the vehicle and the name stuck. In the introduction to Tom Hark, one can hear a re-enacted conversation of a street-gang playing an illegal game of dice. One of the individuals shouts out in tsotsitaal (an Afrikaans derived street-slang) “Hier kom die kwela-kwela! Stop […] want hulle gaan ons bo vat!” (Here comes the kwela-kwela! Stop […] otherwise they’re going to take us away.) 

Lara Allen in her detailed analysis speculates that it may have been British DJs who, in hearing this introduction, interpreted it as an announcement of the impending music and inadvertently applied the name to the style of music. 

The word kwela, sometimes spelled quela, was also the name of a popular dance of the 1950s and can be found in the titles of tracks recorded many years prior to Tom Hark. But here the term is used in its literal sense as in: Kwela Spokes translates as “Climb-up Spokes” or “Get into it, Spokes”… rather than “Spokes is recording a kwela”. 

The international success of Elias Lerole’s Tom Hark in 1958 further sparked a craze and a whole generation of penny whistle imitators in South Africa but by then the instrument’s eventual demise had already been written by its own stars who had replaced it with the saxophone. Complex arrangements with additional sophisticated instrumentation continued well into the early 1960s but by 1962 recordings of the style more or less faded away.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Imaging of Zulu

By Siemon Allen

Recently I was invited to participate in a round table on the theme of "Global Zulu" for the 16th triennial ACASA conference hosted by the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. Organized by Gary van Wyk and Lisa Brittan, the presentation was a precursor to their curatorial work around an exhibition based on the same theme. Other participants on the round table included Hlonipa Mokoena (Columbia University), Sandra Klopper (University of Cape Town),  Dingani Mthethwa (Virginia Commonwealth University) and Catherine Elliot (University of East Anglia / British Museum). Gary had invited me to talk about the use of Zulu iconography on record covers but I chose to take a slightly broader approach by including earlier material. My text and images presented at the conference follow below:

I came to this round table not as a specialist on Zulu Culture but rather as an artist who for the last 15 years has been working on a series of projects based around the theme of Imaging South Africa.  For these projects I collect, archive and display various artifacts, specifically those that have left the country and exist in the wider world, and ones that, for better or worse, construct images of South Africa. The vast majority of these artifacts are paper ephemera such as stamps, trading cards, postcards, record covers, and so on. Today I will focus on one aspect of that constructed South African image — Zulu culture — and how it has been imaged in the West.

The first written accounts of Zulu cultural life seen through Western eyes were made by explorers Nathaniel Isaacs and Allen Francis Gardiner in two separate books both published in England in 1836 and illustrated with elaborate lithograph plates. These were the first ‘images’ that a reading public in England would have had of the Zulu and their accounts certainly would define the popular conception (or mis-conception) of this distant culture. This would be an image, rightly or wrongly, from which historians over the next 150 years, would draw. More recent findings have led some researchers to question their often problematic depictions of the Zulu as exaggerated; motivated by commercial desires to promote the annexation of the region by the British Crown.1

A letter, discovered in 1941, written by Nathanial Isaacs to Henry Fynn in which he gives publishing advice to Fynn, states: “Make them [the Zulu kings] out as bloodthirsty as you can, and describe the frivolous crimes people lose their lives for. It all tends to swell up the work and make it interesting.2 Fynn was one of the first explorers to arrive at Port Natal and had lived amongst the Zulu for some years documenting his experience in a diary. Fynn was looking to publish his diary in London when Isaacs wrote to him.

It is from Isaacs that we have the first, and one of the few, images of King Shaka, shown here in “battle-dress”.

Isaacs book was subsequently reviewed in the British weekly publication The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction3 in October 1836, which reprinted the now famous image of Shaka on its cover. Quoted in the review were selected texts from Isaacs’ account, including an initial meeting with Shaka:4

… as usual we paid the king an early visit. We now expressed a wish to see him in his war dress; he immediately retired, and in a short time returned attired: his dress consists of monkeys’ skins, in three folds from his waist to the knee, from which two white cows tails are suspended as well as from each arm; round his head is a neat band of fur stuffed, in front of which is placed a tall feather, and on each side a variegated plume. He advanced with his shield, an oval about four feet in length, and an umconto, or spear, when his warriors commenced a war-song, and he began his maneuvers.5

What, for me, is significant about this account is that Shaka does not choose to greet his guests dressed in his warrior attire (for obvious reasons, he was not at battle.) But rather it is the visitors, the Westerners, who desire to see him dressed as such.

