Amabutho: An introduction

.South African Male Zulu Choir 3

South African Zulu acapella group, Amabutho, is UK- based and is Britain’s best known Isicathamiya (a cappella) ensemble.

Most recently featured in the 2013 nationwide Rice Krispies advertisement, Amabutho was founded in 1974 and named as a tribute to the 1973 debut album by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the now world-famous Isicathamiya group whose haunting vocals were used to such great critical acclaim on the huge commercial success that was Paul Simon’s album Graceland in 1986.

Zulu Performances

The group is an all-male choir that varies in number from between 6 and 12 members according to its clients’ requirements. It not only sings traditional South African Zulu music a capella, but also drums and dances- including the ever-popular ‘gumboot dance’, showcasing broader skill sets with the larger sizes.

The group’s personnel has evolved over the years as the dancing in particular always requires a regular transfusion of young blood (!), but some of the veteran members remain. These older members have a great artistic pedigree being able to cite performing with ‘Ipi Tombi’ and ‘Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens’ on their cv’s. Having toured Britain in the 70’s they remember well the support and enthusiasm for South African music they found here in the dark years of apartheid and how easy it was to make the decision to settle in the UK as a result.

Amabutho has recorded two CDs and performs regularly at corporate events and private functions including weddings. Performance-wise the group’s proudest moment was when they performed live on stage at The Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert to a packed Wembley Stadium on June 11, 1988.

The group has also appeared at numerous festivals in the past including Glastonbury, the Camden Jazz Festival and- most recently in 2013- the Narberth A Cappella Voice Festival in Wales. It has also toured widely outside the UK throughout Europe and Africa.

Zulu workshops

Amabutho has also successfully provided numerous workshops and teambuilding exercises to schools, companies and festivals. With such a broad array of Zulu arts skills amongst the group, the musicians always have a lot to offer!

Zulu Songs

‘Isicathamiya’ (with the ‘c’ pronounced as a dental click) is a singing style that originated from the Zulus that worked in the South African migrant labour camps in the early 1900’s. Outside of Africa, this form of singing is best understood as a cappella. The word itself cannot be literally translated into English, but is derived from the Zulu verb -cathama, which means ‘walking softly’, or ‘treading carefully’. Isicathamiya contrasts with an earlier name for Zulu a cappella singing, ‘Mbube’, meaning ‘lion’. The change in name marked a transition in the style of the music. Whereas traditionally, Mbube was sung loudly and powerfully, Isicathamiya showed a focus toward a sweeter, more harmonious blend between the voices. The name also refers to the style’s tightly-choreographed dance moves that keep the singers on their toes.

South African singing groups such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo demonstrate this style. Isicathamiya choirs are traditionally all male. Its roots reach back before the turn of the 20th century, when numerous men left the homelands in order to search for work in the cities. As many of the tribesmen became urbanized, the style was forgotten through much of the 20th century.

The Western breakthrough for this style was Paul Simon’s celebrated 1986 album, ‘Graceland’, which featured such tracks as ‘Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes’, in which Simon was backed by the wonderful voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The group has since gone on to enjoy great popularity and recognition, including songs such as ‘Homeless’, ‘Hello My Baby’ and also recordings of Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’, the Rugby World Cup theme ‘The World in Union’- and ‘Mbube’.  This song, with additional lyrics, is also known as ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’.

Amabutho includes all the above songs in its repertoire along with traditional songs such as ‘Sanibonani’, ‘Mzala’wam’, ‘Emaweni’, ‘Isiqheqhedesam’, ‘Indiza Mchini’, ‘Thekwane’, ‘Ipi Ntombi’ and, of course, ‘Shosholoza’- a song so popular in South African culture that it is often referred to as South Africa’s second national anthem.

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….and if  you want to see and hear them in action check out this YouTube channel


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