The deep throb of the drums was felt more than heard. There was a mist of dust hanging over the arena where the tribal warriors were performing their age old war dances to the beat of the drums, rattles and whistles. It was 1960. I was a kid of 15 and I had come to watch the “Mine Dance” at Durban Deep gold mine. The labour to work the gold mines consisted of men from many different African tribes. Each tribe was housed in a separate barracks and each tribe tried to out-perform the others by performing the most spectacular and entertaining tribal dance on the one Sunday of the month when all of the tribes competed in the arena. At the year’s end, before the workers went home for the Christmas holiday, each gold mine sent it’s best dance team from a particular tribe to compete at a mass dance meet at one of the bigger mines. Thus the best Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Pedi, Venda, Ndebele, Tsonga and Pondo would compete for top honours.
On this hot November day there was a festive and competitive atmosphere. I worked my way through the crowds and entered the arena via stairs that gave onto the top tier of seats at the rear. I made my way down to the front row of seating and took up a kneeling position at the edge of the sand arena floor. I was armed with my Granddad’s Exakta Varex IIa 35mm camera, loaded with Kodachrome slide film, with a set of Carl Zeiss lenses. The noise was deafening. The Xhosa dance troupe were doing their thing which included kicking high and stamping down so hard the ground literally shook.
The Xhosa were followed by the Zulu, whose war drums split the air with their amazing power and volume. It is said that until you have heard a Zulu war drum beaten in anger, your soul would not have stirred. I can attest to that, as my soul was indeed stirred by those drums that day and they have lived with me ever since. For the technically minded, the SPL of a Zulu war drum at 20 feet is around 125db. They can be heard many many miles away. Ask the British army!
These are my two favourite images that I captured on that day. The first is of the Shangaan, or Tsonga as they are also known, who come from Mozambique. Their performance consists of a series of solo displays, each demonstrating how fierce and virile the dancer, or warrior, is. The second group are Xhosa who have "modernised" their tribal dress with coloured ostrich feathers instead of the original white ones. As far as I am aware, these dances are still held today, but now only workers from tribes within RSA are employed on the mines.
Some of the routines have become well known, such as the “gum boot dance” which evolved from a traditional dance that was adapted to the Wellington boots worn by the mine workers. Whatever the dance, it is the rhythm of Africa that defines them all.