This is then how Isaacs chooses to represent Shaka in the lithographs to the British public and it is this image of the male Zulu as warrior that is then imprinted on the imagination and continuously re-imaged in the West.

Though Shaka does not at first appear in his military dress for the visitors, in complying to their request he becomes a kind of participant in this projection of the warrior image for his so-called ‘other’. His performance as the warrior is an assertion of cultural pride and a legitimate affirmation of Zulu identity. Seen through Western eyes, though, this same action becomes a spectacle and a form of exoticism.

Thus comes into play a complex dance of “performing Zulu” for Western audiences, where actions and objects of significant cultural pride — the clothing; the weapons, such as the assegai and knobkerrie, the isihlangu or battle shield — are used by Westerners as signs to reinforce early stereotypes of the Zulu as “warlike and savage”.

Print was not the only medium to contribute to these problematic Western images of the Zulu in the 19th century. Further examples of Zulu culture as spectacle are discussed in Bernth Lindfors book, Africans on Stage, where, in the summer of 1853, A.T. and C. Caldecott brought thirteen Zulus by ship to London “for the purpose of exhibiting them to the British public.6 The show included elaborate performances by the men in traditional warrior dress and was reported as one of the most popular shows in London at the time. Similarly, in 1879, William Hunt, also known as Farini, mounted shows concurrent with the Anglo-Zulu War of Zulu warriors performing in London.7

The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, like no other event before it, brought British interests in Zululand, to the front pages of the international press. The various Zulu victories against the world’s then leading imperial army were often featured in papers like The New York Times. An article on February 12th after the battle of Isandlwana reads: “The news of the defeat caused a sensation throughout London. The demand for newspapers at all the suburban stations was greater than since the outbreak of the Franco-German War.8 Another article from July 25th covers the eventual Zulu defeat at the battle of Ulundi and discusses possible outcomes for then Zulu King Cetshwayo.9

An interesting example of the extent to which the Zulu war caught the international attention is seen in this cigarette card series celebrating Australia’s preeminent annual horse race: the Melbourne Cup. The 1881 winner was a black colt named Zulu, here not only referencing the war but also signifying “blackness”.

After his defeat, King Cetshwayo, was captured and sent into exile at the Cape. In 1882 he petitioned Queen Victoria for an audience and was permitted to travel to London where he requested to be reinstated as Zulu King. Images from the time include Cetshwayo posing in traditional dress and subsequently photographed in Western attire while visiting London in 1882. In addition Queen Victoria offered to have his official portrait painted in “national dress”.

The image on the left shows Cetshwayo posing for a portrait in traditional attire taken probably around 1875. Interestingly he is posed in front of what appears to be a large canvas tarpaulin and seated on a Victorian wooden chair. This is also how he appears to be dressed in images showing him and his entourage aboard the ship Natal which took him into exile to Cape Town.10 The centre photograph taken by Alexander Bassano in 1882, while Cetshwayo was visiting London, shows him in Western clothing. While in London, Queen Victoria also offered her painter, Carl Sohn, to paint his official portrait in “national dress”. The painting was eventually sent on permanent loan by King George VI to the Old Town House in Durban.11 Today it is part of the Local History Museum collection.

Cetshwayo also became the subject of the British satirical weekly magazine Punch. In this cartoon he is shown with a female entourage meeting British high society, in what I am assuming is a fictional account as the image appears to be dated from 1879, well before his 1882 visit.

Below Cetshwayo is depicted on a cigarette card issued ten years after the Anglo-Zulu war in 1889. The card comes from W.S. Kimball & Company’s crudely titled series Savage and Semi-Barbarous Chiefs and Rulers.

Allen & Ginter of Richmond, Virginia was one of the first cigarette companies to insert printed cards into their tobacco products as a way to stiffen the packaging and serve as a marketing device. Many subjects ranged from the quasi-educational to blatant propaganda. This set from 1887 explored the Arms of all Nations and included an image of a Zulu warrior with Assegai situated interestingly with other weapons from across the globe.

Some cards like this 1929 Churchman series titled Warriors of all Nations would include a paragraph of information on the back contextualizing, in part, the image on the front. Other cards like the 1888 Kinney Tobacco Company Military Series show a "Zulu Chief" erroneously as a child.

