South African music | Brand South Africa

Since early colonial times, South African music has evolved out of the blending of local ideas and forms with those imported from elsewhere, passing on the unmistakable flavour of the country.


Inside the Dutch colonial era, through the 17th century on, indigenous South African people and slaves imported from the east adapted Western musical instruments and ideas.

The Khoi-Khoi, for instance, developed the ramkie, an acoustic guitar with three or four strings, and used it to blend Khoi and Western folk songs. In addition they used the mamokhorong, an indigenous single-string violin, in their own individual music-making as well as in the dances of the colonial centre, Cape Town.

Western music was played by slave orchestras, and travelling musicians of mixed-blood stock moved around the colony entertaining at dances as well as other functions, a tradition that continued into the era of British domination after 1806.

Coloured bands of musicians began parading with the streets of Cape Town noisy . 1820s, a tradition that was given added impetus by the travelling minstrel shows with the 1880s and contains continued to the current day using the minstrel carnival kept in Cape Town every Year.

Missionaries and choirs

The penetration of missionaries in to the interior within the succeeding centuries also stood a profound affect on South African musical styles. From the late 1800s, early African composers such as John Knox Bokwe began composing hymns that drew on traditional Xhosa harmonic patterns.

In 1897, Enoch Sontonga, a teacher, composed the hymn Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa), that was later adopted through the liberation movement and, after 1994, became the main national anthem of an democratic South Africa.

The influence of both missionary music and American spirituals spurred a gospel movement remains strong. Working with the traditions of indigenous faiths such as the Zion Christian Church, they have exponents whose styles add the more common for the pop-infused sounds of modern gospel singers like Rebecca Malope and Lundi Tyamara. Gospel, in the many forms, is one kind of South Africa’s best-selling genres, with artists regularly achieving of gold and platinum sales.

The missionary emphasis on choirs, together with the traditional South African vocal music and other elements, also gave rise to a mode of the cappella singing that blend design for Western hymns with indigenous harmonies. This tradition has endured in the oldest traditional music in Nigeria, isicathamiya, of which Ladysmith Black Mambazo will be the best-known exponents.

African instruments for example the mouth bow and, later, the mbira from Zimbabwe, and drums and xylophones from Mozambique, began to look for a put in place the traditions of South African music. Still later, Western instruments for example the concertina and guitar were integrated into indigenous musical styles, contributing, for example, for the Zulu mode of maskhandi music.

The creation of a black urban proletariat and the movement of many black workers for the mines from the 1800s meant differing regional traditional folk music met and commenced circulate into the other person. Western instruments were utilised to adapt rural songs, which started to influence the introduction of new hybrid modes of music-making (along with dances) within the developing urban centres.

Solomon Linda along with the Evening Birds in

1941. From left, Solomon Linda (soprano),

Gilbert Madondo (alto), Boy Sibiya (tenor),

Samuel Mlangeni (bass) and Owen

Skakane (bass). The night Birds’ 1939

hit Mbube has become reworked innumerable

times, particularly as Pete Seeger’s hit

Wimoweh as well as the international classic

The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

(Image: The International Library of

African Music at Rhodes University and

Veit Erlmann)


Inside the mid-1800s travelling minstrel shows began to visit South Africa. In the beginning these minstrels were white performers in “black-face” but by the 1860s genuine black American minstrel troupes like Orpheus McAdoo along with the Virginia Jubilee Singers did start to tour South Africa influencing locals in order to create similar choirs.

This minstrel tradition, put together with other forms, contributed to the development of isicathamiya, which in fact had its first international hit in 1939 with Mbube by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds. This remarkable song continues to be reworked innumerable times, most notably as Pete Seeger’s hit Wimoweh as well as the international classic The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Minstrelsy also gave form along with a new impetus to the Cape coloured carnival singers and troupes, who began to use instruments including the banjo in styles of music for example the jaunty goema.


