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by World Music Network September 05, 2011


South African Popular Music: Nation Of The Voice

South Africa has an unparalleled diversity of popular music styles which have multiplied bountifully since the end of apartheid. Despite the wide regional and stylistic variations, a powerful vocal focus and emphasis on dance are the underlying strengths of much of the best South African pop.

The West, Urbanization, Marabi and Jive

The most important catalyst for musical evolution was urbanization – Johannesburg grew rapidly in the 1880s after the discovery of gold, and Cape Town was attracting American musicians by the 1840s. African-American minstrels, vaudevillians and ragtime piano players who toured South Africa before WWI would have a long lasting impact. By the 1920s the all-night “Concert and Dance” entertainment had developed amongst South Africans to cope with the curfew – bands like the Jazz Maniacs and the Merry Blackbirds played dance music and marabi (a musical structure built around an endlessly repeated three-chord progression) to middle-class black audiences.

Pennywhistle Jive: the Kwela Boom

Pennywhistle jive was one of the first musical styles to become a commercial phenomenon and win international renown. Disabled teenager Willard Cele discovered the technique – by playing the flute’s mouthpiece at an angle between the teeth to one side of the mouth, its tone was not only thickened but it was possible to vary the pitch of each note.

After decades as an exclusive township phenomenon, pennywhistling moved into the city centres in the 1950s, where it earned the name kwela(meaning “climb up”, the command barked to Africans being arrested and ordered into the police van). Spokes Mashiyane was the first to gain commercial success with “Ace Blues” in 1954, sparking a stream of other recording artists. He again set a trend in 1958 with “Big Joe Special”, his first recording on a saxophone.

From Sax Jive to Vocal Mbaqanga

After “Big Joe Special” Sax Jives were the next dominant black musical genre, a development that was not entirely supported. Saxophonist Michael Xaba disdainfully referred to the new style as mbaqanga – a “dumpling” in Zulu but in this instant connoting “homemade” – since most of its practitioners were musically illiterate. The name ironically became a term of endearment, and the craze for instrumental mbaqangawent on for another two decades.

In the 1960s the rhythms became heavier, more African, and the electric bass provided the foundation for a new style. This electric sound, which also went under the name mbaqanga,was pioneered by bassist Joseph Makwela, guitarist Marks Mankwane and saxophonist West Nkosi with their famous Makhona Tsohle Band. The vocal style was characterised by female five-part harmonies and an ultra-bass male groaning, the most famous exponent of which was Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde. Well known bands of this genre include the Mahotella Queens, Amatshitshi and Izintombi Zezi Manje Manje.

Zulu Acapella: Mbube and Iscathamiya

In the 1920s acapella vocal styles became closely identified with Natal’s emerging Zulu working class – rural migrants who had left their families behind to work in mines and factories, staying in all-male hostels. They developed a weekend social life based on vocal and dance competitions which were staged between hostels.

In 1939, Solomon Linda’s Original Evening Birds recorded “Mbube” (The Lion) for Gallo, the first African recording to sell 100,000 copies which later provided the basis for two American hit records, “Wimoweh” by The Weavers in 1951 and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens in 1961. They set a trend, and Mbubebecame a generic term to denote a new style that included group uniforms, polished dance routines and the use of a high-voiced lead against a four-part harmony.

The audience for acapella broadened in the 1960s with the establishment of Radio Zulu, and the style became known as iscathamiya. The status of the genre was transformed when Gallo signed Joseph Shabalala’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo, one of the genre’s greatest exponents to date.

Neo-Traditional Styles

The traditionally based music of the Sotho, Zulu, Pedi and Shangaan rural areas adapted to imported instruments to create “Sotho Traditional”, “Zulu Traditional” and so on. Sotho music embraced the concertina after WWI, the Pedi the harp, and the Zulu the guitar, which was compatible with Zulu harmonic practice.