This Singer Sewing Machine trade card below dates from the 1890s. Trade cards were exchanged in social circles as a means of advertising businesses or products and first became popular in London in the 17th century. In many ways they are the pre-cursor to the modern day business card. This particular card shows a Zulu woman making an article of clothing on a sewing machine surrounded by her family. The text on the back suggests that it is the Singer Company that is literally bringing “civilization” through Western clothing to Zululand.

The turn of the century saw an explosion of postcards. Short messages could be sent at cheaper rates than letters. Visitors in foreign countries, in this way, would communicate with friends or loved-ones thereby disseminating mass produced “exotic” images across the globe. South Africa was no exception.

Early postcards however showed very little of the rapid industrialization of contemporary African life under colonial rule. Images of the Zulu, rather, referenced a pre-colonial ideal with thematic stereotypes that perpetuated, for the Western viewer, a romantic image of “native” life.

A number of companies produced postcards in South Africa in the early 1900s but none were as prolific as the Sallo Epstein Company of Durban.12 These two postcards below are examples from Epstein's studio that show what appears to be Zulu musicians with a range of traditional and Western instruments including the stringed bow or umakweyana, a concertina and a mouth organ. The cancellation stamp on the rear of the right hand card dates it from January 28th, 1906. Interestingly, this image was also used on the cover of the compilation CD Squashbox: Le Concertina Zoulou et Sotho en Afrique Du Sud 1930-1965 issued in France on Silex Memoire in 1993.

The postcard also presented a new kind of Zulu image: the rickshaw or amalitha — introduced to Natal from Japan in 1893. The Zulu rickshaw is a particular adaptation of the Japanese rickshaw (meaning human power vehicle) which was probably developed in Japan around 1869. By 1904 there were over 2000 registered rickshaw pullers in Durban.

Though rickshaws were quite clearly the result of problematic colonial labour dynamics, the practice did foster a uniquely Zulu and vibrant sub-culture. The horns in the headdress, for example, are symbolic of the strength of the bull.13

Images of the Zulu rickshaw began to appear in international advertisements for travel to South Africa, reinforcing colonial fantasies for Western consumers. This 1935 US Time magazine advertises “A Zulu Warrior pulled my rickshaw” thus blurring and equating the rickshaw puller and Zulu warrior. The rickshaw is used again in a 1939 US Fortune Magazine advertisement seen below the Time magazine example.

The above image shows an earlier travel advertisement from Science magazine in the 1920s with a diagram of a Zulu warrior in “War Panoply”.


The earliest recordings of Zulu music date back to 1912 when the UK-based Gramophone Company sent a portable recording unit to South Africa and issued records on their Zonophone label. These included tracks by Impi To Sindiso, H. Selby Msimang, P. Mbonambi and J. Vilakazi.14 But field recordings were not the greatest quality and artists were frequently brought by boat to the recording studios in England.

Interestingly the first substantial body of Zulu recordings were made in London by James Stuart, a white, fluent Zulu linguist who was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1868. Stuart recorded at least 62 tracks, beginning in April 1927, that were primarily spoken word praise songs — or izibongo — dedicated to leaders like Shaka and Dingane. Of note Stuart was also one of the principles behind the eventual publication of Henry Fynn’s diary mentioned earlier. Much of Stuart's research is housed today at the Killie Campbell Africana Library in Durban. Stuart’s recording sessions were followed with those by Simon Sibiya and John Matthews Ngwane in 1929.15

But perhaps the most famous and successful Zulu recordings from this period come from the 1930 London sessions by Reuben T. Caluza’s Double Quartet. As Veit Erlmann so intricately reveals in his book African Stars, Caluza was South Africa’s first black ragtime composer and with his group recorded over 150 tracks for EMI. Caluza had been educated at John Dube’s Ohlange Institute and became a choral conductor and teacher there in 1915. In 1934 he graduated from the Hampton Institute in Virginia, USA followed by Columbia University before returning to South Africa to head the newly formed School of Music at Adams College outside Durban.16

With a growing resurgence in ethnic pride amongst the black elite, teachers, mostly alumni from Adams College, formed in 1929 “The Lucky Stars”, a vaudeville performance troupe that employed Zulu ethnic traditions and iconography in their shows.

