15 November 2011
NEW YORK, NY — A native South African clothed in tribal Zulu regalia, guitar in hand, stands on a tiny makeshift stage in a crowded restaurant. What makes heads turn is not that he’s wearing a animal-skin headband or that he’s performing on tour in Brooklyn—but that he’s white.
19-year-old David Jenkins is tall, thin and pale; he stands out among the wide spectrum of black, brown, and mixed-race Africans at Madiba restaurant. He plays the first chords of a traditional Zulu song, proving that he has mastered the intricate double-fingered guitar picking known only to Zulu musicians. A group of Zulus in the restaurant immediately recognize the tune; they break into cheers and dance in their seats.
Jenkins is known as the White Zulu, a young man who transcends racial boundaries through his deep connection to native black music. In a country still racially divided 17 years after apartheid’s end, he performs amidst a myriad of contrasting cultures, languages and identities.
“As a young boy, I was fascinated by the Zulu warrior culture,” Jenkins says, “but it soon became more than [that]… I became interested in the whole history. The Zulus have an extremely strong identity.” The largest and most well-known tribe in South Africa, the Zulus became dominant under King Shaka Zulu in the early 1800s, when he revolutionized their military and transformed them into a warrior tribe.
Jenkins’ infatuation led him to discover their traditional music—maskandi—which struck an even deeper chord within him. “You have to use both your forefinger and thumb when playing maskandi,” Jenkins says. “It’s the way you play both the melody and bass at the same time.” This unique guitar picking that enters the song after the intro, he says, gives him the goosebumps. “When I start playing it at Zulu celebrations, [the Zulus] go wild, even all the old guys.”
Although he was born and raised in eastern South Africa where the tribe is most prominent, Jenkins didn’t discover Zulu culture entirely on his own. His journalist father, Chris Jenkins, had access to Zulu celebrations, festivals, and music competitions. The elder Jenkins brought his son along on assignments, often into poor, rural areas—past the line that most sheltered South Africans would cross.
Jenkins soon discovered he had more in common with his Zulu friends than his white friends. After his father died in 2008, he became the only white kid in his high school class to study Zulu language instead of Afrikaans, a South African form of Dutch.
“This differentiated David from other children,” his mother, Sue Jenkins, writes in an e-mail. “He was in a strange position where there were no white children with the same interest … he was the only white child attending these [Zulu] events.”
Siphile Buthelezi, a South African attorney who lived and worked in New York City for a year, is one of the influential Zulus who came to Madiba to see Jenkins perform during his month-long U.S. tour. Other Zulus at Madiba included diplomats from the South African consulate, some in town for the UN General Assembly. Buthelezi first saw Jenkins perform on “South Africa’s Got Talent” in 2009.
“For a white person to sing Zulu music, that is eye-catching,” Buthelezi says. “Of course [Jenkins] cannot be as Zulu as I am, but he has done very well in impressing us and embracing our culture.”
Isaac Johnson is a South African expatriate currently living in New York, whose father was a Xhosa—the second largest tribe next to the Zulu tribe. Johnson believes that Jenkins is “just another white guy” trying to be something he’s not. “Why doesn’t he portray his own culture?” Johnson says. “We try to portray our own culture here with our accents and foods. Look at the color of my skin—I’m black. I’m from Cape Town. I stick to that.”
Jenkins, however, doesn’t lose his cool. He brushes off any racially charged attitudes. “If you’re black, you’re black. If you’re white, you’re white. And if you’re coloured, well then you’re coloured—that’s all there is to it,” he shrugs.
“I respect what he’s doing—it’s not easy,” says Jemaine Diedricks, a server at Madiba restaurant, also from Cape Town. “He’s definitely taken people by surprise.”
Jenkins doesn’t expect the same elated reaction from white audiences when he plays maskandi songs, so he has to maintain a fine balance between traditional Zulu and English lyrics. But he has noticed that if anything, his white audiences respect him. “[The whites] aren’t going to go wild at the song, but in the end I get a lot of compliments from them,” Jenkins says. “They do appreciate it.”
“I believe a lot of white South Africans could learn something from him,” Sue Jenkins writes. “He’s a wonderful example to many of us. Sadly, ignorance and fear prevent people from branching out into the various cultures … Hopefully David, through his warmth and his music will be able to make a difference, even if only in some small way.”