The father figure of Zulu Traditional is John Bhengu (“Phuzushukela” – Sugar Drinker) who was renowned for adapting indigenous melodies to guitar, and introducing his unique finger picking style called ukupika(before, the guitar was always strummed). In the late 1960s he switched to electric guitar with a full mbaqangaproduction, leading to a Zulu Traditional (usually referred to as maskanda) ‘golden era’ during the 1970s with hundreds of recordings produced by dozens of bands. In recent decades the concertina has become a mandatory part of any group, and the bass-and-drum patterns have become increasingly electronic.

Local Soul - The Soul Brothers 

In the late 1960s American soul music such as Percy Sledge and Booker T and the MGs were popular among black and coloured township teenagers, and many South African bands such as The Question Marks and The Hurricanes released imitative singles featuring the Farfisa organ, electric guitar, and often awkward-sounding English lyrics.

With the importation of disco in the 1970s, the disco bass line and drum beat combined with the soul formula heralded a revolution in taste which affected every subsequent township musical style.

The most popular soul and disco bands added their own trademarks to the formula. The Movers added a dose of marabi and saxophone, while the Soul Brothers had distinctive two-part, quavering vocal harmonies. Riverboat Records released The Soul Brothers album, Soul Mbaqangaback in 1994. The album features dance remixes of their hottest tunes, and spotlights the work of the brothers in partnership with world class producer Chris Birkett. The album is a gem from the World Music Network archive, and is sadly no longer in print ... seek out your copy somehow though - it is well worth it!


Township music from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s saw the ascendency of a slickly produced African pop known as bubblegum. With the vocals arranged in repetitive, overlapping call-and-response patterns, the accompaniment saw a modern love affair with electronic keyboards, synthesisers and drum box beats. The longest-running success story in the genre is vocalist Dan Tshanda who has led several notable groups, while the popular Brenda Fassie also scored some huge hits such as “Weekend Special.”

Kwaito Kulture

Kwaito started off when local DJs at township street parties began slowing the tempo of US Chicago House recordings and getting a positive response from young black listeners. It has since become one of the most important contemporary genres;

Early kwaito was a pretty sparse affair, with much of the sound borrowed from bubblegum. But defying predictions from its detractors that it was too shallow and insubstantial to last, kwaito not only survived but matured in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when several artists produced whole albums of good material, TKZee and Bongo Maffin amongst them.

White South Africans have never really warmed to kwaito with the exception of Mandoza, who achieved a massive crossover hit in 2000 with Nkalakatha which still receives extensive airplay on both white and black radio stations.

Since 2000 the most popular trend has been towards more conventional house music and trance. While many instances are bland, groups such as Brothers of Peace, Revolution and Alaska are talented exceptions. Another key trend has been to go retro, the prime exponent of which is Mafikizolo, who draws on old-style kwelaor mbaqangabeats.

Cape Hop

As seems true almost everywhere, local hip-hop has been an ideal vehicle for frustrated ghetto youth to get things off their chest, usually formulaically but occasionally with originality and wit.

One of the most interesting developments is the increasing tendency for Coloured hip-hop artists from Cape Town to rap in Afrikaans, the first language of not just Afrikaners but also most Coloured people in South Africa’s Western Cape.

Hip hop’s South African standard-bearers are undoubtedly Cape Town’s Prophets of Da City, who released their first album ‘Phunk Phlow’ in 1994, and have been able to cross the divide between commercial and underground communities of hip hop fans. They are joined in this transitional camp by female trio Godessa, while the most underground artists include Paliament, Wildlife Society, Fifth Floor, and Lions of Zion.


Lucky Dube dominated the local reggae scene for years following the enormous success of his 1990 album ‘Slave’. He started out playing mbaqanga in the 1970s, switching to reggae in 1984 where he’s firmly remained ever since. Other prime movers include the excellent Cape Town label African Dope Records, founded by dum’n’bass maestros Krushed and Sorted, who have discovered and released an impressive array of reggae, drum’n’bass and other artists, including Godessa, Moodphase 5ive, and, most recently The Real Estate Agents.