Music of South Africa

Southern African music
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The South African music scene includes both popular (jive) and folk forms. Pop styles are based on two major sources, Zulu a cappella singing and harmonic mbaqanga. South Africa is very diverse, with many native African ethnic groups as well as European and Indian peoples.


Early South African music

Christian missions provided the first organized musical training in the country, bringing to light many of the modern country's earliest musicians, including Enoch Sontonga, who wrote the national anthem Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. By the end of the 19th century, South African cities like Cape Town were large enough to attract foreign musicians, especially American ragtime players. African American spirituals were popularized in the 1890s by Orpheus McAdoo's Jubilee Singers.

Birth of South African popular music: Marabi

In the early 20th century, governmental restrictions on blacks increased, including a nightly curfew which kept the night life in Johannesburg relatively small for a city of its size (then the largest city south of the Sahara). Marabi, a style from the slums of Johannesburg, was popular.

Marabi was played on pianos with accompaniment from pebble-filled cans, often in shebeens, establishments that illegally served alcohol to blacks. By the 1930s, however, marabi had incorporated new instruments, guitars, concertinas and banjos, and new styles of marabi had sprung up. Among these were a marabi/swing fusion called African jazz and jive, a generic term for any popular marabi style.

South African popular music began in 1912 with the first commercial recordings, but only began booming after 1930 when Eric Gallo's Brunswick Gramophone House sent several South African musicians to London to record for Singer Records. Gallo went on to begin producing music in South Africa, beginning in 1933.


In the early 20th century, Zionist churches spread across South Africa. They incorporated African musical elements into their worship, thus inventing South African gospel music.

1930s: A cappella

The 1930s also saw the spread of Zulu a cappella singing from the Natal area to much of South Africa. The style's popularity, finally producing a major star in 1939 with Solomon Linda's Original Evening Birds, whose "Mbube" was probably the first African recording to sell more than 100,000 copies. It also provided the basis for two further American pop hits, "The Wavers' "Wimoweh" (1951) and The Tokens' "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" (1961). Linda's innovations and format were copied, forming the basis for mbube style. From the late 1940s to the 1960s, a harsh, strident form called isikhwela jo was popular, though national interest waned in the 50s until Radio Zulu began broadcasting across Natal, Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

Afrikaans music

Afrikaans music was primarily Dutch in character, along with French and German influences, in the early 20th century. Zydeco-type string bands led by a concertina were popular, as were elements of American country music, especially Jim Reeves. Melodramatic and sentimental songs called trane trekkers (tear jerkers) were especially common.

After World War I, Afrikaner nationalism spread and musicians like accordionist Nico Carstens were popular.

1950s: Bantu Radio and pennywhistle

By the 1950s, the music industry had diversified greatly, and included several major labels. In 1962, the South African government launched a development programme for Bantu Radio in order to foster separate development and encourage independence for the Bantustans. Though the government had expected Bantu Radio to play folk music, African music had developed into numerous pop genres, and the nascent recording studios used radio to push their pop stars. The new focus on radio led to a government crackdown on lyrics, censoring songs which were considered a "public hazard".

The first major style of South African popular music to emerge was pennywhistle jive. Black cattle-herders had long played a three-holed reed flute, adopting a six-holed flute when they moved to the cities. Willard Cele is usually credited with creating pennywhistle by placing the six-holed flute between his teeth at an angle. Cele spawned a legion of imitators and fans, especially after appearing in the 1951 film The Magic Garden.

Groups of flautists played on the streets of South African cities in the 1950s, many of them in white areas, where police would arrest them for creating a public disturbance. Some young whites were attracted to the music, and came to be known as ducktails, rebellious juvenile delinquents who called the flute music kwela. Pennywhistle also spread outside of South Africa, through migrant workers, to Lesotho, Swaziland and most importantly Malawi.

In spite of pennwhistle's popularity, there was little commercial recording until 1954, when Spokes Mashiyane's "Ace Blues" became the biggest African hit of the year and launched pennywhistle as a mainstream genre. More stars emerged, including Sparks Nyembe, Jerry Mlotshwa, Abia Temba and Black Mambazo, whose 1957 "Tom Hark" was another big hit, both at home and in the United Kingdom. Mashiyane continued his innovation, however, ending the pennywhistle boom he had begun with "Big Joe Special" in 1958, which featured a saxophone and changed South African popular music.


