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Last Updated: Monday, 22 December, 2003, 10:50 GMT
Choirs of the world: Real Happy Singers
BBC World Service's World Today programme focuses on five different choirs and five different musical communities - all united by a common goal of maintaining or reviving their respective traditions and making these relevant to the present.

Real Happy Singers
The choir are known for their sharp suits and sharp songs
The Real Happy Singers, like fellow musicians Ladysmith Black Mambazo, come from a choral tradition rooted in the lifestyle of South Africa's migrant workers.

They perform in identical suits - jackets, trousers, shirts, together with a white shirt and tie. The shoes are polished - which the singers maintain shows that "everyone in this kind of music should be smart".

The choir's songs, performed with a witty, sharp style, often have a serious message.

"We've got a song that says 'phusa gusa gwe xle', that shows... 'you are overdosing the alcohol'," singer Maxwell Majola told BBC World Service's The World Today programme.

"We try to teach all those people with this song that when you drink, you have to have a limit of drink."

US/Zulu combination

The choir's music is isicathamiya, an a cappella genre from the townships.

"It comes from the word to describe a stalking cat or a lion stalking its prey, and it describes a kind of dance," said Angela Impey, an ethnomusicologist based at the University of Natal in Durban.

Real Happy Singers
I will stay with the group until I die
Singer Steve Xolo
"Isicathamiya is a tradition that is connected with men who live in rural parts of KwaZulu Natal and who go to the cities to seek work.

"Its roots are way back in the 1890s when minstrelsy groups from the United States travelled through South Africa."

When the men moved to the cities, they found there was little to do at the weekends - and so they formed their own choirs.

These combined the imported US sound with traditional Zulu - "ingoma" - dancing.

"The sports organisations always organised themselves around competitions, so the choirs used that idea of getting together and competing, probably from about the 1920s or so," Ms Impey said.

"To this day, every single Saturday night in Durban, choirs will get together round about 10pm or so.

"They have a period of the evening where they practice, and once every single choir has had an opportunity to practice, the organisers of the competition will go out and search for a judge."

Fallen heroes

Real Happy Singers have won first prize over 100 times at the weekly competitions in the YMCA hall of their hometown.

Up until the 1990s, the judge would always be a white person - on the reasoning that a white person was very unlikely to know anybody in the choirs and so was unlikely to be biased.

"Sometimes they would be homeless people, sometimes they would be just people going home after certain events, and they would be confronted very politely," Ms Impey added.

"And often they were frightened, they'd never been to black areas and they would feel that 10 people surrounding them and asking them to come and listen to choirs was a very strange invitation.

"That person would be brought in and very politely lured into the hall and made to sit through the whole competition, which would normally start at about 4pm and go until about 9pm, 10pm on a Sunday morning."

This practice stopped in the early 1990s, when the competition became more politicised.

Now Zulu people with either education or some experience of choral work are brought in.

Not all Real Happy Singers songs have a harsh political message.

One, Alright, is dedicated to South Africa's "fallen heroes".

"I will stay with the group until I die, you know," said singer Steve Xolo.

"The love that I have for the group, it's endless."

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Maxwell Majola
This kind of music should be smart

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