Kwela

From Academic Kids

Kwela is a happy, often pennywhistle based, street music from southern Africa with jazzy underpinnings. It evolved from the marabi sound and brought South African music to international prominence in the 1950s.

The music is rooted in Africa, but later adaptations of this and many other African folk idioms have permeated western music (listen to "Gracelands" by Paul Simon) and give modern South African music, particularly jazz, much of its distinctive sound and lilting swagger.

So why the pennywhistle? An obvious attraction was being cheap and portable, but it also lent itself as a solo or an ensemble instrument. Maybe the popularity of the pennywhistle was based on the fact that flutes of different kinds had long been traditional instruments among the peoples of the more northerly parts of South Africa, and the pennywhistle thus enabled the swift adaptation of folk tunes into the new marabi-influenced music.

The word "kwela" is taken from the Zulu for "get up", though in township slang it also referred to the police vans, the "kwela-kwela". It could be an invitation to join the dance as well as serving as a warning! It is said that the young men who played the pennywhistle on street corners also acted as lookouts to warn those enjoying themselves in the shebeens of the arrival of the police.

Artists such as Lemmy Mabaso were renowned for their pennywhistle skills, and Spokes Mashiyane was maybe most prominent with his kwela pennywhistle tunes.

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