Thursday, January 20, 2011

South African Singing Groups and African-American University Jubilee Singing Groups

I’d like to offer up some thoughts on the musical and social connections between the vocal groups in South Africa and those of Jubilee singers from the Historically Black Colleges in the United States. Although the ideas and conclusions expressed herein have yet to be fully formed, I think the observations are worth sharing, even in this nascent state. With any luck this will eventually develop into a conference paper, so please feel free to offer your comments, concerns or insights on the matter.

With the recently concluded semester I had the privilege of taking a course in American popular and vernacular musics. During one of the lectures, Dr. David Evans—noted Blues specialist and Grammy award winner—spent considerable time on the formation and proliferation of singing groups at such schools as Fisk, Howard, and Tuskeegee Universities, a phenomenon which occurred at the turn of the 20th century. As he was playing an example from 1902 by the Dinwiddie Colored Quintet, a group associated with the Dinwiddie Normal and Industrial School, I was struck by the sonic similarities between this music and South African vocal groups like Solomon Linda and His Evening Songbirds and the more contemporary Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Following up on these musical connections, I discovered that university Jubilee groups and South African vocal groups do have interconnected histories despite the musics being separated by many miles and having arisen from somewhat divergent cultures; that is, post-slavery America and Anglo-conquered Africa.

The Jubilee groups are a product of African American spirituals fusing with Western classical sensibilities. Through this process, university Jubilee groups presented folk material in a Western classical idiom by relying on cultivated voices and formal performance practices, thus bridging the gap between “art” and “folk” realms (the significance of such, is an article in an of itself). The resultant music exploded into the collective consciousness of America, and soon the world, with ferocity that went unmatched until Bieber-mania (now entering into the “popular” realm). These spirituals, with their wonderfully lush textures and close, sliding vocal harmonies were praised by the lay music consumer, music aficionados, and even the most stringent German-born musicologists of the day (if you have ever read any Adorno or Dalhaus, you most certainly have an impression of the astounding levels of curmudgeonly-ness the latter were capable of). At the height of the popularity of the Jubilee groups, ensembles like those from Fisk and Howard Universities were traveling the world performing for sold out audiences and even for the occasional royal court. During these worldwide tours, groups often stopped off at harbor towns, such as Cape Town, South Africa, as it took a long time to take a boat around the world. While docked, performances for locals were inevitable.

The Americans were sure to make an impression on the black South Africans, largely because the music of the university groups was concordant with that of their own. That is to say, both musics relied on similarly thick vocal textures and close harmonies. The South African tradition is rooted in the Zulu Kingdom (1818-1897) and thus was established a decade or so after the United States ended the practice of importing people as slaves (from 1808 onward, all slaves in America were born in America; a trend that led to the development of a distinctly unique African American culture), which suggests that both styles developed independently, as slaves in America did not possess musical memory of Zulu musical traditions.

Apart from the musicality, the social implications of Jubilee singing did not go unnoticed by the South Africans. The university singers, through their fancy suits and sophisticated countenance, occupied a social tier more in line with their white oppressors—if literal equality was not accomplished, and I don’t mean to suggest that it was, the semblance of such was, at least temporarily, present. South Africa, at the time, was under the tyranny of the white aristocracy and black South Africans were not blind to the similar injustices endured by African Americans. As such, black South Africans saw something in these singing groups that seemed worthy of mimicry and thus began to synthesize practices of the Jubilee groups with their own traditional music; a coalescence that resulted in the development and popularization of the vocal style proliferated by groups like the aforementioned Ladysmith Black Mambazo (and later problematically appropriated by Paul Simon). Furthermore, with this adaptation, the music also once again makes the migration between “art,” “folk” and “pop.”

Here are a couple clips so that you can see the similarities for yourself (and yes, the second example is the original recording of what would, thanks to Pete Seeger and later The Tokens, later become the painfully obnoxious “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”).


  1. T,

    I'm not practiced in the history that defines "The South African tradition is rooted in the Zulu Kingdom (1818-1897)" so my guess here is that your post works within the strictest context of the above Euro-defined period, but still, slave importation into the US ended pre-1810, so "thus was established a decade or so before the United States ended the practice of importing people as slaves" would not seem to work.

    Still, working within the confines of either date, exception could be taken to "as slaves in America did not possess musical memory of Zulu musical traditions." You aren't serious about that are you? Even a slave imported as late as 1808, and even second generation slaves to native Africans, and even third, and even current day African-Americans, scholars would argue, "possess musical memory," though not in the strictest first-person sense as "I was in the Zulu Nation in 1820 and saw and heard the music."

    I remember reading a good story in Rolling Stone a number of years ago about Linda. I think it was one of the first that ignited interest in his family's struggles for royalties.

    Keep up the great work....this is so interesting. You're very lucky.


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  3. Bot,

    Thank you so much for reading and even more so for posting a response.

    Concerning the date issue, you are, of course, correct. I most certainly do mean "after" not "before" and "1808," not "1830." While typing this, I misread some of my notes; an incident that I will blame on my writing this entry while stuck at an airplane terminal. The hasty edit job kept me from catching the error.

