E039 - iGwijo: healing anthems for South Africa

vocal liberation Nov 23, 2020


Can something harmonize and electrify simultaneously?

One listen to a Gwijo squad singing its a cappella-style call-and-response in full force, and an ancient memory is awoken. We’re reminded at the DNA level that humans evolved to sing together: through good times and bad, and from sickness into health. It was and is an adaptive strategy for well-being in the face of the ongoing changes and challenges of life: grief, overwhelm, and dispossession.

But group singing has also given shape to our triumphs, passions, and tragedies. 

A received wisdom of modern psychology is that big feelings require an outletthat suppression is bad. And modern medicine continually throws up data proving what we already know: stress makes us sick.

So is it possible to harness the traditionally fractious, violent energies of certain public spaces for a common good? Is it necessary, or even wise, to regularly shy away from full-on emotional expression?

We often associate safety with seclusion and being walled inand by extension, bottling things up. Cue road rage, tension headaches, and anxiety attacks.

To the extent that isolation and sickness permeate the culture, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic, Gwijo may be the traditional cure our modern condition requires. As you’ll read below, this movement is gathering momentum in South Africa, bringing a kind of electrified peace into sporting stadiums.

If the science is true, Gwijo is healing bruised nervous systems as you read this.

Gwijo brings people together to heal, but its implications may be way more far reaching: this movement has the capacity to minister to historical cultural wounds, address racialized trauma, and foster a common humanity.


Gwijo is a practice of collective singing deeply embedded in South African Xhosa culture that takes the form of call and response (“I say something//You say something; I hear you//You hear me; We’re in dialogue together”). Because Gwijo uses no instruments (other than human voices), it could be described as a cappella. Gwijo songs have traditionally been sung by the amaXhosa people of South Africa to accompany weddings, funerals, initiations, and other sacred moments and rites of passage.

Part of these songs’ potency resides in their being so cathartic across a range of human emotions: they can express joy, determination, and victory, but also devastation. A Gwijo ‘performance’ can celebrate, protest, resist, or reclaim. Ultimately, though, it draws on the power of the collective to attain a kind of fierce grace, a coming together in intensity.


A host of studies have investigated the measurable healing effects of group singing, including in choirs (see for example Vickhoff et al. (2013), “Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers” in the journal Frontiers in Psychology). Collective singing co-regulates our nervous systems with our fellow singers, reduces cortisol levels, and releases a cascade of naturally occurring feel-good chemicals such as oxytocin and serotonin. Through group singing, we enter into more optimal brain wave states, making us feel safer, healthier, and more at peace.


In South Africa, Gwijo is turning up at all kinds of sporting events, from school sports to international competitions. This practice seems to have been born, at least partially, out of an instinct for harmonizing discordant energies in the national history and culture. And sporting events in South Africa, like so much else in our past, have a history of segregation and being racially charged.

Enter the Gwijo Squad, who first turned up at South African provincial and international rugby matches to reclaim a sense of shared ownership and create safety, and have subsequently brought their passion to other sports. The Gwijo effect in stadiums fosters belonging, raises feel-good energy, and, ultimately, imbues the sporting fixture with a sense of communal joy.

Why does it work? All South Africansconsciously or subconsciouslycarry the intergenerational trauma of our country’s recent history. But when South Africans of all stripes experience the electric co-regulation of Gwijo, the resulting atmospheric shift is irresistible.

Gwijo sweeps up spectators one and all in a sonic wave of good vibrations and celebration. There’s nothing aggressive in it, unlike other forms of support that can lead to conflict and a heightened sense of 'us versus them'. Passion and connectedness are harmonized in a public ritual of transformation.

Gwijo is transformative precisely because it moves from “I, me, mine”  to “we, us, our.”  Gwijo summons us to enact (not just espouse) compassionate, socially proactive principles, with the injunction "my safety is your safety."

Gwijo is a South African movement of song and togetherness.

You can read more about it here: