Ancient Songs of South Africa: Ngqoko Cultural Group

Photo by Simon Lewis,


If you have never been to the Skirball Center for Performing Arts, keep an eye out for anything presented there by the World Music Institute! Last night, an ensemble of 6 women and 1 man offered an exciting and rare experience of traditional music and singing from the rural Xhosa communities of South Africa.

The only man on stage, Tsolwana B. Mpayipheli, acted as presenter as well as translator, associating each of the songs with a particular story or social ritual. The music of the Xhosa is deeply rooted in social customs and communal living. At night, the same bows which during the day are used for hunting, turn into mouth bows (a mix between a string instrument and a flute) or percussion bows with calabash resonators. During the Aparthaid, Tsolwana explained, men from rural areas left their villages to go work in urban centers such as Johannesburg and Cape Town. The men’s emigration left women in charge of passing down culture within their own villages, a phenomenon which might account for the majority of women musicians on stage!

Overall, Ngqoko’s performance offered spectators a wide range of the sounds and styles indigenous to the Xhosa tribe. From lullabies, to initiation songs, to performances of overtone singing, (which these women are well known for), the harmonies and rhythms of the Ngqoko were both soothing and energizing. The songs began and ended very organically, as voices joined or faded according to the mood of the performers. Some songs never went beyond humming and quiet strumming, while others exploded in dance, clapping, and heavy stomping on the stage. For the entire performance, the bodies of the musicians swayed and stomped, elbows close to the waist with arms bent at 90 degrees, their whole body keeping to the rhythm and creating a subtle dance that made you want to get up from your chair and participate on the stage!

At the end of the performance, as the women and the man left the stage clapping and waving, I was somewhat saddened that this special event had not received more attention and a larger audience. But the World Music Institute continues to organize special musical events of excellent quality, so there will hopefully be another chance in the future! For more information on their programming, follow this link.

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