The image above  is sourced from Veit Erlmann's African Stars and in the book he discusses the group and the times:

"The Lucky Stars gloried in “scenes of native domestic life with a realism which would be otherwise unobtainable. […] And although elite critics such as Herbert Dhlomo mocked the show as “exotic crudités,” Durban working-class audiences “perceived finer shades of relevant ethical significance, and relished the skillful dramatization of double-barreled purpose in each play. […] If the acceptance of ethnic traditions among black cultural leaders before the war and during much of the 1920s was never more than half-hearted, the 1930s saw significant changes in black attitudes towards tradition and ethnicity. Thus in 1932 Mark Radebe, leading musical ideologue and Johannesburg music critic, argued that a genuine national musical idiom had to be “based on the real Bantu Music, namely its folk music. […] In Natal, leaders like John Dube exerted a strong influence on African thinking about ethnic tradition; and both the Ohlange Institute and Adams college were instrumental in bringing educated elite into tune with the new policy. Thus it is by no means accidental that in terms of musical performance, the shift toward traditionalism first took shape at Adams and Ohlange […]"17

Columbia, another UK-based competitor of Gramophone Company had sent a mobile unit to South Africa in 1929 and then again in 1933. In the first issue of his African Music Society Newsletter (June 1948), ethnomusicologist, Hugh Tracey referred to Columbia recordings made by the Zululand War Dancers as excellent examples of ndhlamu dance — often featuring the ingoma drum or sometimes clapping. Tracey pointed out that the tracks were incorrectly referred to as "war dancers" and that the drum was erroneously mislabeled as a “tom-tom”. In the same issue he mentions Mameyiguda Zungu (on HMV), a stevedore in the Durban harbour, as being one of the best-known ndhlamu dance leaders in Durban.18

Ndhlamu or more broadly speaking ingoma dance as Erlmann points out, was one of the “most powerful symbols of working class Zulu identity” and had a strong tradition dating back to pre-colonial times. Ingoma dancing was for a time banned in Durban after practitioners of the form were linked to riots there in 1929. But through a process of negotiation and “domestication”, using weekly organized dance competitions, the art form was eventually adopted and promoted by White-owned businesses in Johannesburg (notably mining interests) and Durban.19

Though dance competitions had been staged in Johannesburg as early as 1921, a committee composed exclusively of whites allowed for the staging of the first “Natal Native Dancing Championships” in 1939 in which more than fifty ingoma teams participated. As Erlmann details in African Stars: “One of the most readily observable results of the restructuring of ingoma dance was the emergence of a completely new type of “traditional” dance regalia. Prior to the Dancing Championships most dance troupes in Durban had preferred vividly coloured cloth skirts and a cape-like shoulder covering over a pair of long trousers, vests, and car-tire sandals. When the white organizers of the spectacle suggested that more “traditional”-looking regalia be worn to enhance the visual aspect of the dancing with tourists, most teams readily adopted a completely different outfit of animal skins, sticks, and shields that now forms the standard ingoma “uniform”.20

Though Erlmann maintains that the performers only donned the more traditional clothing at the request of the white organizers in 1939, quite clearly this image he sourced from the EMI archives shows Mameyiguda and his dance group dressed in traditional attire as early as 1933.

Not all critics, black or white, approved of the style. Ingoma dance was still viewed by some sectors of the black elite as a “vestige of the ‘uncivilised’, ‘heathen’ past that stood in the way of full integration into modern South African society.21

The linking of traditional Zulu symbols with images of the industrial labor experience of working class blacks was also used as a marketing strategy to entice black consumers. Below, Gallo’s 78 rpm Singer sleeve from the early 1930s shows idyllic images of a Zulu warrior gazing over land (that ironically is no longer his) and a maiden fetching water; juxtaposed with ingoma dancers, in the distance, performing at the base a Johannesburg mine.

Incidentally, the image of the Zulu maiden fetching water in the lower right hand corner was also used in a 1930s series of ceramic plates marketed by the UK company, Royal Doulton. These photographs were circulated across a range of media at the time. Another image from the plate series, showing a Zulu woman (Mdabuli) at the entrance of a hut, was sourced from the 1927 Italian film Siliva Zulu and were taken by the team's anthropologist Lidio Cipriani.22 Similarly an image of a Zulu warrior in the plate series, like that of Mdabuli, was also featured on postcards.

Another 78 rpm sleeve, on the Shaya label from the 1940s, shows a more considered design with a jazz pianist, as contemporary urban performer, merging with what was becoming the most iconic symbols of Zulu identity: the isihlangu or shield, assegai and knobkerrie. The target audience here was principally black middle-class consumers. The Shaya label, owned by African Electrical Recording Industries, in the mid 1940s, under Arthur Harris, condensed their name to Recording Industries, or RI, before becoming Trutone Industries in 1949.

