Kwela is a jazzy instrumental style of music that was born on the streets of Johannesburg, in the black areas of Soweto and Sophiatown in the 1940s and 1950s. It remained popular through the 1960s until mbaquanga became more popular. The music is in general richly textured, uptempo, danceable, happy, light and distinctively African. The style was also sometimes called pata-pata. Predecessor styles are primarily marabi, but also tsaba-tsaba, and traditional Southern African music.

Its signature instrument is the penny whistle, "the simplest wind instrument invented" and no doubt one of the cheapest. A typical band line-up would be three penny whistles, accompanied by guitar, bass, and drums. The bass or even the guitar may be homemade, improvised from scraps of wood and wire. The single-string bass is an urban improvisation on the theme of traditional African plucked instruments.

Kwela was inspired by contemporary American jazz forms of the Swing period in Jazz history. It soon assimilated, however, African musical forms of various southern African regions, such as sinjonjo, vula matambo, saba saba, resulting in a novel and original blend of musical traits.
Special techniques were developed on musical instruments, for example an unusual oblique embouchure for playing the metal recorder-type flute, which marks the kwela-sound. Specific construction, tension and playing techniques also characterize the one-string bass which displays remote historical connections with the African ground-bow, although it was inspired by the bass in 1950s skiffle groups. Guitar playing techniques also deviate considerably from standard "classical" guitar playing, even in the number of strings.

Groups of ragamuffin Kwela musicians would travel from the townships to the city centers and play on the street corners. Most of these musicians were young teenagers and even some in their pre-teens. Kwela music soon became a national South African genre and the music industry quickly cashed in on the Kwela revolution. The music died out in the late '60's as a new form of amplified township music called Mbaqanga took over.

The derivation of the word is the verb kwela — to to climb up", "to rise", "mount", get into the swing of things; to get onto the bus or train in (Xhosa, Zulu and related Bantu languages)" Kwela- Kwela was slang for a police van at the time. Alternate spellings are khwela, quela, qwela, but these are rare.

The bandleader would call out kwela when the band started, and thus the music got that name.

Several factors led to the use of this word as a name for the music. Firstly, it was used in the fig. senses 'join in', 'get going', as a call to dancers or band members. Secondly, it was used in the slang word kwela-kwela (police van), which is to be heard in the spoken introduction to the 1956 recording 'Tom Hark', by Elias Lerole and his Zig-Zag Flutes; it may have been due to the popularity of this record that the term became widely associated with the music.

Some African informants argue that it was Whites, who by 1956 were buying pennywhistle recordings also, who first picked out the word kwela from 'Tom Hark' and used it as a general term for the music. Thirdly, the use of the word kwela was prob. reinforced by association with the Zulu and Xhosa word ikhwelo (whistling, a shrill whistle).

Kwela music consisted of a rhythmic ostinato chord sequence, usually C-F-C-G7.on a string bass and guitar, backed by a standard drum set in place of shakers. Above this was a strong melodic line played by several pennywhistles ... Above the two parts played by the rhythm section and pennywhistles, a solo pennywhistle plays an improvised third part. Kwela music, the township rhythm that had its heyday in the fifties, has more in common with boeremusiek than any imported 'white' musical form. It has the same vibrance, the same uninhibited rawness, and a very similar musical structure.

Artists: Spokes Mashiyane

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