Arts and culture

South African music: kwela

One of the offshoots of the marabi sound was kwela, which brought South African music to international prominence in the 1950s.

The primary instrument of kwela, in the beginning, was the pennywhistle, a cheap and simple instrument which was taken up by street performers in the country's shanty towns.

Apart from being cheap and portable, as well as susceptible to use as a solo or an ensemble instrument, part of the popularity of the pennywhistle was perhaps based on the fact that flutes of different kinds had long been traditional instruments among the peoples of the more northerly parts of South Africa.

The pennywhistle thus enabled the swift adaptation of folk tunes into the new marabi-inflected idiom.

The term "kwela" is derived from the Zulu for "get up", though in township slang it also referred to the police vans, the "kwela-kwela". Thus it could be an invitation to join the dance as well as a warning.

It is said that the young men who played the pennywhistle on street corners also acted as lookouts to warn those enjoying themselves in the illegal drinking dens of the arrival of the police.

Lemmy Mabaso was one of South Africa's most famous pennywhistle stars; he began performing in the streets at the age of 10. Talent scouts were sent out by the recording industry to lure pennywhistlers into the studio and have them record their tunes with full band backing. Stars such as Spokes Mashiyane had hits with kwela pennywhistle tunes.

In 1959, the recording "Tom Hark" by Elias Lerole and His Zig-Zag Flutes was a hit around the world, being taken over and reworked by, for instance, British bandleader Ted Heath.

SAinfo reporter

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King Kwela, an album by pennywhistle maestro Spokes Mashiyane King Kwela, an album by pennywhistle maestro Spokes Mashiyane


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