In 1952 Hugh Tracey would document the ingoma dances that were now becoming huge tourist attractions, in his book African Dances of the Witwatersrand Gold Mines. The book was complemented with accompanying 10” records released by Decca, under Tracey’s Music of Africa series and issued in South Africa, the UK and USA. Notice the design on the cover linking the ingoma dancer with the iconic image of the Johannesburg gold mine.

Like the earlier postcards, this Trutone souvenir record cover from 1956 uses a number of images to happily market South Africa to tourist visitors. Photographs of traditional life such as the Zulu maiden reed dance are juxtaposed with a range of eclectic images crudely depicting the black South African experience. Notably, the music on the compilation paints a rather different picture and for the most part features a sampling of contemporary urban styles such as jazz, jive and kwela.

These 1958 LPs were designed specifically for white audiences and the international market. The UK Columbia issue on the left shows a Zulu maiden dance from what I believe is the annual Shembe religious festival, but here decontextualized. On the right is the US issue with a different title: Music of the African Zulus. Misleading in that not all the music on the compilation is Zulu, nor is it religious or traditional, but rather quite eclectic, contemporary and urban. Interestingly the women’s naked breasts here have been edited with additional in-studio decorative clothing, perhaps suggesting a sensitive shift from the earlier exploitative approach seen in the postcards. However, I suspect this may have had more to do with censorship and “wholesome” marketing in the international context.

Below are examples of record covers exploiting in varied degrees the image of the colonial Zulu rickshaw. The bottom right image shows a more critical and interesting application of the rickshaw image here used satirically on the 1980s debut album of alternative band the Kalahari Surfers.

In the 1960s the apartheid government began to implement major parts of its Separate Development policy. This involved the establishment of separate homeland regions within the borders of the South Africa as "independent countries" based on ethnic and language divisions within the black population. These included Transkei, Ciskei, Venda, KwaZulu, and so on. This 1964 pamphlet below, issued by the South African Information Service in the United States, illustrates quite blatantly, I believe, their motives behind this strategy.23 By dividing the black population into ethnic language groups the government created the false impression that the white community was in the majority. Ironically whites are not broken down into their ethnic language groups such as Afrikaans, English, Jewish, Greek etc.

Similarly in 1960 the government launched a number of separate, state-run, language-based broadcasting stations under the umbrella of Radio Bantu. These divisions included Radio Zulu, Radio Lebowa, Radio Setswana, etc., and their purpose was to exploit regional differences and promote ethnic identification. Cross-exchange between languages was forbidden, only Zulu could be spoken or performed on Radio Zulu, and so on.24 The main goal was to discourage a cross-cultural, united African identity that could and eventually would destroy the apartheid state.

This strategy had an impact on record companies who were only assured radio play if they recorded and marketed musicians on ethnic lines. Not only were black musicians encouraged to restrict their lyrics to a particular language, but albums marketed ethnicity. Thus it was common for covers to include the ethnicity of the group, in addition to the particular music genre, for example “Zulu traditional”, “Sotho vocal”, “Zulu disco”, and so on.25 As can be viewed on the 1971 Zulu Vocal album and two LPs by Babsy Mlangeni below.

Ironically, unforeseen by the government, this strategy generated a whole popular resurgence in neo-traditional music styles in the 1970s and early 80s.

Images with Zulu iconography are almost absent from most South African records in the 1960s, save for those issued under Hugh Tracey’s ILAM label. The first records that reintroduce Zulu ethnic symbols began to appear in the early 1970s. Of note is Welcome Msomi’s critically acclaimed play Umabatha - The Zulu Macbeth that became a huge success in 1972 and travelled internationally. This record was only recorded and issued in 1975, however.

Another example that also toured globally was the 1974 exploitative musical Ipi-Tombi produced by Bertha Egnos, considered by many to be propaganda for the apartheid government.

