August 29th, 2013 / 10:14 am
Author Spotlight & Behind the Scenes

Sounds of a Cowhide Drum

sounds of a cowhide drum


A morning mist
and chimney smoke
of White City Jabavu
flowed thick yellow
as puss oozing
from a gigantic sore

These lines, the opening lines of a poem entitled “An abandoned bundle,” were composed in or around Johannesburg in the late 1960s. It is possible they were written in 1967 the year I was born. It is quite unlikely (but I guess it’s possible) that they were written on October 18, 1967, the exact day I was born in a white hospital in white Johannesburg. These lines, though, were most likely written in Soweto, or on a train between Soweto and Johannesburg, where the author Mbuyiseni Oswald Msthali lived and worked in the 1960s.

And then, a bit further down in the poem, we find

Scavenging dogs
draped in red bandanas of blood
fought fiercely
for a squirming bundle

and, finally, the “abandoned bundle” (the “squirming bundle”) is “a mutilated corpse – / an infant dumped on a rubbish heap-”

[  Sounds of a Cowhide Drum released in 1971 (Renoster Books). A new Jacana Media edition, including isiZulu translations of the poems as well as a foreword by Nadine Gordimer, is now available. ]


Mtshali, somewhere, says “I am not a Liberal, Nationalist or Progressive but a black who tried to articulate the daily hopes and disappointments of his life.” But these are not simple poems. These are poems in which Mtshali, beyond his carefully chosen words and images, is able to look into and capture not only the black man’s soul (the good black man’s soul and the bad black man’s soul) but also the white man’s soul. And when I say “man,” of course I also mean woman. Human that is. And when I say “black” I am referring, specifically here, to the South African “black” of the apartheid era. But, really, the true subjects of Sounds of a Cowhide Drum are the good and bad versions of the human heart and soul. The good, the bad, the mixed, and the all-in-between.


Mud huts sprouted
on the vastness;
a rash of blackheads
on the heavily powdered
face of a woman.

The lines above, for example, gain power (beyond the natural power of the language and imagery) from the fact that the speaker/observer are not named. Remain vague. And unsettling. (as the snow comes down). And the poem (“A Snowfall on Mount Frere) builds and builds upon stark, coldly-managed imagery until it ends as follows:

No tribesmen
ventured out.
They were marooned
in their heartless huts
by the vast white sea.
They cringed like drowning gorillas
chained in cold steel cages.


On the other hand the speaker of the poem “The master of the house” (how many times in my youth did I hear the phrase “Is the master of the house available?” – or, “may I speak to the master of the house?”) is “a stranger,” “a faceless man/ who lives in the backyard/ of your house” and who sees

….your table
so heavily heaped with
bread, meat and fruit
it huffs like a horse
drawing a coal cart

And, in the same vein, here’s the final stanza of the poem “Always a suspect”:

I trudge the city pavements
side by side with “madam”
who shifts her handbag
from my side to the other,
and looks at me with eyes that say
“Ha! Ha! I know who you are;
beneath those fine clothes
ticks the heart of a thief.”


Sounds of a Cowhide Drum was a revelation to White South Africa in the 1970s (the book sold 11,000 copies in the first two years and was quickly on University reading lists) But the book wasn’t just a landmark in South African literature because it was written by a black man and because it confronted whites (mostly liberals) with a glimpse of worlds seen through black eyes. Sounds of a Cowhide Drum was (and is) an important book because, as Poetry, it is the real deal.

It is, I mean, the work of a real and great poet’s imagination. Not just some novelty or “document” of historical  interest. (Nadine Gordimer knows this also whe she begins as follows in her foreword to Mtshali’s book: “Many people write poetry, there are few great poets in any country.)


Sounds of a Cowhide Drum was (and is) the work of a man who by day and by night was finding and building himself into a poet even as he made his living as a messenger “boy” in Johannesburg (yes, “boy,” was how white South Africans described the men who labored for them: “garden boy,” “flat boy,” “messenger boy,” etc.) Mtshali, the man and “messenger boy,” kept a journal with him at all times and scribbled down notes whenever he could: on the train in and out of Soweto, on breaks at work, and into the deep hours of the night.


I had the pleasure this past weekend of chatting on the phone with Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali for nearly two hours. (look here, in the near future, for an interview between myself and Mr. Mtshali). And one of the poems we discussed, specifically, is “Men in chains.”

Men in chains

The train stopped
at a country station

Through sleep-curtained eyes
I peered through the frosted windows,
and saw six men:
men shorn
of all human honour
like sheep after shearing,
bleating at the blistering wind,
“Go away! Cold wind! Go away!
Can’t you see we are naked?”

They hobbled into the train
on bare feet,
wrists handcuffed
ankles manacled,
with steel rings like cattle at the abattoirs
shying away from the trapdoor.

One man with a head
shaven clean as a potato
whispered to the rising sun,
a red eye wiped by a tattered
handkerchief of clouds,
“Oh! Dear Sun!
Won’t you warm my heart
with hope?”
The train went on its way to nowhere


“Men in chains” is, naturally, a poem that will resonate with Americans. A poem, really, though, that will resonate with just about anyone. But, I want to return to the word “bundle” (“abandoned,” “squirming” and “mutilated”) which I began this post with. A word that you will find also in a poem titled “The birth of our daughter 28.2.69” (on Feb 28, 1969, for whatever it’s worth, I was a baby, a bundle, too):

There she lay
a bundle of our jubilations
whose soul fire
I kindled
In her mother’s womb
with my God-given sperm

and, a bit later on, the narrator talks about “We two parents…

took on the task
of bringing her up
honest and moral
in the world where
Love and Truth
are sugar-coated words
offered to Sunday school children.


I offer these last excerpts as testament to the fact that the poems in Sounds of a Cowhide are not all somber, shocking and grave but are also filled with passion, kindness and hope. In other poems here you will find that Mtshali has a great sense of humor and that he is, all in all, very big hearted. Hard. And wise. Tough. But also, indeed, very big-hearted.


And I’ll close this post with an excerpt that Gordimer points to in her foreword, labeling it Mtshali’s “manifesto…his stylistic and philosophical statement”:

Look upon me as a pullet crawling
from an eggshell
laid by a Zulu hen,
ready to fly in spirit
to all lands on earth.


[  again, look here, soon, for the transcript of an interview between myself and Mr. Mtshali  ]


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  1. Phil Hopkins

      Have you ever seen a performance of The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona? This reminds me of the power of that on the same topic

  2. Rauan Klassnik

      I haven’t man… but thanks….

  3. Roy Bermeister

      Cowhide Drum was selected as a matric + English Lit. setwork. Deserved recognition for great poet.

  4. Sounds of a Cowhide Drum // An Interview with Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali | HTMLGIANT

      […] few months ago I posted up some thoughts on Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali’s wonderful book “Sounds of a Cowhide Drum” in which I […]

  5. Sounds of a Cowhide Drum // An Interview with Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali | GIANT READER

      […] few months ago I posted up some thoughts on Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali’s wonderful book “Sounds of a Cowhide Drum” in which I indicated […]