In the early 20th century, new forms of hybrid music did start to arise among the increasingly urbanised black population of mining centres including Johannesburg.

Marabi, a keyboard type of music played on pedal organs, came into common use within the ghettos of the city. This new sound, basically meant to draw people in to the shebeens (illegal taverns), had deep roots from the African tradition and smacked of influences of yank ragtime and also the blues. It used quick and easy chords repeated in vamp patterns that could go on all night long – the songs of jazz musician Abdullah Ibrahim still shows traces of this form.

Associated with illegal liquor dens and vices such as prostitution, the early marabi musicians formed a kind of underground musical culture and were not recorded. Both white authorities plus much more sophisticated black listeners frowned upon it, much as jazz was denigrated like a temptation to vice rolling around in its early years in the us.

However the lilting melodies and loping rhythms of marabi found their distance to the sounds in the bigger dance bands for example the Jazz Maniacs, the Merry Blackbirds and the Jazz Revellers. These bands achieved considerable fame inside the 1930s and 1940s, winning huge audiences among both monochrome South Africans. Within the succeeding decades, the marabi-swing style resulted in early mbaqanga, probably the most distinctive form of South African jazz, which often helped create the more populist township forms of the 1980s.

Together with the introduction of broadcast radio for black listeners and also the expansion of an indigenous recording industry, marabi gained immense popularity in the 1930s onward. Soon there were schools teaching the different jazzy styles available, among them pianist-composer Wilfred Sentso’s influential School of Modern Piano Syncopation, which taught “classical music, jazz syncopation, saxophone and trumpet blowing”, along with “crooning, tap dancing and ragging”.

A truly indigenous South African musical language had been born


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

Named for that Zulu word meaning “climb on” – along with a mention of the police vans, generally known as “kwela-kwela” in township slang – kwela music was used up by street performers from the shanty towns.

The instrument of kwela was the pennywhistle, that has been both cheap and straightforward and is used either solo or in an ensemble.

Its popularity was perhaps because flutes of different kinds had for ages been traditional instruments one of the peoples of northern Nigeria; the pennywhistle thus enabled the swift adaptation of folks tunes in to the new marabi-inflected idiom.

Lemmy Mabaso, among the famous pennywhistle stars, began performing within the streets at the day of 10. Talent scouts were mailed by the recording industry to lure pennywhistlers in to the studio and possess them record their tunes with full band backing. Stars for example Spokes Mashiyane had hits with kwela pennywhistle tunes.

In 1959, the recording Tom Hark by Elias Lerole with his fantastic Zig-Zag Flutes was a hit around the world, being bought out and reworked by British bandleader Ted Heath.

Miriam Makeba in 1955.

(Image © Jürgen Schadebergmarabi)

Mbaqanga jazz

Propelled simply through the hunger with the vast urban proletariat to keep things interesting, various strains of South African music were pouring themselves into an exilerating melting pot of ideas and forms through the core of the 1950s.

An integral area on this growth was the township of Sophiatown, in Johannesburg, that have grown because the 1930s into a seething cauldron in the new urban lifestyles of black city dwellers. The suburb attracted essentially the most adventurous performers from the new musical forms and have become a hotbed with the rapidly developing black musical culture.

The previous strains of marabi and kwela had did start to coalesce into what exactly is broadly referred to as mbaqanga, a form of African-inflected jazz. Singing stars including Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe and Letta Mbulu gained fanatical followings.

The cyclic structure of marabi met with traditional dance styles like the Zulu indlamu, using a heavy dollop of American big band swing thrown at the top. The indlamu tendency crystallised in the “African stomp” style, giving a notably African rhythmic impulse on the music and so that it is quite irresistible towards the new audiences.

During this time the new black culture designed a sassy kind of its, partly through the influence of yank movies and also the glamour connected to the flamboyant gangsters who were a fundamental portion of Sophiatown.