Interestingly plays like these fostered a positive reassessment of “traditional symbols” as David Coplan points out:

A last issue of concern to township playwrights during the Struggle period was the proper role of indigenous historical culture in town and township theatre. On the one hand, urban cultural disorientation, social disintegration, and the philosophy of Black Consciousness fostered the positive reassessment of the ‘traditional’ among urban Africans. On the other hand, the success of Welcome Msomi’s Zulu Macbeth, U-Mabatha, and of exploitative displays of African tradition by white producers, Ipi Tombi, nonetheless inspired township playwrights to blend traditional music, dance, and divination scenes into their plays. The verdict of township audiences on these attempts was that ‘traditionality’ was acceptable, even rousingly effective, provided it was done ‘authentically’ - in a manner recognizable from rural community performance - and with expertise.26

From 1975 on there is an explosion of records by groups re-introducing ethnic iconography and depictions of the rural experience on their covers. As shown here for example by the Queue Sisters and Mthembu Queens. Curiously the later cover shows the group in traditional dress on the front and contemporary urban clothing on the back.

A major pioneer of the Zulu neo-traditional style of music known as maskanda was John Bengu, also known as Phuzushukela (literally meaning sugar drinker). As Rob Allingham reveals, Bhengu who, with his distinctive finger-picking, guitar style, started out as a street performer in Durban in the late 1940s, before making his first records at Troubadour around 1955. In 1968 Bhengu moved to Trutone and then worked for a short period with producer Cambridge Matiwane, who may have been instrumental in getting him to perform with a backing band, a notable departure for maskanda music at that time. These recordings were also his first to use the name Phuzushukela. In 1971, Bhengu moved to GRC, where producer Hamilton Nzimande electrified his sound. The combination of traditional maskanda with the heavy bass lines of mbaqanga produced a product that was irresistible and a formulae that remained for the next 30 years.27 Given that I have none of his early records it is difficult to say at what point Bhengu chose to present himself in traditional Zulu dress on his covers, but this cassette above is from 1977. While this record, Sehlule Umkhomazi, dating from 1982 is his last.

Likewise other maskanda artists styled after Bengu, like Moses Mchunu and Philemon Zulu, began producing hit records in an explosion of Zulu neo-traditional music from the mid 1970s to early 80s.

The group that put maskanda on the global map was Juluka with their 1979 debut LP Universal Man. The interracial team of Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu defied apartheid orthodoxy and the album was banned from radio play. Here the two pose on a mine dump with the name of the band, which means sweat in Zulu, engraved in a gold bar — alluding to the migrant labor that built Johannesburg.28

On Juluka’s second album African Litany, Mchunu is shown attaching a bangle to Clegg's arm and as Michael Drewett in Composing Apartheid points out: “These images strongly dismissed the apartheid policy of racial separation and mistrust and accordingly disrupted the apartheid fiction”.29

Other albums show the group performing the ingoma stamping dance, continuing the tradition made famous by artists like Mameyiguda in the 1930s.

Below are more examples of covers by other maskanda groups from the 1980s.

Finally, maskanda was not the only Zulu traditional music form, other styles include the a cappella vocal tradition, isicathamiya made famous first by Solomon Linda’s Original Evening Birds in 1939 and then by one of South Africa’s most well-known and successful groups — Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Their debut LP, Amabutho, in 1973 became a major success and was one of the first records by black artists to go ‘gold’ in South Africa. Between 1973 and 1986 they would release at least twelve hit records locally before collaborating with Paul Simon on his historic Graceland album and becoming international stars

Interestingly Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s use of traditional Zulu iconography on the covers of their locally produced albums, prior to the collaboration with Paul Simon, seems quite discreet except for one album, Shintsha Sithothobala, which shows the group dressed as Zulu rickshaws.30

When LBM's records began to be marketed in the US and Europe by Shanachie Records in 1984 an image of the group in Zulu traditional dress was chosen for the cover. Likewise for their hit with Paul Simon, “Homeless”.

Other albums issued internationally by companies, such as Shanachie and Rounder Records, since then have used similar marketing strategies.

This leads me to the question of whether the artists here have agency in the decision making of how they are imaged on their album covers? Or is this something determined by the record company? Moreover, does the adoption of Zulu traditional iconography in these contexts reinforce ethnic pride on a global scale or does it simply pander to those old stereotypes established in the Western media by Nathaniel Isaacs and others so long ago in the days of Shaka?


In closing, the Zulu maskanda tradition continues to be hugely popular in South Africa and was throughout the 1990s. Artists like Phuzekhemisi (medicine drinker), or more recently Izingane Zoma, came to prominence not only for great music but also for controversial and political themes critiquing aspects of contemporary Zulu life.

Zulu iconography also emerged in other genres for example on this 1986 solo jazz record, Village Dance, by iconic bassist Sipho Gumede. Here he embraces his Zulu roots in red “hot pants”.

