South African Music: Origin & History

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever heard the song ''The Lion Sleeps Tonight''? Did you know it's connected to South African music? In this lesson, explore the complex origins and history of South African music.

What Is South African Music?

Do you have a favorite type of music? Where does it come from? In many places, music styles develop from multiple influences. This is certainly true of music from South Africa.

South African music reflects a complex history of African and Western cultures, and of conflict and perseverance.

The country of South Africa sits at the very southern end of the African continent. It's home to many indigenous cultures. Indigenous means the people who are originally from that geographic location.

Among many indigenous South African cultures are the Khoisan (a group made of two peoples, the Khoi and the San), who sang polyphonic chants in which multiple independent melodies are sung at the same time. Another people, the KwaXhosa (also made up of several ethnic groups), have strong oral musical traditions, with women performing songs and dances for ceremonies. Another culture, the Zulu, use a cappella singing. The term a cappella means singing without any instrumental accompaniment. Many of these cultures also use a variety of musical instruments like drums, rattles, and other percussions, as well as strings and some winds like flutes.

South African music includes traditions from Zulu culture
Zulu musicians

Origins of South African Music

Into this mix of indigenous African cultures came a European power.

Beginning in the 1600s, the Dutch colonized South Africa, arriving in increasing numbers to live and work, and not interacting easily with the indigenous populations. They also forcibly brought slaves from other parts of Africa to South Africa to work their farms and plantations. In terms of music, the Dutch formed instrumental bands like those they had known in Europe, with brass and wind instruments. Later, European missionaries also arrived in South Africa, bringing Western Christian religion and musical styles like choral singing with them. By the 1800s, these elements were filtering into more traditional South African musical styles.

European influences like wind bands also filtered into South African music. This is a Salvation Army band from South Africa
South African Salvation Army band

By the early 20th century, more and more restrictions were placed on the indigenous populations. Many Africans were forced into specific areas of cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town. These areas, called townships, often sat on the edge of urban centers. In reality, they were ghettos, economically disadvantaged areas where life was difficult and lacked many of the resources available to the white populations. But in the townships, African musical styles blended and mixed with Western influences like choral music and jazz. The result was a rich musical style unique to South Africa.

Styles of South African Music

South African music includes many styles, and we can't discuss them all. But let's explore a few important ones.

In the 1920s, in the townships around Johannesburg, a style of music developed called marabi. It mixed African sounds from cultures like the Xhosa and Zulu with Western jazz. Marabi, played on a keyboard-like piano and a variety of percussions, was performed in illegal bars and nightclubs where people gathered. It proved influential and played a role in the development of two later musical styles, kwela and mbaqanga.

Kwela developed around the 1940s as urban music, performed by street musicians who often had to outrun the police who constantly tried to stop them. Based on marabi, jazz, and African vocal music from the Zulu, kwela featured prominent use of the penny whistle, an inexpensive type of flute, as well as strings like the banjo. An upbeat music with a happy sound, kwela has a rhythmic foundation and often features four-bar repeated themes.

Like kwela, the music style called mbaqanga also developed from marabi. Another product of the African townships, mbaqanga mixes Big Band Swing and jazz with a Zulu influence. It developed in the 1960s and included more electric instruments and a funkier sound. But it also encouraged whites and blacks to intermingle, and so the government completely destroyed several townships where it was played.

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