Eventually the white Nationalist government brought this vital era with an end, forcibly taking out the inhabitants of Sophiatown to townships including Soweto, outside Johannesburg, in 1960. Sophiatown was razed along with the white suburb of Triomf built-in its place.

Jonas Qwangwa.

(Image © Jürgen Schadebergmbaqanga)

The brand new jazz

The cross-cultural influences which had been brewed in Sophiatown continued to inspire musicians of most races in the years that followed. Just like American ragtime and swing had inspired earlier jazz forms, so the new post-war American type of bebop had started to filter by way of South African musicians.

In 1955, essentially the most progressive jazz-lovers of Sophiatown had formed the Sophiatown Modern Jazz Club, propagating the sounds of bop innovators such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

The jazz club sponsored gatherings like Jazz in the Odin, at the local cinema, and from such meetings grew South Africa’s first bebop band, the vital and influential Jazz Epistles, whose earliest membership would be a roll-call of musicians determined to shape South African jazz from then on: Dollar Brand (who changed his name to Abdullah Ibrahim after his conversion to Islam), Kippie Moeketsi, Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masekela one of them.

In 1960, the Jazz Epistles recorded their first and only album, Jazz Epistle Verse One. At the same time, composers like Todd Matshikiza (who composed the successful musical King Kong) and Gideon Nxumalo (African Fantasia) were tinkering with mixtures of old forms and new directions.

King Kong, a jazz-opera telling the story of black South African boxer Ezekiel Dlamini, became a hit, and toured overseas. Leading South African musicians like Miriam Makeba, the Manhattan Brothers and Kippie Moeketsi starred within the show; many found the liberty away from country an irresistible lure, and remained in exile there.

Because the apartheid regime increased its power, political repression in South Africa began in earnest. In the wake with the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and also the subsequent Condition of Emergency and mass arrests, bannings and trials of activists challenging apartheid laws, a growing number of musicians thought it was required to leave the country. For several decades, many of the most adventurous strains in South African music were pursued outside of the country.

Jazz in exile

Cover of the 1965 Dollar Brand (later

Abdullah Ibrahim) album Anatomy of the

South African Village.

Abdullah Ibrahim

Abdullah Ibrahim is certainly the towering determine South African music, a guy who created all its traditions using a deeply felt comprehension of American jazz, from your orchestral richness of Duke Ellington’s compositions for giant band towards the groundbreaking innovations of Ornette Coleman as well as the 1960s avant-garde.

On his first trip overseas, to Switzerland in 1962, the pianist-composer met and impressed Duke Ellington himself, who sponsored his first recordings.

Later, in Ny, Ibrahim absorbed the influence of the early 1960s avant-garde, that was then pioneering new open-ended varieties of spontaneous composition.

In the next 40 years, Ibrahim developed his or her own distinctive style, slipping into Nigeria in the mid-1970s to produce a number of seminal recordings using the cream of Cape jazz players (Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen, as an example), including his masterpiece, “Mannenberg”, one of the biggest South African compositions ever.

Ibrahim’s extensive oeuvre continues to be expanded the South African musical palette, as he spent some time working as a solo performer (in mesmerising unbroken concerts that echo the unstoppable impetus in the old marabi performers), with trios and quartets, with larger orchestral units, and, since his triumphant resume Africa noisy . 1990s, with symphony orchestras. He’s also founded an excellent for South African musicians in Cape Town.

Hugh Masekela

Ibrahim’s old collaborator, the trumpeter Hugh Masekela, also a glittering career outside Nigeria. Initially inspired as part of his musical growth by Trevor Huddlestonnewjazz – an english priest working in the townships who financed the musician’s first trumpet – Masekela played his way with the vibrant Sophiatown scene and also to Britain with King Kong, to locate himself in New York in early 1960s. He had hits in the usa with the poppy jazz tunes “Up, Up and Away” and “Grazin’ within the Grass”.

