From then to now: How South African music has changed over the century

From marabi, mbube and pennywhistle to African jazz, jive and kwaito, South Africa has brought some incredible music to the world through the decades. With a music scene that has been both marred and inspired by political and racial oppression, today South African music continues to grow with talented local artists and exciting new genres and festivals. So how did they get here? We look back on a century of South African music.

1920s

Despite the governmental restrictions and nightly curfew on black people, music still played a huge role in South African life. A style called marabi emerged from the slums in the early 1900s and was influencing mainstream bands by the 1920s. Marabi was played on pianos and keyboards and was heard at local shebeens (illegal bars where black people went to drink and have a good time) and had ties to jazz, blues and ragtime styles. This decade also gave rise to Zionist Christian churches and South African gospel music. Today, this music of worship is still one of the most popular types of music in South Africa. 

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1930s – 40s

Marabi boomed in the 1930s and developed into a swing style known as South African jazz. The music style brought in new instruments like banjos and guitars, and the bands that played this music were the first generation of professional black musicians in South Africa. Some of the biggest stars were The Revelers, The Jazz Maniacs and The Merry Blackbirds and they were hugely popular among both black and white audiences. 

The 30s also saw the spread of isicathamiya, a popular style of Zulu a cappella singing that spread from the Natal area to the rest of South Africa. This style gave rise to Solomon Linda, who wrote the 1939 hit, Mbube (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) with the Evening Birds, using a variation of a traditional Zulu melody. It was likely the first African record to sell more than 100,000 copies.

South African pop music also hit the big time during this era. When Eric Gallo founded the Brunswick Gramophone House, many South African artists had the chance to go to London to record their music with Singer Records. Gallo Record Company is still the biggest and oldest independent label in the country. Some of their biggest stars were Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. 

Dutch, French and German musical styles were also popular among Afrikaans music. You were likely to hear everything from emotional songs called trane trekkers (tear pullers), to Zydeco-type string bands, to American country music like Jim Reeves.

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1950s

As broadcast radio spread across the country, South African pop music hit the bigtime. Pennywhistle jive, or kwela, emerged from the marabi style and used a pennywhistle, a simple instrument often played by street performers. It brought South African music to international fame, and Lemmy Mabaso and Willard Cele were two of the most famous artists of this style. Spokes Mashiyane was another huge artist and his song “Ace Blues” brought the pennywhistle genre to the mainstream after it was the biggest hit of the year. 

In the late 1950s, a new style of black urban music hit the scene in Sophiatown. Known as the “African stomp” style, it combined marabi with big band swing and traditional dance style like the Zulu indlamu. Jazz-lovers created the Sophiatown Modern Jazz Club which gave birth to the first bebop band in South Africa, the Jazz Epistles. The musicians of this iconic band went on to influence the South African jazz genre in a huge way, including Hugh Masekela, Dollar Brand, Jonas Gwangwa and Kippie Moeketsi.

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1960s

This wonderful era of music was brought to an end during the apartheid. The National Party government forced the residents of Sophiatown to other townships, destroyed Sophiatown and built the white suburb of Triomf. After the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, mass arrests and jailing of apartheid activists, many musicians were forced to flee the country. But the music didn’t stop there. The exiled South African jazz musicians built their careers outside the country including Hugh Masekela, Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim), Letta Mbulu, Caiphas Semenya, Jonas Gwangwa and Miriam Makeba. They also began to spread awareness of the horrors of the South African apartheid. 

Jazz continued to evolve, with dance bands and avant-garde jazz. Then came the arrival of Cape Jazz, a blend of South African folk songs with links to European and American jazz. The first Cold Castle National Jazz Festival was held in 1960 which brought even more incredible South African jazz musicians to fame including Giden Nxumalo, Dudu Pukwana and Chris McGregor.

The 60s were also all about sax jive (although it was restricted to townships) and mbaqanga, which developed into a funkier African sound with electric instruments and vocal harmonies known as mgqashiyo. Groups like the Manhattan Brothers and The Skylarks were influenced by doo-wop and American vocal bands, but South African bands elevated the typical four-part harmonies by using five parts. The Dark City Sisters were one of the most famous vocal groups in the sixties.

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1970s

The apartheid continued to suppress black African music during the 70s. However, Abdulla Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) snuck back to the country in the mid-1970s. He collaborated with the Cream of Cape jazz players and recorded “Manenberg”. It became the unofficial anthem of the anti-apartheid resistance and one of the greatest South African songs of all time. 

Ladysmith Black Mambazo also shot to stardom with their first album Amabutho, the first gold record made by black musicians. Their incredible isicathamiya sound made them one of the biggest stars in South African history and they have since won four Grammy Awards. Towards the mid-1970s, American disco came to South Africa, and the locals added the funky beats to their soul music. By the end of the decade, American and British punk rock started to influence many bands.

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1980s

The 80s were all about rock, reggae and pop. Alternative and gothic rock became the big trend, while a new genre known as ‘bubblegum pop’ came from the townships. There was also the Voёlvry (“free as a bird”) movement which saw Afrikaans music artists expressing their hostility to the apartheid. Johannes Kerkorrel and his Gereformeerde Blues Band led the growing movement of white Afrikaners who wanted to bring down the apartheid system.

The 1980s also brought reggae to Africa. After international star Bob Marley held a concert to celebrate Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, reggae became the flavour of the decade in Africa. In South Africa, Lucky Dube was one of the first and most popular reggae musicians. 

1990s

After the apartheid ended in 1994, South African music went through a rebirth. New musical genres burst onto the scene, including the South African style of house and hip-hop called kwaito. The genre used synthesisers, electronic instruments and vocals that were often sung or rapped. The biggest kwaito stars were Prophets of da City, Boom Shaka, Mandoza, Bongo Maffin, TKZee and Trompies.

Rock also grew in popularity, and the Springbok Nude Girls were one of the most famous 90s rock bands. Heavy metal and techno also hit the scene, giving way to the progressive sounds of the new millennium. 

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2000s

The 2000s were all about psychedelic trance, drum and bass, blues rock, kwaito, Afrikaans rock music and experimental music. The BLK JKS combined sweet Zulu rhythms with modern sounds to create an entirely unique kind of Afro-rock. They even performed in the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. There was also Die Antwoord, the quirky, unconventional house-influenced group. They represented the new ‘Zef’ counter-culture and blended English, Afrikaans and local slang.

2010 onwards

The last two decades of South African music has seen everything from rock and hip-hop to gospel and traditional styles. The huge range of musical genres coming out of South Africa is reflected in their music festivals. You’ll find everything from the heavy metal festival MotherFudd to the rock and reggae festival Splashy Fen. There’s also Oppikoppi, Woodstock South Africa and Rocking the Daisies which showcase rock bands and more. As for new genres, Amapiano Music took over the South African music scene in 2019, bringing a fresh blend of deep house and jazz music. Meanwhile, a young rap movement called Tzaneen Rap is producing incredible lyricism with a mix of languages including English, Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho and more.

So what does the next century hold for South African music? With the music scene only continuing to grow, we can expect to see plenty more South African musicians making exciting new music and bringing the South African sound to the international stage.

Who are your favourite South African artists and musicians? Let us know in the comments below!

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