E039 - iGwijo: healing anthems for South Africa

vocal liberation Nov 23, 2020


Can something harmonise and electrify simultaneously?

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 always shy away from full on emotional expression?

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

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 an adaptive strategy for wellbeing in the face of the vicissitudes of life: grief, overwhelm and dispossession.

But group singing was also a means of staking our claim on this earth, and giving shape to our triumphs and passions. 

The received wisdom of modern psychology tells us that big feelings require an outlet. Suppression be bad. And modern medicine continually throws up data proving what we already know: stress makes you sick.

Well, to the extent that isolation and sickness permeate the culture, Gwijo may be the ancient cure for our modern condition. As you’ll read below, it’s a movement gathering momentum in South Africa, which is bringing a kind of electrified peace into sporting stadiums.

If the science is true, Gwijo is healing bruised nervous systems as we speak.

Gwijo brings people together to heal. However, its implications may be way more far reaching: this is a movement which could minister to historical cultural wounds, address racialised trauma and foster a common humanity.


Amagwijo is a particular Xhosa practice of collective singing deeply embedded in African culture. It 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 the voice), it could be described as a cappella. For the amaXhosa people of South Africa, Gwijo songs have traditionally been sung to accompany weddings, funerals, initiations and other rites of passage and sacred moments.

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.


There's a host of studies about the measurable healing effects of group singing, including in choirs; for example, “Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers” in the journal, Frontiers in Psychology (2013). 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. All this means we feel safer, healthier and more at peace for singing together.


In South Africa, Gwijo is becoming pervasive at sporting events. It seems to have been born, at least partially, out of an instinct for harmonising discordant energies in the national history and culture. You see, sporting events in South Africa have a history of being segregated and racially charged.

Enter the Gwijo Squad, who turn up to rugby and cricket events to reclaim a sense of shared ownership and create safety. 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 Africans – whether consciously or subconsciously – carry the intergenerational trauma of their 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 the spectators one and all in a sonic wave of good vibrations. Yet there’s nothing aggressive, which can often be the case at big sporting events. You have transformation in which passion and connectedness are harmonised in an ancient public ritual.

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

Gwijo is South Africa’s current movement of song and togetherness. Watch this space.