The first major style of South African popular music to emerge was pennywhistle jive (later known as kwela). Kwela is a pennywhistle-based street music from southern Africa with jazzy underpinnings and a distinctive, skiffle-like beat. It evolved from the marabi sound and was one of the first indigenous popular music from South African music to enjoy commercial success and international prominence in the 1950s.
The music has its roots in the “marabi tradition” southern Africa, the music at times blended elements of rock ’n roll, blues, jazz and swing into a language of irresistibly catchy tunes ideal for dancing, and as a result generated significant cross-racial appeal. But later adaptations of this and many other African folk idioms have permeated Western music.
The most common explanation for the word “kwela” is that it is taken from the Zulu for “get up“, though in township slang it also referred to the police vans, the “kwela-kwela”. Thus, 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.
Kwela music was influenced by blending the music of Malawian immigrants to South Africa, together with the local South African sounds. In Chichewa, the word Kwela has a very similar meaning to the South African meaning: “to climb“. The music was popularised in South Africa and then brought to Malawi, where contemporary Malawian artists have also begun producing Kwela music.
In November 1958, the Singapore Times compared the rise of kwela with that of rock ’n roll and pondered whether this new style would supplant rock in popularity. (“Kwela and Rock ’n Roll”, Singapore Times, January 10th 1959) Indeed for a brief period, record executives seriously considered investing in the new craze as the next ‘big thing’ to follow the rock phenomenon.
By the end of the 1950s kwela LPs, EPs, 45s and 78s could be found in countries across the globe including the UK, USA, Argentina, Spain, France, Germany, Rhodesia and of course South Africa. It is from these varied sources (including many original South African 78 rpm recordings) in the Flat International archive that this chronological discography has been compiled.