Saturday, 16 October 2010

Kwela’s diverse attractions and identities

Kwela music managed to reach across racial and cultural boundaries a lot more than most other South African music forms have in the last fifty years. It also evolved to be played by different musicians for different audiences. In the stream of morphing styles, Kwela drew on American swing and local marabi, and formed the future of what was saxophone jive, electric jive and mbaqanga. Kwela music also had roots and strong resonances with Afrikaans folk music.

Any contemporary vinyl collector in South Africa cannot help but be struck by the huge diversity of kwela music that can still be found. In a 2008 chapter "Kwela's White Audiences" in the book “Composing Apartheid” (Wits University Press) music researcher Lara Allen asks why it was that, in the increasingly repressive period of the 1950s, Kwela music was “appreciated by a number of different identity groups that crossed the racial categories on which apartheid was premised”.

Allen goes on to argue that there were two broad groupings of white audiences - those “who consciously patronised the genre as a statement about their identity, and those who appreciated kwela for its ability to give them pleasure, usually as a dance music.”

Young white rock 'n' rollers as well as Indian youth – mostly in and around Johannesburg - in the late 1950s picked up on the Kwela craze, sometimes leading to racially separated groups of people dancing simultaneously to Spokes Mashiyane and his band playing at Zoo Lake on Sundays. Complaints resulted in the kwela bands being forced to move to another section in the park. Allen quotes from The World newspaper (30 August 1958) that “after the Africans had pleaded with them (the white fans) not to come dancing in the African section of the grounds as this would cause trouble with the authorities, the white teenagers left voluntarily”.

By 1963 the World (July 1st) reports: “A little distance from the gambling, cooking and praying set is reserved a patch of ground for Spokes Mashiyane and his band … He draws a regular crowd of Africans and Whites. There is jiving, twisting and all the latest dances from the townships. Police cars zoom past unconcerned.”

This blog post is a potted illustration of some of the "other" strands of Kwela music that emerged in South Africa. We wait for Lara Allen's forthcoming book to provide the full picture. Examples of "mainstream" Kwela have already been posted on this blog here and here and here and here and here.

Another strand in this rich history of Kwela is what is called the “coloured” musical culture with a form of music called quela that has boeremusiek vastrap and samba influences. An example of the roots of quela is the Madala Kwela (RS / MF), and Jubilee Vastrap (RS / MF) by Artie Davis and Nicky Parker’s Band.

A more recent Cape Jazz incorporation of Kwela is Robbie Jansen’s 1989 “Bo-Kaap Kwela” (RS / MF).

All of these different kwela’s became fairly quickly fused and confused. Certainly confusing to today’s audience would be this one - “Klopse Kwela”  (RS / MF) on the late 1950s album “Let’s Go Gay” by Charl Segal and his Rhythm. See the album cover picture above.

A good example of boeremusiek's incorporation of the pennywhistle and kwela is contained in this 1961 78rpm by Fred Wooldridge en Sy Pennie Fluitjie - the two tracks: "Bosveld Vastrap and Pennie Fluitjie Kwela" can be found here (RS / MF). This 78rpm recording was found in Windhoek earlier this month - it came from the estate of  a German family. It is a curiousity as to why this recording was issued on 78rpm in 1961, when, in 1958, labels such as Gallo and Decca succesfully released a 33rpm Kwela recording of the Solven Whistlers targeted at white audiences. Something New in Africa was the first black South African music released in the country on 33rpm LP.

Kwela music was also co-opted and used to narrate conservative images of “happy primitives”, while others weaved it into parodies and comedy (Al Debbo) that was at best narrow in its tolerance or appreciation of difference. Have a listen to Kwela Duffy and the fanagalo song. Download link at bottom of this post.

Kwela music was reinterpreted – with both rock ‘n’ rollers and boeremusiek fans “able to identify elements in kwela with their own music to dance their own dances to the new genre” … most (mis)recognised themselves in not seeing the subversive significances of their innocent identification. Allen concludes: "For the most part the politics of pleasure overrode the politics of identification, at least for kwela audiences … The conflicts and contradictions raised by musical appreciation across the race barrier, the confusion of resistance against racial segregation with youth rebellion, and the fusion of pleasure and identification, all suggest that some music was capable of decomposing apartheid even at its genesis”.

The word “kwela” also became used to mean “get in” or “get up” and was used by white policemen when they arrested black people without passes and telling them to get into the van. Hence, the retro-parody 2004 song by band Mafikizolo with Hugh Masekela – “Kwela Kwela”. (RS / MF)  "There are the police they are coming mother – kwela kwela”. The song goes on to say we are no longer afraid of the police, we will call Sisulu and Mandela to our defence.

Kwela with Duffy RS / MF


  1. Thanks for this great article and for sharing the soundfiles. This blog has posted so much truly wonderful music and some very informative articles this year.


  2. Hi, I'm a big fan of The Green Arrows and was wondering if you have this Zimbabwe compilation called "Harare Hits" I've been searching for it for a long time with no luck (dead links). If you have it can you please share? I really want to hear the Zexie Manatsa songs on it.
    Thank You.

  3. Hi Ekassa. Yes we got a message that you were looking for that collection of tracks. We have this scheduled for later this week so stay tuned.


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