Jazz had been popular in South Africa before the 1950s, especially swing music. Cape Province was a hotbed for South African jazz bands at the time, but Johannesburg became the capital for South African jazz. The city boasted alumni like Jazz Maniacs and Harlem Swingsters, and musicians like Ellison Temba, Elijah Nkanyane, Ntemi Piliso, Wilson Silgee and Isaac Nkosi.

Female jazz vocalists were particularly popular in South Africa in the 40s and 50s, with Dolly Rathebe being the first star. She also starred in the first African feature film, 1948's Jim Comes to Jo'burg. Rathebe was followed by other singers, including Dorothy Masuka and, most famously, Miriam Makeba. Male singers were rarer, and included the Manhattan Brothers and the African Inkspots.

Miriam Makeba was a central figure in the African jazz scene throughout the 1950s, starring in King Kong, for example, a musical crossover called a "jazz opera" by the show's promoters. By the early 1960s, she was an international star and brought attention to South African apartheid. While abroad, the government revoked her right of return and she moved to the United States. There, she married Stokely Carmichael (of the Black Panthers) but was hounded by authorities and eventually left for Guinea. Makeba was far from the only jazz musician to flee South Africa; many stayed in the US or UK following concerts, and never returned to South Africa.

1960s: Foreign influences and diversification

By the 1960s, the saxophone was commonplace in jive music. This meant that white fans were unable to see their favorite musicians perform, because they were restricted to playing in the townships. The genre was called sax jive, and later mbaqanga. Mbaqanga literally means dumpling but implies home-made and was coined by Michael Xaba, a jazz saxophonist who did not like the new style.

The early 1960s also saw performers like Joseph Makwela and Marks Mankwane add electric instruments and a funkier, more African sound to the music, evolving into a style called mqashiyo. In the 60s, a smooth form of mbube called cothoza mfana developed, led by the King Star Brothers, who invented iscathamiya style mbube by the end of the decade.

Mbaqanga developed vocal harmonies during the 1950s when groups like The Skylarks and the Manhattan Brothers began copying American vocal bands, mostly doo wop. Rather than African American four part harmonies, however, South African bands used five parts. The Dark City Sisters were the most popular vocal group in the early 1960s, known for their sweet style. Aaron Jack Lerole of Black Mambazo added groaning male vocals to the female harmonies, later being replaced by Simon 'Mahlathini' Nkabinde, who has become perhaps the most influential and well-known South African singer of the 20th century.

The 1960s also saw the rise of soul music from the United States. Singers like Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge were especially popular, and inspired South African performers to enter the field with an organ, a bass-and-drum rhythm section and an electric guitar.

Jazz in the 1960s split into two fields. Popular dance bands like the Elite Swingsters were popular, while avant-garde jazz inspired by the work of John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk and Sonny Rollins was also common. The latter field of musicians included prominent activists and thinkers, including Hugh Masekela, Dollar Brand, Kippie Moeketski and Jonas Gwangwa. In 1959, American pianist John Mehegan organized a recording session using many of the most prominent South African jazz musicians, resoluting in the first two African jazz LPs. The following year saw the Cold Castle National Jazz Festival, which brought additional attention to South African jazz. Cold Castle became an annual event for a few year, and brought out more musicians, especially Dudu Pukwana, Gideon Nxumalo and Chris McGregor. The 1963 festival produced an LP called Jazz The African Sound, but government oppression soon ended the jazz scene. Again, many musicians emigrated to the UK or other countries.

1970s: Return to tradition

By the 1970s, only a few long-standing vocal mqashiyo groups were well-known, with the only new groups finding success with an all-male line-up. Abafana Maseqhudeni and Boyoyo Boys were perhaps the biggest new stars of this period.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo arose in the 1970s, becoming perhaps the biggest stars in South Africa's history, reforming the sound of Zulu a cappella. Their first album was 1973's Amabutho, which was also the first gold record. Though Ladysmith Black Mambazo remained popular throughout the next few decades, few of the band's imitators succeeded at all, especially after the mid-1980s, when Paul Simon, an American musician, included Ladysmith Black Mambazo on his extremely popular Graceland album.

