South African music


In 1897, Enoch Sontonga, then a teacher,
composed the hymn Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika
(God Bless Africa), which was later
adopted by the liberation movement and,
after 1994, became part of the national
anthem of a democratic 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, giving it the unmistakable flavour of the country.

Sections in this article:


In the Dutch colonial era, from 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, a guitar with three or four strings, and used it to blend Khoi and Western folk songs. They also used the mamokhorong, an indigenous single-string violin, in their own music-making and 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 and other functions, a tradition that continued into the era of British domination after 1806.

Coloured bands of musicians began parading through the streets of Cape Town in the early 1820s, a tradition that was given added impetus by the travelling minstrel shows of the 1880s and has continued to the present day with the minstrel carnival held in Cape Town every New Year.

Missionaries and choirs

The penetration of missionaries into the interior over the succeeding centuries also had a profound influence on South African musical styles. In 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, then a teacher, composed the hymn Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa), which was later adopted by the liberation movement and, after 1994, became part of the national anthem of a democratic South Africa.

The influence of both missionary music and American spirituals spurred a gospel movement remains strong. Drawing on the traditions of indigenous faiths such as the Zion Christian Church, it has exponents whose styles range from the more traditional to the pop-infused sounds of present day gospel singers such as Rebecca Malope and Lundi Tyamara. Gospel, in its many forms, is one of South Africa’s best-selling genres, with artists regularly achieving of gold and platinum sales.

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

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

The development of a black urban proletariat and the movement of many black workers to the mines in the 1800s meant that differing regional traditional folk music met and began to flow into one another. Western instruments were used to adapt rural songs, which in turn started to influence the development of new hybrid modes of music-making (as well as dances) in the developing urban centres.

Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds in
1941. From left, Solomon Linda (soprano),
Gilbert Madondo (alto), Boy Sibiya (tenor),
Samuel Mlangeni (bass) and Owen
Skakane (bass). The Evening Birds’ 1939
hit Mbube has been reworked innumerable
times, most notably as Pete Seeger’s hit
Wimoweh and the international classic
The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
(Image: The International Library of
African Music at Rhodes University and
Veit Erlmann)


In the mid-1800s travelling minstrel shows began to visit South Africa. At first these minstrels were white performers in “black-face” but by the 1860s genuine black American minstrel troupes such as Orpheus McAdoo and the Virginia Jubilee Singers began to tour South Africa influencing locals to form similar choirs.

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

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


In the early 20th century, new forms of hybrid music began to arise among the increasingly urbanised black population of mining centres such as Johannesburg.

Marabi, a keyboard style of music played on pedal organs, became popular in the ghettos of the city. This new sound, basically intended to draw people into the shebeens (illegal taverns), had deep roots in the African tradition and smacked of influences of American ragtime and the blues. It used a few simple chords repeated in vamp patterns that could go on all night – the music 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 the white authorities and more sophisticated black listeners frowned upon it, much as jazz was denigrated as a temptation to vice in its early years in the United States.

But the lilting melodies and loping rhythms of marabi found their way into the sounds of the bigger dance bands such as the Jazz Maniacs, the Merry Blackbirds and the Jazz Revellers. These bands achieved considerable fame in the 1930s and 1940s, winning huge audiences among both black and white South Africans. Over the succeeding decades, the marabi-swing style developed into early mbaqanga, the most distinctive form of South African jazz, which in turn helped create the more populist township forms of the 1980s.

With the introduction of broadcast radio for black listeners and the growth of an indigenous recording industry, marabi gained immense popularity from the 1930s onward. Soon there were schools teaching the various 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”, as well as “crooning, tap dancing and ragging”.

A truly indigenous South African musical language was being born


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

Named for the Zulu word meaning “climb on” – and a reference to police vans, known as “kwela-kwela” in township slang – kwela music was taken up by street performers in the shanty towns.

The instrument of kwela was the pennywhistle, which was both cheap and simple and could be used either solo or in an ensemble.

Its popularity was perhaps because flutes of different kinds had long been traditional instruments among the peoples of northern South Africa; the pennywhistle thus enabled the swift adaptation of folk tunes into the new marabi-inflected idiom.