And again on his classic 1994 LP Down Freedom Avenue, where the traditional Zulu shield and weapons have been transformed, through an almost logo-like design, into an iconic brand.

More recently, Zulu traditions continue to be adapted and readapted. For example hip-hop artist Zuluboy samples maskanda guitar for his own brand of “skandi-hop”.


1. Wylie, Dan. 2006. Myth of Iron: Shaka in History, University of KwaZulu Natal Press, Durban; reviewed in: Rory Carroll, "Shaka Zulu's brutality was exaggerated, say new book"The Guardian online, May 21, 2006.
2. Oakes, Dougie, (ed.) 1989. Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story, Reader's Digest, Cape Town, p. 87.
3. "The Zoolus of Eastern Africa" in the The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction, London, No. 799, October 8, 1836.
4. The meeting is between Lt. King, his party and Shaka and his described in King's diary. Isaacs in his book quotes extensively from King's diary as that text had come into his possession after King had died at Port Natal.
5. Isaacs, Nathaniel. 1836. Travels and Adventures in Eastern Africa, Descriptive of the Zoolus, Their Manners, Customs, with A Sketch of Natal, Edward Churton, London, p. 60-61.
6. Lindfors, Bernth (ed.) 1999. Africans on Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, p. 62.
7. Ibid., p. 81.
8. "The Victory of the Zulus", The New York Times, New York, February 12, 1879.
9. "The Battle of Ulundi", The New York Times, New York, July 25, 1879.
10. Photographs of Cetshwayo and his entourage on the ship Natal were shown in the exhibition: Distance and Desire: Encounters with the African Archive Part III: Poetics and Politics, curated by Tamar Garb at The Walther Collection Project Space, New York, March 22 - May 18, 2013. The exhibition was reviewed in the blog: Art Blat.
11. Binns, C.T. 1963. The Last Zulu King, Longmans, London, p. 190.
12. Nicholson, Martin P. 1996. Catalogue of the Postcards of Southern Africa: Volume 1 - Sallo Epstein, self-published, Northants, UK.
13. An observation noted in more detail by Sandra Klopper during the "Global Zulu" panel discussion.
14. I am indebted to Alan Kelly for his tireless research on the Gramophone Company discography and for graciously sending me his notes on the Zonophone T-series.
15. Ibid.
16. Erlmann, Veit. 1991. African Stars: Studies in Black South African Performance, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 121.
17. Ibid. p. 77.
18. Tracey, Hugh (ed.) 1948. "Records of African Music", African Music Society Newsletter, Roodepoort, Vol. 1, No. 1, July 1948, p. 26.
19. Erlmann, Veit. 1991. African Stars: Studies in Black South African Performance, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 96.
20. Ibid. p. 108-109.
21. Ibid. p. 106.
22. As noted in the exhibition: Siliva Zulu: Silent Pictures Telling Stories, curated by Fiona Clayton, Gerald Klinghardt, and Lalou Meltzer, Iziko Slave Lodge, Cape Town,  2011-2012
23. The Republic of South Africa: 300 Years of Progress, pamphlet issued by the South African Government Information Service, New York, 1964.
24. Drewett, Michael. 2008. "Packaging Desires: Album covers and the Presentation of Apartheid" in Grant Olwage (ed.), Composing Apartheid: Music For and Against Apartheid, Wits University Press, Johannesburg, p. 128.
25. Ibid.
26. Coplan, David B. 2007. In Township Tonight: Three Centuries of South African Black City Music and Theatre, Jacana, Johannesburg, p. 276.
27. Allingham, Rob. 1990. Liner notes to the CD Singing in an Open Space: Zulu Rhythm and Harmony 1962-1982, Rounder Records, Cambridge, MA.
28. Michael Drewett quotes Richard Pithouse in "Packaging Desires: Album covers and the Presentation of Apartheid" in Grant Olwage (ed.), Composing Apartheid: Music For and Against Apartheid, Wits University Press, Johannesburg, 2008, p. 130.
29. Drewett, Michael. 2008. "Packaging Desires: Album covers and the Presentation of Apartheid" in Grant Olwage (ed.), Composing Apartheid: Music For and Against Apartheid, Wits University Press, Johannesburg, p. 130.
30. Twelve LBM's record covers are shown on the back of their Intokoza LP, Ezomdabu (BL 205), Gallo, Johannesburg, 1980.