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Cape Town Carnival held the fourth of its triweekly workshops aimed at stimulating and connecting Cape Town Carnival performers, artists and members of the public. The spotlight was on Umswenko, a fashion and music subculture originating in the 1970s among Zulu hostel dwellers, used to celebrate, entertain, and show off a sense of impeccable style, fashion and music, and build a higher degree of self-expression and self-confidence.  

Attended by a large number of people representing various communities from across greater Cape Town, participants were introduced to the historical background of contemporary Umswenko, its fashion and music, and how it builds a strong sense of identity: “It merged traditional and modern African and European culture, which gave off a vibrant, masculine feel of identity and self-confidence, especially in a hostile working environment,” said Khanyisile Mbongwa, curatorial- and socio-critical adviser at Cape Town Carnival. 

Accompanied by fun and energetic performance from Cape Town Carnival lead performers, the audience were treated to musical representations of Umswenko; from the a cappella-style choral sounds of Isicathamiya – originally sung by migrant Zulu men in the 1930s, to Ntembeko Njaba’s street-style rapping, and Kwaito and Hip Hop-influenced Riky Rick’s own version of Umswenko. 

The fashionable styles of Umswenko were on full display, including Izikhothane, a flashy, branded and cult-style of street fashion, worn for showmanship and dance battles; iJweish – quality clothing that is expensive and stylish; and uNayathela ini ngani, fashionable footwear that often included brands like Gerani and Carvela; and Drag – a queer form of Umswenko that combines makeup and clothing to exaggerate a specific gender identity. 

“Umswenko embodies a deliberate celebratory self-expression and a choice around how we present ourselves. Carnival as a whole is a platform for self-expression; either of your fullest true self or an aspect of who you are. This includes who you choose to associate with and how you share yourself with the world,” says Brad Baard, Creative Director for Cape Town Carnival. 

Franco Pascoe, Workshop Coordinator for Cape Town Carnival, and Tylor Spelman, dancer and choreographer, shared their personal renditions of what a Cape Flats-style Joster, Joller, and drag artist would don. “Joster’s style is a look still happening today amongst men 45  and over. Pleated pants, panama, leather jacket , pringle t-shirt and crocket and jones shoes. Now in our communities you see the Nike tracksuits, Nike takkies, alles Nike! And bling too, whether it’s a silver chain, bracelets or rings – this is the swank happening in our neighborhoods today. It’s all about the name brand , and it’s happening!” Pascoe said. 

In groups, participants looked at how we identify ourselves as individuals in various settings. They were prompted to consider the many ways they could describe themselves, by profession, family role, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or even likes and dislikes as means of identification.

A quirky exercise using each participant’s own shoe as a symbol to explore our personal journeys and how we got to this point was undertaken too. Participants looked at the role of personal values, and the behaviours they typically value amongst friends and family, as a means of expressing their own priorities.

The concept of archetypes was introduced as a way of expressing many attributes and characteristics, and as a mirror for all the qualities of a person in a word or two. From diva and princess to warrior, rescuer and inventor, workshop participants had an opportunity to see themselves through a different lens, and then using their body expressions to strut the catwalk and show off their archetypal self expression.

“Understanding what archetypes we may embody, allows us to play to our character strengths in different situations,” says Baard. “It also helps us understand and value the journey we’ve been on, and how we can be of greater use to others.”

The workshop ended off with commentary on the role and value of social media, especially in the context of today’s social pressures. Bongani Mzizi, a lead performer in the Cape Town Carnival’s annual street parade, encouraged everyone to practice authenticity and prompted participants to question what they thought and felt about the powerful medium, and what kind of relationship they had with it.

“This workshop has been a dynamic way of discovering our authentic self, of having some idea of our own uniqueness,” says Jay Douwes, CEO of Cape Town Carnival. “In a world that places so much pressure on us to conform, our intention today was to use fashion, music and creativity to understand and express who we really are.”