Music & Dance in Zulu Culture


Music is an integral part of many traditional African societies. Music facilitates different teachings about one’s cultural history, spiritual experiences, and recitations. It also and promoting social values and gives an insight on how certain special events are celebrated during happy (weddings) and sad (funerals) moments. Music brings a sense of calmness and helps to improve one’s mentally and emotionally.

Types of Music

  • Isicathamiya: This type of music is sung harmoniously without any musical instruments by a group of people (males only) where some will imitate the female voices to create a rhythmic intricate harmonious sound and texture. They will walk (tread) carefully – meaning cathama in Zulu while singing.
  • Imbube: It is also performed by a group of men to create an acapella sound. Sometimes they may appoint a woman to assist with singing the soprano part. This type of music is enjoyed at any time of the year.
  • Umaskhandi: This is an indigenous music predominantly sung by Zulu men using music instruments such as guitar, which is the main acoustic instrument in this kind of music. Other instruments such as violin and concertina (ikostina) may be used. Maskhandi music was played when a man is taking a long journey or when he is trying to impress a woman that he is interested in or playing for a chief
  • Shembe: The Zulus believe mostly in their ancestors, but there are some that follows Christianity. Most of the Zulu people are part of the Christian movement called Shembe where members of the church wear white long robes and sing their worship song and dance traditional dance that reflect their religion and belief. 

Dance is a form of expressing cultural, tribal loyalty and power. Zulus also perform their traditional dance during ceremonies and to communicate with their ancestors. it provides a sense of enjoyment, happiness, and social affirmation. To those who are not familiar with the culture, the dance serves as a way that helps other people to have respect, knowledge and gives them a depth insight on the importance to the Zulu traditions and norms. Each dance tells a story or is performed for a certain reason or event accompanied by singing and chanting. It serves as a way of recounting history, conveying emotions, celebrating rites of passage, and helping with the unification of the communities.

Each Zulu dance is performed using drums that form an essential part of their celebration the most type of drum used during their dance is ingungu ( made out of wood or metal) and covered in animal leather skin and strike by hand or stick to make a loud rhythmic sound).

Traditional Zulu dance is an important part of the Zulu culture. Dancing is usually performed during a traditional Zulu ceremony and is accompanied by vibrant singing and sometimes the beating of drums. Zulu dance is quite spectacular, especially when the men and women are fully dressed in their traditional attires.


    1. Indlamu : This is a cultural Zulu dance that is performed by an individual or a team dressed in Zulu attires. It is mostly performed by men. In ancient days, indlamu was danced in ancient days during the times of war when the warriors (amabutho) were preparing to go to a war. Nowadays, it is performed when people are celebrating a traditional ceremony. Full regimental Zulu attires (which comprises: – of head ornaments, ceremonial belts, rattles, shields and weapons) are worn during this dance. During this dance, precise timing and uncompromised posture are required where mastery of strength and weapons is showcased. Large and high steps and jumps are made, and hard and rhythmically pounded on the ground. The dancers stand in a line with their hands piled high, often decorated with weapons and shields. On other instances, the dancers are sometimes kicking above their heads before falling to the ground to jump up again with high kicks showing off muscular strength and control of the weapons and stamping on the ground with their feet. Dancers are more likely to make eye contact with the audience. Various drums covered in animal skins and whistles accompany the dance and played on the background. 


    1. Umgido: The dance is performed by dancers standing in a line with their hands being piled high, each holding  decorated spear and a shield.  This dance will be followed by a rhythm coming from kicking of legs and feet with a smooth hip movement. Each dancer shows his isakhono/ithalente (talent) in performing this kind of dance. Sometimes the dance is subdued and almost a shuffle.


    1. Ushameni: This is the dance that is normally held during summer holidays (December) mostly in rural areas where a group of the youth both females and males gather in large groups to attend the event. Each group dresses in a special outfit and dance in their own traditional way showing off  their talent. This event starts midday until late in the evening.


    1. Isizingili (Ingoma): This is a dance that is performed by young boys and girls that , performed by using a forceful movement integrating with high kicking motions. They perform this dance without any drums. Some of the young girls will be singing a traditional song and clapping hands so as to bring more heat to those dancing. Isizingili is usually performed when in coming-of-age ceremonies, like umemulo or during weddings (umabo).


  1. Umhlanga (Reed dance): This is an annual Zulu dance that is performed only by the unmarried virgin girls or maidens to honour the Royal Zulu king by presenting, each the reed to the king, dancing bare breasted as a way of showing their purity and celebrating their virginity. The maiden with the royal blood (princess) will lead all the other maidens. All the maidens partaking in this ceremony will dress in colourful Zulu beaded attires, izigege (loin cloths) and wear beads on the hands, neck and head. It portrays and instills a sense of pride, belonging and identity among the youth.

During this event maidens are also taught by senior females on how to behave and be proud of their virginity and respect their temples (bodies). It is during this ceremony that any suitor may show interest on any of the maidens with the intention of making her his wife may approach that maiden. It is an This event usually lasts between four to five days. Zulu men also participate in this part of the ceremony, singing and mock fighting. The Umhlanga also gives an opportunity by the older females (amaqhikiza) to educate the young maidens (amatshitshi) on how to behave in married life. Young maidens are encouraged not to argue or respond immediately when approached by any suitor, but to wish him well on his journey back. This event encourages and promotes purity among the virgin girls and respect for women. The Zulu Reed Dance ceremony is the key element of keeping young girls’ virgins until they are ready to get married.

Zulu people are very creative, and this is seen in their art and craftwork – primarily beadwork, weaving, and pottery. 

Women and children weave every day-use mats, beer sieves and baskets for domestic purposes.  They also make calabashes (decorated gourds used as utensils).  Men and boys carve various household objects and ornaments from wood and bone.

Beadmaking is mainly women’s work.  Most women would gather in small groups after they are done with doing their house chores and start making different kinds of beads. Some of these women will sell the beadwork to the visitors during special events.

Most of the beads are used by individuals to decorate and adorn themselves. Bright colours are used and are worked into wonderful geometric patterns. Beads not only decorate, but they also convey messages without being direct.  Different colour beads have different meanings. Ucu (ulu) beads were historically used as a language between men and women, to express their love, feelings, relationship status, for instance, when a woman has been proposed by a man, she may not accept his proposal at the same time but will later send him a bead as a way of accepting the proposal. 

Beads serve an important role in the Zulu culture like in many African cultures. They form part of the traditional attire for a certain event or ceremony.

Pottery is made from dark clay from the riverside. Several clay pots are made by the women with patterns scratched into them and dried around a hot fire.  They are often used for rites and rituals such as weddings, births, marriages, and burials often symbolizing hospitality and communality. Some of the pots are used as water reservoirs. In all the traditional ceremonies, the umqombothi (traditional beer) is served in the Ukhamba vessel as a way of respect and honouring the ancestors by kneeling when drinking it. 

Different forms of items, e.g., baskets, mats, brooms, hats were woven from different natural materials, they are made from dried grass, thin rushes, or lengths of old telephone wire. Baskets are used for storing, transporting and as drinking vessels as well as during many zulu ceremonies. They are also woven into wonderful geometric shapes with different colours achieved by dying the grass with berries, roots and flowers. The tradition of weaving has been passed down from generations.