    With the musical memory bit, I do contend that African-Americans were not in possession of a specifically South African musical memory. African-Americans were, and still are, in possession of an African cultural memory, just not one that stems from the Zulu Kingdom. With human importation to the US ending in 1808 and the Zulu Kingdom forming in 1818 (or even as early as 1816, depending on your source), it is unlikely that any slave in America was ever a member, or even a descendant of a member, of the Zulu Kingdom. Furthermore, people were predominately taken from western Africa, not southern Africa. I will concede, however, that is it possible for an American slave to have shared cultural memory with people that went on to become members of the Zulu Kingdom, or even that memory was shared far enough back that the ancient group which would eventually become the "Zulu Kingdom" could have influenced the American slaves in some fashion. The main point of this line of thought, though, is that the Jubilee singing and Zulu traditional singing unfolded in different ways, and that the American style, which was certainly informed by African traditions, went on to feed back into African traditions.

    I hope that clarifies what I was driving at. If it doesn't, however, I am happy to try again.

    And, yes, Linda is an interesting man. I am happy to hear that Rolling Stones did a spot on him.

  4. While I agree with Tyler's claim that the vagaries of time, distance, and transmission make it unlikely that 2nd-generation Africans would remember "authentic" (i.e., as they were practiced by their forebears in Africa) Zulu music, they would have been exposed to the tradition through their elders. Although this would be different, it is still a musical memory of their tradition.

    I suppose the question becomes: how does one define musical memory? Are we even talking about memory after a generation or two, or at that point, does the conversation need to switch to musical transmission?

  5. John, it is always a pleasure to have der Blogmeister share his opinions on my posts.

    I don't mean to contend that African Americans did not (does not) posses musical memory of Africa. What I (admittedly, in a clumsy manner) meant to communicate is that African Americas can't posses musical memory of Zulu music, as this specific musical culture did not blossom until after the US ceased the importation of humans. It is the same as the American descendants of those who came from Ireland during the potato famine cannot possess a musical memory of Riverdance. Connections can be drawn though musical genealogy must be traced back a considerable distance.

    I do strongly believe that west African musical traits are still prevalent in today's American music, and this is made possible through the guidance of the young by the previous generations, as John has pointed out. As an obvious example, I cite rap's reliance on rhythm over harmonic structures.

    I promise that I will do my best to make my next post more coherent and less contentious. Thank you all for reading.

  6. We have recently learned that the American Musicological Society is hosting their upcoming conference at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco. On June 8, 2010 employees at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco went on strike and called for a boycott of their hotel. We write to inform members of the AMS about the dispute and respectfully ask your organization to relocate the event to a different venue and to not eat, sleep or meet at the Hyatt Regency.

    The members of Local 2 have been struggling to renegotiate a contract that secures affordable health care and retirement benefits. In San Francisco, and in cities around North America, Hyatt Hotels is squeezing housekeepers, dishwashers, cooks, bellpersons, and others harder than ever, trying to lock in ever-higher profits as the hotel industry grows. In wage and benefit agreements over the last several decades, we have forgone larger wage increases to keep our medical benefits affordable for ourselves and our families. Now Hyatt is pushing proposals that would lock workers into a permanent recession even as Hyatt benefits from the economic recovery.

    Recent multi-city strikes represent a major escalation in a labor dispute involving Hyatt and its billionaire owners—the Pritzker Family—who have been the target of a number of major demonstrations in more than a dozen cities across North America this summer. Hotel workers have endured months of chronic understaffing and excessive injury rates. Now Hyatt has become an obstacle to the recovery of working families. While many hotel workers live in poverty, the Pritzker Family cashed out over $900 million in their sale of Hyatt shares in November 2009.

    On January 18th, 2011 Hyatt workers took to the streets to defend their Legal Fund from Hyatt hotel management. The Legal Fund protects members from evictions and foreclosures and facilitates legal immigration (citizenship, work permits and family reunification).

    In recent negotiations, Hyatt went backwards in their pension proposal and it has become abundantly clear that this labor dispute is going to continue well into next year.

    The AMS and its convention patrons are caught in the middle of this contentious labor dispute. The dispute will continue to escalate as will demonstrations, strikes, civil disobedience actions and the on-going boycott, until workers secure a fair contract. AS members of the larger Bay Area Community we ask you to respect SF Hotel Workers and encourage your organization to avoid the labor dispute and meet at an alternate venue.

    For more information about hotel labor disputes in San Francisco, you can visit our website at Please contact us to address any questions and so that we may assist you in moving to a hotel not subject to a labor dispute.


    Powell DeGange

    415.864.8770, ext. 759

    Meetings and Conventions Department

  7. Hi Powell,

    Thanks for your comment, and for the information you shared regarding the strikes in San Francisco. All of us at the blog are staunchly pro-worker and pro-union, and we will look into the particulars as best we can. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that we do not speak for the AMS, and that while we will be happy to share your concerns with those capable of making substantial decisions within our organization, I cannot promise any substantive action.