Xhosa songs from the Township of Langa 

The townships of Cape Town still bear the stigma of Apartheid, the political system founded on racial segregation. The new democratic values have indeed swept aside the old racial criteria, but the present economic climate, liberalism and its ruthless laws, maintain racial segregation and the racial ghettos of the past have become the economically depressed suburbs of the present. On the other hand, the newly acquired free circulation, demographic growth and the pull of the cities have on the whole had a multiplier effect on the townships which are today visibly expanding. It would however, be reductionist to consider the townships solely as “coloured” suburbs, economically depressed, where crime and delinquence are the inevitable consequence of poverty. The townships are at the heart of the democratic debate in South Africa and, as in the past, it is here that all the aspirations to justice, all resistance and all hopes are expressed, often through music.

The “music of the townships”, which has spread as such throughout the seventies with the emergence of Black Consciousness, has rapidly become a means of affirmation for the underprivileged classes. It covers types of music and forms of urban cultural expression as varied as, among others, the “Cape Malay choirs” (1), the marimba, the makwaya - African choral music - and even, recently, the kwaito.

From a formal point of view, Makwaya choral music does not conform to western esthetics even though it is inspired by hymn. It is a deliberate choice, which conforms to a desire for syncretism. The harmonies of African choirs are not based on a dominant melodic line, but on a repeated rhythmic motif (ostinato), enriched by polyphonic embellishments. The melodic passages tend to follow the tonal motifs of the lyrics (2). But the reciprocal influences between township music and the outside world are innumerable, for example the new forms of urban music already mentioned or the traditional indigenous songs, rearranged for choral interpretation with several voices singing in harmony.

Langa Traditional Singers
The Langa Traditional Singers is an informal group made up of young Xhosa girls and boys from the township of Langa on the outskirts of Cape Town. Generally unemployed, these young people chose to become involved in social action by leading a rehabilitation programme (Ubomi Obutsha) for abandoned or orphaned street children, based on the traditional Xhosa vocal art. Some of them, like Queen and China are also members of professional groups, such as Heshoo Beshoo, and sometimes appear in public concerts or festivals. But, in the face of the profusion of the Township musical styles and their commercialisation, this group is characterised by a strong identity of resistance and, in the broad sense, by a “return to roots”. Their music, which resembles traditional Xhosa music, asserts its village origins, even though some aspects, for example their professionalism, betray a definite urban influence. This desire to carry on, even to update tradition is especially expressed in the various “village” songs, such as in those belonging to initiation rituals. But it is also found, to a lesser degree, in the recent constructed songs. The introduction of youyous and the use of a traditional drum as sole instrument accentuates the general intent and gives the whole the sought after authenticity. Despite the fact that their repertoire has, to varying degrees, been reviewed and rearranged, that certain of their songs openly transgress sex-related prohibitions - contrary to custom, all the group’s songs are sung indiscriminately by boys and girls - and that the group currently creates its own compositions, the mark of tradition and the Xhosa identity remain the elements which make this production stand out against the tide of today’s fashions and markets.

1. In the same collection: Kanala, Hollandse liedjies, Petites chansons hollandaises et autres chants métis du Cap, by the Cape Malay Group, Col. CD 105 (45’52”).
2. Valmont LAYNE, “Music” in Townships, from segregation to citizenship, (CD book not on sale to the general public) Colophon Records, 1999, pp. 53-55.


CD tracks

  1. Umlilo
    Traditionally sung only by women, this teaching song warns young shepherds of the dangers of fire (umlilo).

  2. Dumbumayimayi
    In this recent composition of Zulu influence, Lulamile Dyra evokes his experience of life in the miner’s hotels in the region of Johannesburg. The title of the song, composed of the words ‘dumbu’ - regular customer - and ‘mayimayi’ which evokes the miner’s hotel, are used as a nickname for a young widow in need.
    She goes from one dwelling to the next begging for food, but the other women are wary of her, fearing she may seduce their husbands. “Why do you always come here when you’re hungry?” cries one woman: and the men reply “She hasn’t been to bed with me, she went next door today! ”. The neighbour, in turn, protests his innocence.

  3. Batshise imbawula
    Fire will burn you”. This old traditional Xhosa song is in principle strictly reserved for men, as is everything concerning initiation rites. According to belief only men, once they are initiated, can understand and explain it.

  4. Toyi toyi
    Our mothers are happy when we throw stones at the Boers”. Toyi toyi is the name of a singing dance, sometimes carried out by large numbers of people, during protest marches during the opposition to Apartheid. This political song, still engraved in the collective memory, brings to mind the difficult times during the great popular uprisings of the Townships. It symbolizes resistance and the determination of the people, but also their hopes for change in society.

  5. Zungebele
    This love song is normally sung by the men when they come back to the village after having finished their contract at the mine. It is a light-hearted request for marriage evoking, among other things, the dowry.
    I am back from the mine, I can give you everything; let’s share our love”.

  6. Sozendiye ema a lawini
    Originally, this “prevention” song warned the Xhosas to beware of the Zulus. Today adapted to new urban needs, it evokes the violence which reigns in the townships of the “coloured” community and the dangers the Xhosas are exposed to when they go there.
    I will never go to a coloured township. They will kill us. Rest assured, I will never go there!»

  7. Ntombientle
    This old incantation song refers to magical beliefs and tells the story of a careless man whom, while searching for wood in the savannah, discovers the leg of a young girl as he passes a bush. No one should travel in the savannah without taking the necessary precautions.

  8. Ndiyayoyika indlela yase monti
    I’m afraid of walking in the East London Road”.
    Invoking a curse, many Xhosas, are afraid to take the road from Cape Town to East London, in the Transkei, via Beaufort West. The frequent road accidents recorded on this road at the present time serve to further strengthen their fears.

  9. Yonke into siyicela kuwe Somandla
    We ask God for everything”.
    This funeral song, recently composed by Lulamile Dyira and arranged by Xolani Gogxeka for the death of a close relative, would normally be sung at church. Somandla is the name of the God who created the Xhosas and the transposition of Jesus Christ.

  10. Kusasa ekuseni
    Early in the morning” is a lamentation song telling of the insecurity of life in the township (composed by Lulamile Dyria). It tells the tale of a man down on his luck who does not know how to feed his family and who goes to seek help from his friends who have work.
    Every day, in the morning when you get up to go to work, I hear you as if in a dream, and then I hear my starving children cry”. His friends answer: “Stop whining like a woman! That won’t you any good, pull yourself together, fight!»

  11. Thula la thula sana
    There are many versions of this lullaby in the ungui language with its distant rural and tribal origins. This song, along with Toyi toyi (track 4), is also well known to the white comunity of Cape Town though for different reasons: house staff and nannies, generally Xhosas, often hum this melody to calm the children of the household.

  12. Andilalanga
    We are not asleep” refers to cow thieves. Even though there are still a few cows around in the township of Langa, this warning must be understood in its broadest sense.

  13. Mgoma
    According to the grandmothers, this old village song, “pain”, accompanied by expressive gestures, never fails to chase away physical pain.

  14. Akunamvano apha emzin
    There is no unity”
    This song from the Transkei, sung in a sad tone, laments the lack of political unity, originally between tribes and today in the townships.

  15. Thina sizwe esimnyama sikhalela izwelethu i Africa
    We, the Black People are fighting for our native soil, Africa!»
    This resistance and fighting song dates from June 1976.

  16. Loliwe sthanduasana
    Train, my love (title), take me to work, that I may feed my children. I pray to my ancestors, up in the clouds that they give me the strength to get up and catch my train.” (Composition: Nceba Gongxeka and Sobry Makhuphula).