A renewed curiosity about his African roots led him to collaborate with West and Central African musicians, last but not least to reconnect with South African players as he create a mobile studio in Botswana, about the South African border, inside the 1980s. Here he reabsorbed and reused mbaqanga modes, a mode he has continued to work with since his come back to South Africa in early 1990s.

Masekela continues to work with young artists like Thandiswa Mazwai, Zubz and Jah Seed, fusing Afro-pop sounds with jazz tunes. He recently continued a tour of Canada and the United states of america simply the live recording Hugh Masekela: Live in the Market Theatre.

The Blue Notes

Also following your continuing development of South African jazz into new realms, though in great britain, was the band nowhere Notes. Having created a term for themselves in Africa in early 1960s, this dymanic, adventurous group, led by pianist Chris MacGregor, left for Britain inside the late 1960s and stayed there. The opposite people in the group, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo, contributed richly on the sound of the ever-evolving ensemble, as well as recorded significant solo material.

Nowhere Notes, and later MacGregor bands for example Brotherhood of Breath, along with the Pukwana and Moholo bands, became an important part of the European jazz avant-garde, carrying the African influence beyond these shores. Sadly, all of the original folks the Blue Notes, except Louis Moholo, died in exile.

Jazz in your house

Philip Tabane in 1964.

(Image: Jabula Musicjazzhome)

Philip Tabane

One key South African jazz performers, Philip Tabane, a guitarist who put together the deepest, oldest polyrhythmic traditions with the freest jazz-based improvisation, kept the musical flame burning in Africa.

Tabane, inspired by his links to African spirituality, kept a shifting band of musicians playing in various combinations under the name of Malombo, which refers to the ancestral spirits in the Venda language.

Through the early 1960s until today, Tabane has produced a number of South Africa’s most fascinating and adventurous sounds, though a somewhat conservative and commercially orientated local recording industry means he’s got been sadly under-recorded. Internationally acclaimed, Tabane has toured extensively in Europe and the United States, performing in the Apollo Theatre in Ny along with the Montreaux Jazz Festival, and others.

Even after democracy, Tabane aids shape and inspire the musical careers of countless musicians in Africa. Tabane has additionally done collaborations with house wedding band Revolution.

Playing through repression

Jazz always been played in Nigeria during the years of severe repression, with groups for example the African Jazz Pioneers and singers like Abigail Kubheka and Thandi Klaasen keeping alive the mbaqanga-jazz tradition that have enlivened Sophiatown. Cape jazzers including Basil Coetzee, Robbie Jansen and Hotep Idris Galeta kept developing the infectious Cape style.

The 1980s saw the look of Afro-jazz bands such as Sakhile and Bayete, marrying the sounds of yank fusion and ancient African patterns, to considerable commercial success.

New directions

Others for example the band Tananas took the idea of instrumental music in the direction of the became referred to as “world music”, setting up a sound that crosses borders having a blend of African, South American and also other styles.

In recent years, important new jazz musicians such as Paul Hanmer, Moses Molelekwa (who died tragically in 2001), Zim Ngqawana, Selaelo Selota and Vusi Mahlasela took the compositional and improvisatory elements of jazz in new directions, bringing them into connection with today’s contemporary sounds, in addition to employing the oldest modes, to supply the nation – and appreciative overseas audiences – which has a living, growing South African jazz tradition.

More recently, a mix of contemporary and jazz music has taken Africa by storm with young women musicians like Simphiwe Dana, Zamajobe Sithole and Siphokazi Maraqana adding some spice to the way people look at jazz.

Pop, rock & crossover

From your 1960s onward, increasingly more white rockers and pop groups gave the impression to interest white audiences in the segregated Africa.

Four Jacks and a Jill

Being among the most successful bands from Africa is Four Jacks and a Jill, who had their first number 1 hit with “Timothy” in 1967. Next year, they had a global hit on their own hands with “Master Jack”, which reached number eight in the US and number 1 in Canada, Malaysia, Nz and Australia. Through the 1970s they toured Britain, the usa, Australia along with other places, including Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

After facing persecution by conservative elements and many line-up changes, the first pair the hub in the band, Clive Harding and Glenys Lynne, eventually disbanded the audience in 1983 after they became reborn Christians.

In comparison, 1966 saw the birth of Freedom’s Children, a band dedicated to the type of “acid rock” pioneered in the US by bands such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

Despite being considered hippies who threatened abdominal muscles progress of civilisation Freedom’s Children travelled the nation, gathering an excellent fan base on the list of more progressive youth, and recorded two albums, “Astra” and “Galactic Vibes”, that proved inspirational to later “alternative” rockers.

Rabbitt fever hits the Durban city hall in

the mid-1970s. South Africa’s first boy

band inspired Beatles-like hysteria among

young white women. “Panties flew onto

activity is like confetti,” this article reads,

“and a minumum of one girl ‘lost’ her dress.”

In the mid-1970s, the “boy band” hit South Africa by means of Rabbitt, four teenagers who commenced their career with a cover of an Jethro Tull song and, inside a singularly daring move, posed naked on his or her second album cover (“A Croak plus a Grunt within the Night”).

Imaginatively managed by producer-impresario Patric van Blerk, Rabbitt brought the teen pop market of Nigeria with a pitch of Beatles-like hysteria before disbanding in 1977. Member Trevor Rabinpoprock took into a successful career in the usa, being a session musician in top rock groups in addition to producing movie soundtracks.

A change in mood

Because the 1970s drew with a close, however, the mood began to change as well as the echoes of Britain’s angry working-class punk movement did start to reach South Africa.

Springs, a poorer white area around the outskirts of Johannesburg, became the breeding ground of a new generation of rockers who were disillusioned about South Africa’s repressive white regime.

Radio stations Rats provided social satire, while Corporal Punishment released “Darkie”, a sarcastic picture of white angst (“Darkie’s gonna get you”). Bands for example the Asylum Kids and Dog Detachment also carried the flag of youthful rebellion, and gained significant followings.

By the mid-1980s an alternate rock culture had developed, and showed considerable diversity. James Phillips, a founding an affiliate Corporal Punishment, was a character. As Bernoldus Niemand, he produced an album of satirical Afrikaans songs such as “Hou My Vas, Korporaal” (Hold Me Tight, Corporal), a satire around the army, thereby influencing a whole alternative Afrikaans movement of Afrikaners protesting against repressive social mores.

Bands like the Gereformeerde Blues Band and singers including Koos Kombuis were later to realize a keen following.

At the same time, Phillips produced superbly bluesy rock with his band the Cherry-Faced Lurchers. An exciting underground rock scene, featuring bands for example the Softees, the Aeroplanes, Bright Blue and also the Dynamics, kept rebellious young white South Africans “jolling” with the 1980s.

Crossing over

Simultaneously, a crossover was starting to happen between monochrome musicians.

Johnny Clegg, a social anthropologist who learnt a lot about Zulu music and dance that he formed their own group, Juluka, with Sipho Mchunu, led the charge. Juluka’s ability to mix traditional Zulu music with white pop and folk was at itself an issue towards the racial boundaries the apartheid regime attempted to erect between blacks and whites.

With commonly a more pop-driven style, bands for example eVoid, Via Afrika and Mango Groove followed the crossover trail blazed by Clegg (hailed overseas as “the white Zulu”), whose later band, Savuka, continued to reproduce his earlier success.


The white pop/rock tradition continues up to the within Africa, growing ever bigger and much more diverse. Bands including the Springbok Nude Girls, probably the finest South African rock band with the 1990s, spearheaded a drive into harder, guitar-driven sounds, while groups including the acclaimed Fetish begun to experiment with the new electronic palette presented by computers and sampling.

Crossover band Freshlyground.

