The Christmas bands (also known as Christmas choirs) have been an important tradition among the Christian ‘colored’ or mixed-race working class population of Cape Town for over 150 years. These bands are different from the Cape Minstrels who parade through the center of Cape Town for the ‘Tweede Nuwe Jaar’ (Second New Year) celebrations in early January.
On Christmas Eve, the bands march military-style through their respective neighborhoods on the Cape Flats and outlying areas of Cape Town, stopping to play at each band member’s home. The neighbors normally come out to enjoy the festivities as the bands perform into the early hours of Christmas morning. The Cape Town CBD also becomes a hub of activity on Christmas Eve as a number of bands parade through the streets, entertaining locals and tourists alike.
There are around 80 Christmas bands in the Western Cape, each consisting of between 40 and 100 members. They display a strong military influence in appearance and their marches portray strict deportment. For performances, they wear specially tailored suits with hats.
These annual rituals embody respectability and discipline, which play an integral role in how they constitute themselves. Through these bands, they and their communities consciously challenge the notions of a lack of culture and identity that have plagued the colored community for generations.
The Christmas bands use a variety of instruments, but their overall sound is quite different from the sound of a typical wind or military band. This is due to the fact that none of these bands have an identical or similar instrumental format, and each one uses whatever instruments are at hand. Therefore, each Christmas band is unique. This unconventional style and ‘out of tune’ sound has come to epitomize the sound of Cape Town.
The History of the Christmas Bands
The Christmas bands were established in the Western Cape in the 1850s, and were based on a strong foundation of family and community, as they are today. They consisted of vocal and string musical ensembles that paraded on Christmas Eve, going from door to door, and collecting alms for their churches. In the 1940s, they established annual competitions (that are still held today) in which they compete in several categories from January to March.
Historically, they were all-male organizations, while women acted as the supportive backbone of the movement behind the scenes. However, when the new South African constitution ensuring gender equality was passed in 1994, women demanded to be included as band members. Today, the Christmas bands consist of both men, women and children as young as six.
By Lee-Shay Collison