With progressive jazz hindered by governmental suppression, marabi-styled dance bands rose to more critical prominence in the jazz world. The music became more complex and retained popularity, while progressive jazz produced only occasional hits, like Winston Ngozi's "Yakal Nkomo" and Dollar Brand's "Mannenburg".

Punk rock

During the punk rock boom of the late 1970s, South African bands like Wild Youth and Powerage (Powerage website ( gained a cult following, focused in Durban. In the 1980s, Johnny Clegg and Juluka helped fuse rock and roll with native Zulu folk musics. The same decade saw a resurgence in rock and roll bands like The Helicopters, Petit Cheval, Sterling and Tellinger.


In the middle of the 70s, American disco was imported to South Africa, and disco beats were added to soul music. In 1976, South African children rebelled en masse against apartheid and governmental authority, and a vibrant, youthful counterculture was created, with music as an integral part of its focus. Styles from before the 1970s fusion of disco and soul were not widely regarded, and were perceived as being sanctioned by the white oppressors. Few South African bands gained an lasting success during this period, however, with the exception of the Movers, who used marabi elements in their soul. The Movers were followed by the Soul Brothers, and the instrumental band The Cannibals, who soon began working with singer Jacob 'Mparanyana' Radebe. The coloured (not black) band Flames also gained a following, and soon contributed two members (Blondie Chaplin and Steve Fataar) to American band The Beach Boys. Harari arose in their place, eventually moving to an almost entirely rock and roll sound. One of Harari's members, Sipho Hotstix Mabuse became a superstar in the 1980s.


The 1980s brought popular attention on alternative rock bands like The Usual and Scooter's Union. Other musicians included Afrikaans alt-rockers Johannes Kerkorrel, Anton Goosen and Koos Kombuis; during this period, the only Afrikaner to achieve much mainstream fame was Bles Bridges, an imitator of American lounge singer Wayne Newton. Johnny Clegg got his start in the 1970s playing Zulu-traditional music with Sipho Mchunu, and became prominent as the only major white musician playing traditional black music, achieving success in France as "Le Zoulou Blanc" (The White Zulu).

The most lasting change, however, may have been the importation of reggae from Jamaica. Following international superstar Bob Marley's concert celebrating Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, reggae took hold across Africa. Lucky Dube was the first major South African artists; his style was modelled most closely on that of Peter Tosh. Into the 1990s, Lucky Dube was one of the best-selling artists in South African history, especially his 1990 album Slave. The 90s also saw Jamaican music move towards ragga, an electronic style that was more influential on kwaito (South African hip hop music) than reggae.


Bubblegum is a form of pure South African pop music arose in the middle of the 1980s, distinctively based on vocals with overlapping call-and-response vocals. Electronic keyboards and synthesizers were commonplace. Dan Tshanda of the band Splash was the first major bubblegum star, followed by Chicco Twala. Twala introduced some politically-oriented lyrics, such as "We Miss You Manelo" (a coded tribute to Nelson Mandela) and "Papa Stop the War", a collaboration with Mzwakhe Mbuli.

The late 1980s saw the rise of Yvonne Chaka Chaka, beginning with her 1984 hit "I'm in Love With a DJ", which was the first major hit for bubblegum. Her popularity rose into the 1990s, especially across the rest of Africa and into Europe. Chaka Chaka's first major rival was Brenda Fassi, whose popularity began with 1993's Amagents; since becoming embroiled in numerous scandals as well as drug problems before her death in 2004. Jabu Khanyile's Bayete and teen heart-throb Ringo have also become very popular.

1990s: Kwaito

In 1994, South African media was liberalized and new musical styles arose. Prophets of Da Cape became known as a premier hip hop crew, though a South Africanized style of hip hop known as kwaito soon replaced actual hip hop groups. In kwaito, synthesizers and other electronic instruments are common, and slow jams adopted from Chicago house musicians like The Fingers, Tony Humphries and Robert Owen are also standard. Stars of kwaito include Trompies, Bongo Maffin and Boom Shaka.


