Cities often function as experimental artistic laboratories, places where time seems to speed up and cultural pollination accelerates creative evolution. That’s true in Los Angeles today and it was true in Johannesburg a hundred years ago.
As the 20th century dawned, Zulu men, driven from their ancestral lands by white settlers, were moving to South Africa’s growing urban areas in search of work in mines and factories. This often left them far from their families, severed from their cultural roots by the pressures of colonization and modernity. They were searching for a sense of connection, a sense of home, attempting to create a meaningful dwelling place within an alienating new reality. In these difficult conditions, Zulu workers combined their own musical traditions with popular foreign influences like ragtime and gospel—American genres which themselves were descended from older African forms. Before long a new genre, isicathamiya, had developed from this cross-cultural interplay.
You may know the rest of the story… in the 1980s, folksinger Paul Simon helped bring a South African isicathamiya group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, to the attention of the Western media, and a string of awards followed. Now, over a century after displaced migrant workers first pioneered the style on the margins of Western colonialism, isicathamiya has been embraced by audiences across the world.
There’s something inspirational about this back-and-forth flowing of styles across continents and centuries. African music influenced by American music influenced by African music, being performed in cosmopolitan Los Angeles—a city which knows a few things about mixing styles and cultures. The development of isicathamiya serves as a reminder that creativity has always had little regard for humanity’s artificial borders. We are always already immersed in waves of culture that overflow imagined communities like race and nationality, enabling us to find moments of shared humanity as we recognize something of ourselves in each other.
Those early 20th century isicathamiya groups created this music out of the profoundly human need to feel at home. Whatever context you are coming from, we hope that Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s performance at Royce Hall makes you feel a bit more at home, too.
on behalf of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance