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  • Playing TogetherGender Roles and Transformative Displays in the Christmas Bands Movement in Cape Town, South Africa
  • Sylvia Bruinders (bio)

The Christmas Bands Movement is a parading practice unique to the Western Cape Province of South Africa in which wind and string instruments are used to accompany street parades, performing Christian hymns, marches, or Christmas carols. I have researched these bands over many years. They encompass generations of family members, and each band usually recruits its membership on the basis of family and friends, so that any one band can feel like a large family gathering. One of the annual practices of the Christmas bands is to visit their membership, as well as sick and elderly supporters of the band, during which they commune with them by playing Christian hymns or Christmas carols and sharing prayers, Bible verses, and food. Although Christmas bands are nondenominational, they overtly impart Christian ethics. Their practice, which initially emerged from the colonial encounter, is ensconced within socially conservative working-class and lower-middle-class coloured communities in the Western Cape. In South Africa, "coloured" is a racialized designator for people of mixed descent, who historically occupied an unenviable position between the economically powerful whites and numerically stronger African blacks.1

The Christmas bands wear uniforms during parades and at competitions consisting of trousers, a club blazer and badge, a shirt and tie, matching socks and shoes, a belt, and a hat. Like most Christian-based organizations that wear uniforms, the wearing of the uniform is central to the way in which the Christmas [End Page 5] bands identify themselves as members of a particular band. The uniform also serves as a visual representation and embodiment of the values of order, discipline, and respectability, which are fundamental tenets of the organization. The symbolic significance of the Christmas bands' uniform excludes anyone from wearing the current uniform outside of official functions, although the men wear their older uniforms to church and other formal functions. Their reverence for the uniform is obvious in the pride with which the men talk about their past uniforms; some whom I interviewed still had these uniforms covered with dust protectors hanging neatly in their wardrobes.2

Denis-Constant Martin, who made an in-depth study of the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival (Kaapse Klopse) in the 1990s, suggests that the uniforms adopted by the parading traditions of the Western Cape can be viewed as masks.3 Indeed, in many precolonial sub-Saharan African rituals or cultural practices, the use of the mask is prevalent, often connected to the magical or mysterious world and used to convey notions of liminal states. The mask is understood to cover the face and parts of the body in order to disguise or conceal a person's true identity, yet as it conceals or masks it also reveals something new or different: it is thus concerned with a redefinition of identity, transforming the performer into someone or something more powerful.4 Donald Pollock suggests that masking as a technique of "identity display and transformation" relies for its "effectiveness upon semiotic processes that reveal not only what is being displayed, but that display is taking place."5 Pollock makes a distinction between a mask and a costume in that "a mask may hide one's real identity while a costume serves to display a new identity," as if these are two completely different artifacts or involved in entirely different processes.6 Yet John Picton warns that we "must not assume that masks are necessarily dramatic things."7 I would like to suggest not only that the uniforms of the Christmas bands be considered as masks that display the transformed identity of the members but also that in this cultural practice "the use of masks or disguises involves a special potential for behavior," specifically behavior as it relates to gender and performance.8

For most of the twentieth century the Christmas bands were masculine organizations, and women only entered the bands as performance members toward [End Page 6]

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Fig 1.

Mr. J. September with various uniforms of the St. Joseph's Christmas Band. Photo © Paul Grendon, used with permission.

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