One of the most beautiful things about black South Africans was pointed out to me by a friend from India, with whom I attended Winnie Mandela’s funeral. On that cool Saturday morning in April, having woken up early to avoid queues, which we were unsuccessful in dodging, our party of five stood on the upper level of the stadium in Soweto to be counted among the 4000 who sent Mama off in an exceptional, song-charged service.
One of the many organisations there, which included the ANC, the Economic Freedom Fighters or the Methodist Church Manyano women, would hlabela the first line of a song and the rest of the stadium would follow, often accompanied by the bell instrument the Manyano women use or a thunderous rhythmic clapping to the pulse of the song by the whole stadium.
During a struggle song called uThamb’uyeza, to which my friend was just clapping because she didn’t know the words, she looked over at me and said: “You know you guys are probably the only people in the world who can just get together and spontaneously sing a song in tune, with effortless harmonising and everybody, even kids, just know what to do. I’ve never seen this anywhere else in the world.”
I’m loathe to say we are the only ones in the world, but she is right about us being a people of song.
I travelled to East London last weekend, where I witnessed the warmest welcome anybody could ever wish for. As we were waiting for our bags on the carousels of domestic arrivals, through the glass doors where friends and family await their arriving beloveds, a group of SAA staff in uniform was singing a song to two special passengers. Their signs held up the names of the two little girls alongside a bunch of colourful balloons. The whole airport came alive as they sang (in perfect two-part harmony): “Zizojik’izinto [things will turn around]/ Thula mntanami [be still my child]/ Wen’ukhalelani [why do you cry]?/ Isikhalo somntwana sihoye [a child’s cry must be tended to].”
Even though we didn’t know the girls or their mother, who I think works for SAA, some of us in the “audience” also sang and clapped along, captured by the spirit of song. I was home for my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, where many a song would further engulf me.
I think the choral tradition that was in part introduced by the Christian missionaries of the 19th century happened to a people who had long tapped into the sonic intelligence of song and its effect on the mind, body and spirit and made it part of their everyday. All Xhosa homes I knew in the former Transkei grew up singing amaculo (hymns) from well-used hymn books that families took to church and routinely used at home too.
These hymns, which date back to the early and mid-19th century, which were written or translated by the likes of Ntsikana and Tiyo Soga, are some of the most effective tools used by the pacifist approach to proselytise in the furthering of the colonial project in the Cape.
But histories don’t neatly unfold in a way that makes perfect sense. Despite growing up in a Xhosa traditionalist home, where we followed an indigenous belief system, inkolo yakwaNtu, it seems that mine and many other families where I come from also adopted Christianity. My father once said “it’s mostly for social survival”, when I asked him why our family is Christian. I was 18 at the time and didn’t understand how inextricably linked the two belief systems had become. At 33, although my spiritual foundation is isiNtu, I have come to enjoy some aspects of the Christian tradition, which I am slowly re-entering through song.
As I mature, I am looking for intonga yam, a tune to call my own, the song that I will lean on in good times and bad, as our people have done for millennia. I was spoiled for choice this past weekend when someone would spontaneously hlabela a song like Asiphelelanga, Asiphelelanga, which sounds like an ANC song more than it is a hymn, or Thula mntanam Zizojik’izinto (the song sung at the airport), one of the many songs by unknown bards that end up being public and political property in our singing country.
But the real gems are the hymns that one is born into and grows up singing. The fact that millions of us have a family hymn, or that a parent or grandparent has “intonga yakhe” that then becomes the family song, can be attributed to the almost natural talent that we have for singing together. Ekhaya, intonga katata (my father’s song) was the Presbyterian hymn: “Ndikhokhele o’Yehova [Lead me oh Jehova]/ Ndingumhambi nkosi yam [I am a pilgrim my lord]./ Unamandla andinawo [You have the strength, I have none]/ Onobuthathaka ndim [Hold me with your hand]/ O msindisi, nguwe olikhakha lam [Oh saviour, you are my shield].”
When he was still alive, he was the church organist and we would sing this song every Sunday evening during family prayer, when his piano fingers would summon the start of the hymn after my mother said “masiculeni u245” in the Presbyterian hymnal.
My mother, who is a Methodist, grew up singing the sweet and sombre Ndinike amehlo ndikhangele, which was her family song. I recorded the family singing this song, led by my aunt Nokwazi, when I was last there. How a group of people between the ages of four and 90 come together and become an instant choir, needing no instrument but their voices, is something we should not take for granted.
I’m beginning to end my days ritually with these recordings. The older I become, the more I realise the role of these songs in black life. It’s not necessarily that people are only tethered to the lyrics, it is the action of collective singing as a response to life itself, be it in easy times or difficult ones.They are a mode of reverence for the story of being here.
At home as well as at the Model C school I attended, the anchor hymn was always the Lord’s Prayer in isi-Xhosa (Bawo wethu osezulwini).
In complicated spaces and times, these songs have held us in inexplicable ways, ways that are difficult to place into the binaries to which we are so attached. How soothing it is to sing Amen, Amen, Amen despite your disease with organised religion. How sweet it is to precede any meal with “Nalamanzi aselwayo/ Siwanikwa nguwe/ Nokukutya sikutyayo/ Sikunikwa nguwe [And this water that we drink we are given it by you/ And this food that we eat we are given it by you]” even though you cannot ever truly know who you are singing to.
I never thought I would ever arrive at this point, given that my politics has been the definitive way I have defined myself for a long time. But I’m growing up and it feels good to let go of the need for things to fit neatly into conclusive compartments dominated by intellectualism. My spiritual mind can’t help but respond to the delightful melody of Thixo ulilanga lethu, in which the men and women, elders and young people, have perfectly fitting harmonies that simply belong in ways inexplicable but deeply comforting.I think this might be the ntonga I have been looking for: “Thixo ulilanga lethu [God, you are our sun]/ Uyakhanya phezu kwethu [You shine above us]/ Umphefumlo ungabona [The soul can see]/ Apho uhambela khona [Where you tread]”.
All together, now: “Makubenjalo! Kude kube ngunaphakade.”