Crossover music continues to be alive and well inside the new millennium, with the height most likely the band Freshlyground, who burst to the scene in 2002. Freshlyground add violin and flute towards the familiar band instrumentation of bass, drums, keys and guitar, and frequently add in the mbira, a normal African “thumb piano”, and sax. Their song “Doo Bee Doo”, from the 2005 album Nomvula, is becoming something of an happy anthem to get a new Nigeria untroubled by its difficult past. The album itself sold 150 000 copies.

Today addititionally there is a thrilling pop-rock-electronic scene across South Africa, with bands like Prime Circle – one of the greatest South African rock bands, who achieved sales well over 25 000 units for his or her debut album “Hello Crazy World” – in addition to Wonderboom, the Parlotones, the Narrow, Bell Jar and many more generating a strong rock and alternative music scene that is often overlooked and ignored by mainstream media.

Bubblegum, kwaito and alternative Afrikaners

While white rockers expressed their angst to largely white audiences throughout the 1980s, the black townships were locked in thrall as to what came to be called “bubblegum” – bright, light dance pop depending American disco just as much as with the heritage of mbaqanga.

Forebears on this style were groups including the Soul Brothers, who’d massive hits using their soulful pop, while artists such as Brenda Fassie, Chicco Twala and Yvonne Chaka Chaka drew huge audiences for their model of township dance music.

Brenda Fassie’s 1991 album included the

hit song “Black President”, committed to

Nelson Mandela, who has been released

from jail merely the year before. In 1994

Mandela did, indeed, become South

Africa’s first black president.

Brenda Fassie

Up until her death in 2004, Brenda Fassie was perhaps the most controversial along with the best-known figure in township pop, having had a massive hit in 1985 with “Weekend Special” before embarking on a decade of high living that will have place the Rolling Stones to shame.

Ever outspoken, she admitted to abusing drugs, marriage problems and more, yet her keen following never quite deserted her, and in 1997 she made a significant comeback with your ex album “Memeza” (meaning “Shout”), which spawned the huge hit “Vulindlela” (“Clear the path” or “Make way”). Inspite of the controversy very often appeared to dog her career, Fassie remained a central decide the development of township pop.


In the 1990s, a new kind of township music, kwaito, grabbed the attention along with the hearts of South Africa’s black youth. Just like township “bubblegum” had utilized American disco, so kwaito put an African spin around the international dance music from the 1990s, a genre loosely referred to as house music. Young South African music-makers gave it a homemade twist but echoes of hip-hop and rap.

Music artists like Mdu, Mandoza, Arthur, Chiskop and Zola, as an illustration – rose to prominence. Groups including Bongo Maffin, Abashante, Boom Shaka and TKZee developed huge followings. Key recordings for example TKZee’s “Halloween”, Mdu’s “Mazola”, Chiskop’s “Claimer”, Boom Shaka’s “It’s About Time” and Trompies’s “Madibuseng” swept the charts and dominated youth-orientated stereo for example the wildly successful Yfm.

South African hip-hop

During the early 2000s, a revolution in South African music was occurring – a hip-hop music culture was occurring with youth stations like Yfm within the fore-front to promote this genre. Raw talents like Tuks, Zubz, Hip-Hop Pantsula, Pro-Kid, Zulu Boy and Proverb required the challenge combine the thumping beats individuals hip-hop blended with Afro-pop music. The rhyming is conducted mostly in indigenous languages for example isiZulu, Setswana and Sesotho.

South African Nasty C has left an indelible mark on the music scene and also this genre is maintaining growth with artists such as Tuks scooping up music awards and continuing to offer copies in thousands.

New Afrikaans music

Recent years since democracy have experienced the re-emergence of other Afrikaans music, with young Afrikaners reclaiming and taking pride in the culture without any the guilt of apartheid – the “Karen Zoid generation”. Often eccentric and quirky, this music ranges from the rough and raw sound of Fokofpolisiekar (which translates as “f**k off police car”) towards the classic rock of Arno Carstens and also the gentler music Chris Chameleon.