Ngoko Ensemble: The dying art of Xhosa overtone singing

‘Emerging Modernities’ sees the Ngqoko Women’s Ensemble return to Cape Town for an evening of Xhosa overtone singing – as well as modern compositions based on this unique and threatened musical form.

Ngoko Ensemble: The dying art of Xhosa overtone singing

(This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 19 – 20 February 2011).

“First you fly to East London, and then get transport to Queenstown, and then to Lady Frere. From there, you go through the mountains, and the roads get harder and harder as you get closer to deeply rural Transkei. Then only can you reach the village,” say Professor Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph, co-leader of a research team with a three year grant from the National Research Foundation to record, document, preserve and work with the women of the Eastern Cape’s Ngqoko Women and their unique form of overtone singing, also called throat-singing or “singing in harmonics”. The women create a low, resonant buzzing sound deep in their throats and then sing above that – with each artists harmonising with her own voice, as well as the rest of the group.

“It’s called umngqokolo singing and was only discovered in 1980 when the missionary and musicologist came across the women,” explains Zaidel-Rudolph. “It’s like the droning of a beetle and no-one knew that there was traditional Xhosa overtone singing in South Africa until that point – it’s not like Mongolian or Tibetan overtone singing at all.”

The 12 members of the Ngqoko Ensemble, will perform a set of traditional songs using umngqokolo, as well as instruments like the umrhubhe (mouth bow), uhadi (gourd bow), and usidiphu (friction drum). Readers interested in traditional African music may recall the ensemble performing at MIAGI in 2007, a series that also featured performances by Madosini, who is dubbed “The Queen of Xhosa Music”. “Madosini shares an inheritance and a tradition with the Ngqoko women,” explains Zaidel-Rudolph, “She’s a soloist, though – a beautiful bow-player, but more of an iconic character with an individual story to tell. The Ngqoko Women are more of a cultural group; they perform  together, telling shared stories.”

The Ngqoko Women sing a style or method of overtone singing that is truly unique. So much so that Zaidel-Rudolph’s co-leader on the research project, Anri Herbst, from the UCT College of Music, has been conducting spectrographic studies in an attempt to understand the wave-forms of sound that the women produce with their throats and mouths.

“We’re in the final phase of the project now, after the recording and transcribing, the writing up of data and the composing,” says Zaidel-Rudolph. “Mainly, this is about them performing their music, and the performance of the new compositions, but we are also all meeting at Groote Schuur, at the ear, nose and throat department where the women have agreed to allow research with stroboscopes to try and understand what they do with their vocal chords to make these sounds.”

The Gordon Institute of Performing and Creative Arts “Emerging Modernities” programme presents the Ngqoko Ensemble on Saturday 19 February at the Hiddingh Hall Campus with an evening of traditional umngqokolo overtone songs, as well as compositions by Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph, Christo Jankowitz and Kerryn Tracey, with Alexander Fokkens as conductor. Details on  021-4807156; full “Emerging Modernities” programme at Also see

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 19 – 20 February 2011. Find out more on