Arts and culture

South African music: marabi

In the early years of the 20th century, the increasing urbanisation of black South Africans in mining centres such as the Witwatersrand - the gold-bearing reef with Johannesburg more or less at its centre - led to the development of slum yards or ghettos, where new forms of hybrid music began to arise.

Marabi was the name given to a South African keyboard style (usually played on pedal organs, which were relatively cheap to acquire) that had something in common with American ragtime and the blues, played in ongoing cycles with roots deep in the African tradition.

The sound of marabi was intended to draw people into the shebeens (bars selling homemade liquor or skokiaan) and then to get them dancing. It used a few simple chords repeated in vamp patterns that could go on all night - the music of South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim still shows traces of this form.

Associated with the illegal liquor dens and with vices such as prostitution, South Africa's early marabi musicians formed a kind of underground musical culture and were not recorded. Both the white authorities and more sophisticated black listeners frowned upon it, much as jazz ("the devil's music") was denigrated as a temptation to vice in its early years in the United States.

But the lilting melodies and loping rhythms of marabi found their way willy-nilly into the sounds of the bigger dance bands, modelled on American swing groups, which began to appear in the 1920s; it added to their distinctively South African style.

Such bands, which produced the first generation of professional black musicians in South Africa, achieved considerable popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. Star groups such as The Jazz Maniacs, The Merry Blackbirds and The Jazz Revellers rose to fame, winning huge audiences among both black and white South Africans.

So successful were some of these bands, in fact, that jealous white musicians used the regulations against racial mixing and the liquor laws (which restricted black access to "white" liquor) to hamper their progress.

Over the succeeding decades, the marabi-swing style developed into early mbaqanga, the most distinctive form of South African jazz, which has given its flavour to much South African music since then, from the jazz performers of the post-war years to the more populist township forms of the 1980s.

The beginnings of broadcast radio intended for black South African listeners, and the growth of an indigenous recording industry, helped propel such sounds to immense popularity from the 1930s onward.

Travelling variety shows, vaudeville troupes and dance concerts boosted the impact of black music in the country, and schools began to arise teaching the various jazzy styles available. Notable among these was pianist-composer Wilfred Sentso's influential "School of Modern Piano Syncopation", which taught "classical music, jazz syncopation, saxophone and trumpet blowing", as well as "crooning, tap dancing and ragging".

A truly indigenous South African musical language was coming into being.

SAinfo reporter

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The Marabi Dance George, the marabi-loving character in Modikwe Dikobe's classic play The Marabi Dance, in a 1982 Junction Avenue Theatre Company production (Image: Digital Imaging SA)


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