THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

19 March 2018

Recording of the week: South African gumboot guitar

This week's selection comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

I was studying Zulu street guitarists in Durban in 1984 when I met Blanket Mkhize, a guitarist from Glebelands male hostel in Umlazi township on the outskirts of the city. Blanket had a fascinating playing technique using the back of a comb to 'bow' the strings. He was, I believe, trying to use his guitar as a violin as well. For Blanket was also a gumboot player. Gumboot is a spectacular dance style performed by a team of men who, clad in heavy gumboots (very thick wellingtons), stamp, slap, clap and kick their heels in perfect synchronisation. And in gumboot you include, when you can get hold of one, a violin. Together with my fellow student, Carol Muller, we joined Blanket's gumboot team and spent a wonderful year rehearsing and performing with the team. What a privilege! Blanket was the dance leader and so often gave the guitar accompaniment duties to his friend, Albert Manothisa Nene. Albert is a refined dancer and a real virtuoso on guitar. Albert lived in the same area of the hostel as Blanket. One day he sat down with Blanket's cassette ghettoblaster and recorded himself playing gumboot guitar. The recording is full of tape hiss, clunks and thumps, and half way through Albert stopped the machine to check how much tape he had left. Here are two excerpts from this session, the first in a contemplative finger-picking style, the second with a more up-tempo ukuvamba (lit. vamping) strumming style.

Gumboot guitar

Blanket Mkhize (with whistle and tassles) and Albert Nene (right, with guitar). Glebeland male hostel, Umlazi township, Durban, South Africa, 1984. Photo: Janet Topp Fargion

Gumboot guitar

The full recording - over 25 minutes in all - and others of gumboot guitarists can be heard on Gumboot guitar: Zulu street guitar music from South Africa (Topic Records TSCD923). The entire collection is housed in the British Library with the reference C724: Janet Topp Fargion Collection.

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