Lemmy Mabaso, one of the famous pennywhistle stars, 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 British bandleader Ted Heath.

Miriam Makeba in 1955.
(Image © Jürgen Schadebergmarabi)

Mbaqanga jazz

Propelled in part by the hunger of the vast urban proletariat for entertainment, various strains of South African music were pouring themselves into an exciting melting pot of ideas and forms by the middle of the 1950s.

A key area in this growth was the township of Sophiatown, in Johannesburg, which had grown since the 1930s into a seething cauldron of the new urban lifestyles of black city dwellers. The suburb attracted the most adventurous performers of the new musical forms and became a hotbed of the rapidly developing black musical culture.

The old strains of marabi and kwela had begun to coalesce into what is broadly known as mbaqanga, a form of African-inflected jazz. Singing stars such as Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe and Letta Mbulu gained fanatical followings.

The cyclic structure of marabi met with traditional dance styles such as the Zulu indlamu, with a heavy dollop of American big band swing thrown on top. The indlamu tendency crystallised into the “African stomp” style, giving a notably African rhythmic impulse to the music and making it quite irresistible to its new audiences.

It is during this time that the new black culture developed a sassy style of its own, partly through the influence of American movies and the glamour attached to the flamboyant gangsters who were an integral part of Sophiatown.

Eventually the white Nationalist government brought this vital era to an end, forcibly removing the inhabitants of Sophiatown to townships such as Soweto, outside Johannesburg, in 1960. Sophiatown was razed and the white suburb of Triomf built in its place.

Jonas Qwangwa.
(Image © Jürgen Schadebergmbaqanga)

The new jazz

The cross-cultural influences that had been brewed in Sophiatown continued to inspire musicians of all races in the years that followed. Just as American ragtime and swing had inspired earlier jazz forms, so the new post-war American style of bebop had begun to filter through to South African musicians.

In 1955, 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 such as Jazz at the Odin, at a local cinema, and from such meetings grew South Africa’s first bebop band, the highly important and influential Jazz Epistles, whose earliest membership was a roll-call of musicians destined 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 among them.

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

King Kong, a jazz-opera telling the tale of black South African boxer Ezekiel Dlamini, became a hit, and toured overseas. Leading South African musicians such as Miriam Makeba, the Manhattan Brothers and Kippie Moeketsi starred in the show; many found the freedom outside the country an irresistible lure, and remained in exile there.

As the apartheid regime increased its power, political repression in South Africa began in earnest. In the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960 and the subsequent State of Emergency and mass arrests, bannings and trials of activists challenging apartheid laws, more and more musicians found it necessary to leave the country. For several decades, many of the most adventurous strains in South African music were pursued outside the country.

Jazz in exile

Cover of the 1965 Dollar Brand (later
Abdullah Ibrahim) album Anatomy of a
South African Village.

Abdullah Ibrahim

Abdullah Ibrahim is undoubtedly the towering figure in South African music, a man who brought together all its traditions with a deeply felt understanding of American jazz, from the orchestral richness of Duke Ellington’s compositions for big band to the groundbreaking innovations of Ornette Coleman and 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 New York, Ibrahim absorbed the influence of the early 1960s avant-garde, which was then pioneering new open-ended forms of spontaneous composition.

Over the next four decades, Ibrahim developed his own distinctive style, slipping back into South Africa in the mid-1970s to make a series of seminal recordings with the cream of Cape jazz players (Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen, for instance), which included his masterpiece, “Mannenberg”, one of the greatest South African compositions ever.

Ibrahim’s extensive oeuvre has continued to expand the South African musical palette, as he has worked as a solo performer (in mesmerising unbroken concerts that echo the unstoppable impetus of the old marabi performers), with trios and quartets, with larger orchestral units, and, since his triumphant return to South Africa in the early 1990s, with symphony orchestras. He has also founded a school for South African musicians in Cape Town.

Hugh Masekela

Ibrahim’s old collaborator, the trumpeter Hugh Masekela, also had a glittering career outside South Africa. Initially inspired in his musical growth by Trevor Huddlestonnewjazz – a British priest working in the townships who financed the musician’s first trumpet – Masekela played his way through the vibrant Sophiatown scene and to Britain with King Kong, to find himself in New York in the early 1960s. He had hits in the United States with the poppy jazz tunes “Up, Up and Away” and “Grazin’ in the Grass”.

