A Guide to Zulu Folk Music

Over the last century, Zulu people have struggled with various forces that threaten their traditional way of life, such as Westernisation, Industrialisation and Urbanisation.

Rycroft suggests that Zulus do not make an etic distinction between ukuhlabelela and izibongo; however, its effects remain unclear whether their distinction lies on stylistic or functional grounds.


Zulu music stands out by employing different pitch levels in its vocal performance style known as ukuhlabelela or recitational mode, often considered distinct from singing but essential for understanding Zulu music as a whole. This section will delve into these nuances of this vocal form with its stylistic use of different pitch levels.

Zulu society is organized around kinship, with the father playing an essential role in each aspect of a person’s life and imposing an exogamy law that restricts heterogamy. Thus musical forms and styles have always been highly localised – for instance ukuhlabelela which typically features the voice of mother as delivered by female relatives of both parties involved.

Due to this reason, it is impossible to generalise about the music of today’s Zulu peoples – an anachronistic term coined to indicate their cultural and musical practices which vary from region to region – in order to draw any meaningful generalizations about them. Any attempt at unification would also prove hazardous.

In order to gain a full appreciation of ukuhlabelela’s idiom and characteristics, one must understand how Zulu society operates. By looking at how musical traditions from both men and women mark significant events within family lives, a more complete picture emerges regarding the various traditions’ divisions between genders.

Men and women differ primarily in their repertory delivery style: one typically employs recitational (ukuhlabelela) verse, while the latter tend to sing. There may be exceptions; for instance some of the lullabies performed by women may also use this style.

Ukuhlabelela’s phonological system is complex and difficult to describe, including word- and stem-final syllables that attract high tones as well as situations in which this tone spreads rightward from accented syllables (i.e. accented words or stems). Therefore it’s crucial that interpreters of ukuhlabelela employ various analytical techniques when deciphering its language.


Isicathamiya music has garnered international acclaim due to its captivating harmonies and choreographed dance moves, drawing praise from critics around the world. It combines close harmonies and choreographed dance moves with captivating a capella singing and choral style music with intricate dance steps, profound lyrical themes, social activism, and emphasizes community as key ingredients of its appeal.

Isicathamiya music was created by Zulu migrant workers who left their homelands for cities in search of work. These workers used this genre to forge community bonds and hold weekly competitions using it to express themselves artistically while at the same time helping endure dehumanization in urban centers. The name comes from cathama, meaning to move slowly or tread lightly;

Although similar to another South African choral music style known as mbube, isicathamiya was more subtle and harmonic. Solomon Linda’s 1939 song Mbube or “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” became an international success and helped popularize both forms of music; Mbube style relied heavily on instrumentation while isicathamiya placed more importance on harmony.

Paul Simon sought out Joseph Shabalala and his group of isicathamiya singers to provide mesmerizing choral vocals on his 1986 multi-platinum album Graceland, where their mesmerizing harmonies gave a cappella music an entirely new audience.

Today, South Africa still maintains this rich tradition with isicathamiya competitions taking place each Saturday night between Durban and Johannesburg with their large Zulu populations – this event can feature up to 30 choirs singing into the night!

Though Isicathamiya has taken on many Western influences, such as four-part harmonies and call-and-response, its origins lie deep within South African cultural history. Lyrically, Isicathamiya lyrics address issues of racial justice and social equality while encouraging peace and oneness with nature – sometimes featuring animals as symbols of strength and perseverance! Singers perform step choreography while singing as competition judges judge both singing ability as well as step choreography performance during competitions.


Imbube is a genre of music originating in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) during the 1960s. This a capella style featuring male voices dates back to Kwela, an African township rhythm developed over several decades in Southern Africa. Additionally, this sound recalls American folk music of the 1940s such as jazz and ragtime; often performed alongside dance as part of its spiritual message that imparts knowledge on life as well as providing audience members with a sense of community pride.

Imbube has been greatly influenced by other African genres, particularly Zimbabwean musical a capella Sungura. This genre features male voices accompanied by an A sungura guitar melody consisting of lead, rhythm and bass instruments; popular among Zimbabwean miners who brought it back from South Africa where it originated; originally only played by male performers but now there are also female performers performing this music genre; originally played exclusively by African males but nowadays female performers also perform this form. Songwriting process similar to traditional African music focusing on stories meant to inspire listeners while including stories inspired from folk tales and traditional beliefs in addition to contemporary issues affecting those living within a region.

“Imbube” is derived from the Zulu word for lion, uyimbube. Natal-based musician Solomon Linda composed one of the most beloved imbube songs ever, Mbube, which later achieved widespread renown being recorded by Pete Seeger’s Weavers as Wimoweh and then again by Tokens in 1961 – its memorable melody reported as having been created during an improvisation session during recording sessions.

Black Umfolosi is an international self-taught a cappella (imbube) singing and gumboot dancing group. Their members provide South African language classes, workshops in schools, educational institutions, charity work for children in need across the UK as well as festivals of South African music; its members teach music, dance and bead making. Furthermore, the group works with charities in South Africa while striving to promote a healthier lifestyle through music.


Shembe was an important Zulu prophet who founded a church that blended Christianity and traditional Zulu beliefs. According to Shembe, his church taught that shembes are messengers from God who come to heal, comfort, and restore spiritual life within communities. Additionally, his divine powers included communicating with spirits and performing miracles. Unlike Shaka, however, Shembe preferred spiritual means such as reading the Bible avidly in its original language – something most missionaries were amazed to witness first-hand! His religious knowledge made him very popular with his followers.

Shembwe’s mission may not appeal to everyone; many of his followers accused him of witchcraft. Additionally, many of his doctrines clash with mainstream Christian beliefs; for instance they contradict some sacraments and bible principles while encouraging polygamy and divorce – something many other religions do not allow – as well as encouraging polygamy and divorce among its adherents. Furthermore, Shembwe was famously believed that blacks are inferior than whites.

Shembe’s hymns reflect his experiences and feelings; he describes how a shembe can heal the sick and provide comfort to grievers; as well as providing further insights into biblical passages or concepts. Additionally, his songs tend to be highly auditorive with new hymns often coming to him while sleeping.

This book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in African religion and culture. Moodley has taken great care in studying Shembe’s movement on its own terms rather than simply translating revival lyrics or ancient ecclesiastical rhymes from Anglo-Saxon revival or antiquarian sources into Zulu. Additionally, Moodley conducted a thorough and effective participant-observation study involving an interview with both his current leader, his grandson, and members of Shembe’s movement as part of this participant observation study – providing unparalleled access to Shembe.

The Shembe Movement is an intriguing amalgamation of ancient African traditions and modern Christianity, featuring some of Africa’s finest music. Though controversial at times, Shembe remains an integral part of South African culture.