Zulu Blues

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On any Saturday morning before sunrise the crumbling YMCA on Beatrice Street near the Durban waterfront resounds with music and foot-stomping. Once this South African port city on the Indian Ocean hummed day and night with Zulu stevedores hauling ship cargo. Now in the small hours, the docks are quiet, but inside the Y, isicathamiya choral groups are pulsing. Isicathamiya (i-see-ca-tah-me-ya) encompasses elements of Zulu ritual celebrations and American gospel and ragtime. Opening for concerts in the late evening, the Beatrice Street Y offers a dim, sweltering performance hall one flight up crooked wooden stairs. The Saturday crowd sitting on plastic chairs and wooden benches fills the gymnasium-size venue all the way up to the raised concrete stage.

More than a decade ago Paul Simon's "Graceland" album introduced Ladysmith Black Mambazo to international popular culture, promoting this a cappella ensemble as a global emissary of isicathamiya and its sonorous hymns of protest and healing. For years apartheid repression haunted this music, with verses mourning loss of ancestral land to European farmers and love eroded by the distance between a Zulu migrant worker and his rural family waiting for him and his wages. Now in South Africa many isicathamiya performers no longer denounce white minority rule. New lyrics portray Africans straddling rural tradition and urban modernity, and dreams of well-being and the reality of suffering in a world of multiracial democracy. Yet at least one vestige of apartheid still defines isicathamiya. Late shows are deliberately extended to dawn, reflecting a recent past when curfew laws prevented blacks from walking at night in designated white areas downtown and around the docks.

Zulu men dominate isicathamiya, though Zulu women are entering the ranks. A troupe often represents a district from one of the former apartheid reserves administered by tribal chiefs. Residents in these infertile scrublands remain dirt poor and dependent on income from emigrant relatives. Their homes are only now receiving electricity and running water. A lone goat bleating often punctuates the usual rural stillness, but when people gather for traditional ceremonies the landscape reverberates with songs of courting and dances of war. Isicathamiya embraces both these vibrant customs and the modern cultural innovations brought by Zulu workers living in cosmopolitan cities such as Durban.

At the Beatrice Street Y, troupes compete for the prize of being the finest entertainers. In dapper suits, ties and shiny shoes, they parade before the judges. Before launching into song, groups take turns lining up to face the crowd, marching in place to set the rhythms and humming their melodies. With coyly lifted pants legs, they beat time with their feet, followed by a waist-high kick. Their coiled restraint hints at martial Zulu moves. Much in evidence to an American observer are the familiar echoes of old Hollywood vaudeville movies and the African-American companies that toured South Africa more than a century ago, bringing both step-dance movements and spirituals. During the concert, virtuoso performers nonchalantly step from the line to exhibit their special talents. Each soloist's voice projects like several musical instruments playing at once. Verse after verse propels the audience on a voyage through spiritual lament and human urges, raw humor and subtle jabs, inheritance squabbles and political rivalry. The pendulum of elation and sorrow swings throughout.

One of the evening's final songs sends a shudder through the audience. The lyrics ask children to forgive parents' trespasses and impulsive behavior. "The hardest lessons in life," a verse concludes in Zulu, "are those learned too late, after so many untimely deaths. The children and ancestors wallow in sorrow because death haunts more than ever. Death brought by AIDS is death brought by adults who should know better."

The price of admission to the Beatrice Street Y is equivalent to one New York subway ride. The profound emotions shaping South Africa come with no extra charge. The performance is in Zulu, but spectators with no understanding of the language can grasp the feeling. Evocative words such as "AIDS," "lover boy," "our parliament" and "Mandela" are at the foreground. Hope and gloom duel in the background. Isicathamiya is South Africa's blues.

Benedict Carton's recent book, "Blood From Your Children," tells of cultural turmoil in Zulu society under white rule. This article is from his forthcoming book, "White Zulu," a story of the symbolic power of Zulu manhood.