A renewed interest in his African roots led him to collaborate with West and Central African musicians, and finally to reconnect with South African players when he set up a mobile studio in Botswana, just over the South African border, in the 1980s. Here he reabsorbed and reused mbaqanga modes, a style he has continued to use since his return to South Africa in the early 1990s.

Masekela has continued to work with young artists like Thandiswa Mazwai, Zubz and Jah Seed, fusing Afro-pop sounds with jazz tunes. He recently went on a tour of Canada and the United States in support of the live recording Hugh Masekela: Live at the Market Theatre.

The Blue Notes

Also pursuing the expansion of South African jazz into new realms, though in Britain, was the band the Blue Notes. Having made a name for themselves in South Africa in the early 1960s, this dymanic, adventurous group, led by pianist Chris MacGregor, left for Britain in the late 1960s and stayed there. The other members of the band, Dudu Pukwana, Mongezi Feza, Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo, contributed richly to the sound of this ever-evolving ensemble, and also recorded significant solo material.

The Blue Notes, and later MacGregor bands such as Brotherhood of Breath, as well as the Pukwana and Moholo bands, became an essential part of the European jazz avant-garde, carrying the African influence far beyond these shores. Sadly, all the original members of the Blue Notes, except Louis Moholo, died in exile.

Jazz at home

Philip Tabane in 1964.
(Image: Jabula Musicjazzhome)

Philip Tabane

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

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

From the early 1960s until today, Tabane has produced some of South Africa’s most interesting and adventurous sounds, though a relatively conservative and commercially orientated local recording industry has meant that he has been sadly under-recorded. Internationally acclaimed, Tabane has toured extensively in Europe and the United States, performing at the Apollo Theatre in New York and the Montreaux Jazz Festival, among others.

Long after democracy, Tabane has helped shape and inspire the musical careers of many musicians in South Africa. Tabane has also done collaborations with house music group Revolution.

Playing through repression

Jazz continued to be played in South Africa during the years of severe repression, with groups such as the African Jazz Pioneers and singers such as Abigail Kubheka and Thandi Klaasen keeping alive the mbaqanga-jazz tradition that had enlivened Sophiatown. Cape jazzers such as Basil Coetzee, Robbie Jansen and Hotep Idris Galeta kept developing the infectious Cape style.

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

New directions

Others such as the band Tananas took the idea of instrumental music into the direction of what became known as “world music”, creating a sound that crosses borders with a mix of African, South American and 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 have taken the compositional and improvisatory elements of jazz in new directions, bringing them into contact with today’s contemporary sounds, as well as drawing on the oldest modes, to provide the country – and appreciative overseas audiences – with a living, growing South African jazz tradition.

More recently, a blend of contemporary and jazz music has taken South 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 the 1960s onward, more and more white rockers and pop groups appeared to appeal to white audiences in a segregated South Africa.

Four Jacks and a Jill

Among the most successful bands from South Africa is Four Jacks and a Jill, who had their first number one hit with “Timothy” in 1967. Within the next year, they had an international hit on their hands with “Master Jack”, which reached number eight in the US and number one in Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia. During the 1970s they toured Britain, the US, Australia and other places, including Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

After facing persecution by conservative elements and many line-up changes, the original pair at the heart of the band, Clive Harding and Glenys Lynne, eventually disbanded the group in 1983 when they became reborn Christians.

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

Despite being seen as hippies who threatened the very progress of civilisation Freedom’s Children travelled the country, building up a solid fan base among the 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
the stage like confetti,” the article reads,
“and at least one girl ‘lost’ her dress.”

In the mid-1970s, the “boy band” hit South Africa in the form of Rabbitt, four young men who kicked off their career with a cover of a Jethro Tull song and, in a singularly daring move, posed naked on their second album cover (“A Croak and a Grunt in the Night”).

Imaginatively managed by producer-impresario Patric van Blerk, Rabbitt brought the teen pop market of South Africa to a pitch of Beatles-like hysteria before disbanding in 1977. Member Trevor Rabinpoprock went on to a successful career in the US, working as a session musician in top rock groups as well as producing movie soundtracks.

