Cultural surrealism

2010-07-02 13:15

It has just gone 6pm on Saturday in Durban and there’s a distinct

buzz on Acutt Street in the city centre.

Groups of people are bunched together

outside the Playhouse Theatre where, the day before, a luxury 4x4 with blue

lights had run over a pigeon as it led a government minister’s convoy after the

memorial service for maskandi queen Busi Mhlongo.

Tonight, though, there’s no pomp and ceremony.

There are no luxury

off-roaders with tinted windows. Instead, minibus taxis are blocking the road

and there’s not a pastel two-piece suit in sight.

Young women in tight jeans tucked into faux fur boots mingle with

men in leather bomber jackets, while mamas hanging from taxi windows tuck into

padkos from ice-cream tubs.

“Is it time yet, ntombazana?” a dark man with a grey goatee asks

me. “Are you here for the show? You don’t look like you’re here for the show,”

he says to me ­before I can utter a word.

I don’t blame him though; I ­also don’t understand why I’m skulking

in the shadows outside the Playhouse waiting for the Isicathamiya Festival to

kick off. I can only put this down to journalistic curiosity.

“You’ll see, you’ll enjoy it,” Charlene Moodley-Bezuidenhout, the

Playhouse’s administrative manager, reassures me. “It’s a lot of fun and it can

go on until 8am.”

I share a look with my colleague and by mutual – albeit ­silent –

agreement, we decide to find the nearest bar for a glass of wine. This is

turning out to be quite an unexpected evening.

An hour later, the theatre is half-full and the festival

proceedings have just kicked off.

Programme director Vicky Masuku is repeating the rules: all the

groups taking part have only five minutes on the stage, from entry to exit.

Onobuhle and Amaswenka will get one minute to show the four

adjudicators what they are made of.

And no one is to disturb the 15 “cups” –

trophies – arranged in five groups of three along the edge of the stage. The

trophies are reserved for the winners who will be announced during the course of

Sunday morning.

We make ourselves comfortable as the first group of isicathamiya

singers disappears to the left of the stage.

Masuku calls out: “Number two! Woza number two!”

A line of men with bent backs shuffle onto the brightly lit stage.

They are in a straight line, each white-gloved hand touching the shoulder of the

man in front.

Their black shoes make their milk chocolate-coloured

double-breasted suits look washed-out.

“Hawu! Anisheshe lapho bo! Isikhathi siyahamba! (Hurry up, time is

running out)” shouts the loud woman behind us. She provides commentary on the

festival throughout the night that leaves us laughing until we gasp for


The men on stage form a semi-circle around their lead singer – a

young man in a crisp white suit and black patent-leather shoes – then break into

a hauntingly beautiful a cappella number.

Their voices – a blend of bass, soprano and alto – go low, then

soar as they harmonise so perfectly that the song sounds like it has been


The handsome lead singer was obviously not chosen for his looks


His voice has the ­audience clapping with gusto, shaking their

heads and muttering “uhm uhm uhm”.

After the buzzer sounds and the song comes to its high-pitched end,

the men turn and slowly make their way off the stage, stealing significant

­seconds from their competitors.

This scene repeats itself as group after group of this Top 20 –

which is in reality a Top 35 – take to the stage. Shades of brown seem to be the

preferred colour for suits, while the pervasive white gloves are a


It is easy to see that even though these singers have never set

foot ­inside a recording studio before, their dedication equals that of pop

sensation Madonna.

The choreography is at the cutting edge of isicathamiya – stomping

feet and staccato rhythms that make the stage ­vibrate as the lead singer

hollers passionately from a squatting ­position in front.

There are no sound

engineers or synthesisers in the theatre; only raw talent ­accompanied by

ululation, whistles, stomping feet and beautiful harmonies.

These men – aged between 16 and 70 – get so carried away by their

passion and earnestness that one of them started dancing on his head.

The music is not nonsensical either. These

 are social commentators

who address issues like road closures due to the World Cup, prostitution, HIV

and Aids, politics, love and homosexuality. The songs are well-penned and


But the endless parade of white-gloved men gets even the most

ardent isicathamiya fans antsy as they want to see something different.

The young girl sitting next to me asks me to keep her place as she

is going to sleep and come back “at about 2(am) or so”.

More than three hours and 35 groups later, the programme ­director

finally announces that Onobuhle are ready.

What follows is one of the most bizarre hours of my life.

The stage

is eerily quiet with no music.

The glaring lights are picking up the shimmery

gold lamè dresses, sequined tops ­and shine from layers of Vaseline on the

women’s bodies.

The beauty contestants look like Liquorice Allsorts sweets –

big, small, young, old, pretty and not so pretty.

Clearly, the only criterion

for entry was that you had to be female.

When the ladies shimmy onto the stage, they perform some weird

ritual in front of the adjudicators as if Frech-kissing them – using mime and

hand signals, tummy rubbing, butt shaking .?.?.

If you’ve ever watched a Miss SA or Miss World pageant before,

you’d know that the contestants ­exude poise and grace.

Onobuhle, on the other hand, seem to try their damnest to be

anything but.

Their wigs and weaves are skew, the make-up garish, the clothes

gaudy and there’s no such thing as posture. But the audience loves it.

They lap

it up and the catcalls, insults and compliments come fast and thick.

“Hey baby, if Zuma could see you now!”

“You look like you ate someone!”

“Come back, your minute is not up yet!”

“Take my numbers!”

“Izinqe (hips)!”

After 31 contestants, it’s time to give Aboswenka their turn.

But almost all the 39 participants are disappointingly average and

don’t dazzle as expected with their zebra stripes, which seem too many, and

funeral suits.

One audience member even shouts out that a certain contestant is

wearing the same suit he wore the previous year.

Having sat through nearly six hours of bizarre Zulu culture, my

colleague and I call it a night at midnight just as the 94 isicathamiya groups

are about to begin the freestyle-singing session.

This has been too much of a mind***k and my brain is screaming for


Can’t wait to do it all over again next year, but then I’ll have

lots of wine first!

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