The biggest star of 1990s gospel was Rebecca Malope, whose 1995 album Shwele Baba was extremely popular. More recent performers include Lusanda Spiritual Group, Amododana Asa Wesile, Vuyu Mokoena and IPCC.

Neo-traditional music

Traditionally styled music is generally appellated as "Sotho-traditional" or "Zulu-traditional", and has been an important part of the South African music business since the 1930s. Vocal and concertina records were released with a call-and-response style and a concertina used as a counterpoint to the lead vocal. Following World War 1, cheap imported concertinas arrived in South Africa, especially the Italian brand bastari.


The Sotho musician Tshwatla Makala was the first traditional musician to achieve widespread commercial success. He helped to set the stage for the subsequent rise of Latsema Matsela's band, Basotho Dihoba, which used styles from his native Lesotho to develop a genre called mohabelo.

By the 1970s, the concertina of Sotho-traditional music was replaced with an accordion and an electric backing band. This wave of neo-traditional performers was led by Tau Oa Matsheha.


The Zulu people adopted the guitar following its introduction by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and was locally and cheaply made by the 1930s. John Bhengu was the first major Zulu guitarist, earning a reputation in 1950s Durban for his unique ukupika style of picking (as opposed to traditional strumming). Bhengu's song format, which includes an instrumental introduction (izihlabo), a melody and spoken praise (ukubonga) for a clan or family, was widely used for a long time in Zulu-traditional music. Bhengu, however, switched to the electric guitar in the late 1960s and began recording as "Phuzushukela". His popularity exploded, and Zulu-traditional music entered a boom.

Since the 1970s, the concertina has returned to Zulu-traditional music, while diverse influences from pop music and drum and bass were added. Vusi Ximba's Siyakudamisa (1992) was perhaps the most memorable Zulu-traditional album of the later 20th century, and drew controversy for racy, comedic lyrics.


Tsonga (Shangaan)-traditional music was first recorded in the 1950s by Francisco Baloyi for Gallo, and showed a largely African style influenced by Latin rhythms. Mozambiquan musicians Fani Pfumo and Alexander Jafete became prominent studio performers in the 1950s and into the next decade, making a style called Portuguese Shangaan. In 1975, however, Mozambique became independent and a Shangaan radio station was opened by Radio Bantu, leading to the abandonment of Portuguese elements from this style.

More modern Tsonga bands, such as General MD Shirinda & the Gaza Sisters play a style called Tsonga disco, featuring a male lead vocalist backed by female singers, a guitar, keyboard or synth and disco rhythms. Thomas Chauke & the Shinyori Sisters (Tusk Records) have become probably the best-selling band of any neo-traditional style. The most popular Tsonga musician, however, was the pop singer Peta Teanet.


Pedi-traditional music is principally harepa and is based on the harp. The German autoharp arrived in South Africa in the 19th century, brought by Lutheran ministers proselytizing among the Pedi. Harepa has not achieved much mainstream success in South Africa, though there was a brief boom in the 1970s, led by Johannes Mohlala.


Venda traditional music was also recorded when the black music was being recognised, the late sixties and more significantly the late seventies, saw a boom in venda artists recording. this was mainly influenced by the launch of a venda radio station. artists like Irene Mawela, who in the sixties, was singing zulu and Sotho with the likes of mahotella queens and the sweet sixteens later turned the dark city sisters, was one artist that made a huge mark in traditional and contemporary venda music ( she boasts to her name the most successful album in venda music, with her 1983 eight track album "khanani yanga"). other artists include, Ramavhea, mundalamo, eric mukhese, adziambei band, who are still continuing with their successful run, after releasing another album recently, which was widely accepted. and many others.

List of South African musicians


  • Allingham, Rob. "Nation of Voice". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 638-657. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  • Mthembu-Salter, Gregory. "Spirit of Africa". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 658-659. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  • Allingham, Rob. "Hip Kings, Hip Queens". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 660-668. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0

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