One Durban music professor I know talks admiringly of the "grainy, burnished quality" of their voices, likening them to a deep red wine. Another puts it more whimsically: "The quality of their voices is a mystery, and I once asked a student why. He replied that God must have decided to give them a rich vocal apparatus, because he knew they wouldn't be able to afford pianos. There's no question about it, these people are born to sing."
Paul Simon discovered this when he heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo 15 years ago. I made a similar discovery at an all-night song-and-dance competition in the Durban YMCA. Watched by a row of stern-faced judges, a series of male-voice choirs took it in turns to deliver call-and-response numbers. All were dressed in Fred Astaire-style attire, and pointed their toes and canes in a quintessentially Astaire manner. The big audience was enraptured. Women come forward to press presents into their lovers' hands, and the music flowed, ebbed, and flowed in a great river of sound.
To catch this tradition in its apartheid prime listen to Zulu Worker Choirs in South Africa (HTCD 43). And with The Very Best of Black Mambazo (NSCD 021) you can see exactly what it was that turned on Paul Simon. If you can't get hold of that, listen to Planet Zulu (NSCD069), which is a heady blend of a cappella inspirations and street-wise grooves.
If Zulu choral dance-songs are dauntingly intricate, solo Zulu singing is music pared to the bone, as are the accompanying instruments. Consider the ugubhu, pictured below. This extraordinary weapon is a six-foot bow with a hollowed-out gourd attached near its lower end. When struck with a piece of thatching-grass, it yields a note which hovers like a ghostly presence in the air. A second note is extracted by pinching the string. Just two notes? Well, in the hands of a seasoned singer the effect can be magical, as British audiences will find next year when the Zulu opera, Princess Magogo, hits these shores.