A change in mood

As the 1970s drew to a close, however, the mood began to change and the echoes of Britain’s angry working-class punk movement began to reach South Africa.

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

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

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

Bands such as the Gereformeerde Blues Band and singers such as Koos Kombuis were later to gain an enthusiastic following.

At the same time, Phillips produced superbly bluesy rock with his band the Cherry-Faced Lurchers. A vibrant underground rock scene, featuring bands such as the Softees, the Aeroplanes, Bright Blue and the Dynamics, kept rebellious young white South Africans “jolling” through the 1980s.

Crossing over

At the same time, a crossover was beginning to happen between black and white musicians.

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

With often a more pop-driven style, bands such as 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.

Moving on

The white pop/rock tradition has continued up to the present in South Africa, growing ever bigger and more diverse. Bands such as the Springbok Nude Girls, possibly the finest South African rock band of the 1990s, spearheaded a drive into harder, guitar-driven sounds, while groups such as the acclaimed Fetish began to experiment with the new electronic palette made available by computers and sampling.

Crossover band Freshlyground.

Crossover music is still alive and well in the new millennium, with the best example possibly the band Freshlyground, who burst onto the scene in 2002. Freshlyground add violin and flute to the familiar band instrumentation of bass, drums, keys and guitar, and sometimes throw in the mbira, a traditional African “thumb piano”, and sax. Their song “Doo Bee Doo”, from the 2005 album Nomvula, has become something of a happy anthem for a new South Africa untroubled by its difficult past. The album itself sold 150 000 copies.

Today there is also an exciting pop-rock-electronic scene across South Africa, with bands such as Prime Circle – one of the greatest South African rock bands, who achieved sales in excess of 25 000 units for their debut album “Hello Crazy World” – as well as Wonderboom, the Parlotones, the Narrow, Bell Jar and many more setting up 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 during the 1980s, the black townships were held in thrall by what came to be called “bubblegum” – bright, light dance pop influenced by American disco as much as by the heritage of mbaqanga.

Forebears of this style were groups such as the Soul Brothers, who had massive hits with their soulful pop, while artists such as Brenda Fassie, Chicco Twala and Yvonne Chaka Chaka drew huge audiences for their brand of township dance music.

Brenda Fassie’s 1991 album included the
hit song “Black President”, dedicated to
Nelson Mandela, who had been released
from jail only 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 and the best-known figure in township pop, having had a huge hit in 1985 with “Weekend Special” before embarking on a decade of high living that would have put the Rolling Stones to shame.

Ever outspoken, she admitted to drug addiction, marriage problems and more, yet her keen following never quite deserted her, and in 1997 she made a significant comeback with her album “Memeza” (meaning “Shout”), which spawned the huge hit “Vulindlela” (“Clear the path” or “Make way”). Despite the controversy that always seemed to dog her career, Fassie remained a central figure in the development of township pop.


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

Music artists like Mdu, Mandoza, Arthur, Chiskop and Zola, for instance – rose to prominence. Groups such as Bongo Maffin, Abashante, Boom Shaka and TKZee developed huge followings. Key recordings such as 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 radio stations such as the wildly successful Yfm.

South African hip-hop

In the early 2000s, a revolution in South African music was taking place – a hip-hop music culture was taking place with youth stations like Yfm in the fore-front in promoting this genre. Raw talents like Tuks, Zubz, Hip-Hop Pantsula, Pro-Kid, Zulu Boy and Proverb took up the challenge to blend the thumping beats of US hip-hop blended with Afro-pop music. The rhyming is done mostly in indigenous languages such as isiZulu, Setswana and Sesotho.

South African hip-hop has left an indelible mark on the music scene and this genre continues to grow with artists such as Tuks scooping up music awards and continuing to sell copies in tens of thousands.

New Afrikaans music

The years since democracy have seen the re-emergence of alternative Afrikaans music, with young Afrikaners reclaiming and taking pride in a culture free of 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”) to the classic rock of Arno Carstens and the gentler music Chris Chameleon.

More mainstream Afrikaans music is also widely popular, and includes artists such as Dozi, Steve Hofmeyer, Patricia Lewis, Bok van Blerk, Theuns Jordaan and Kurt Darren.

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