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The Culture of South African Music and Its Origins

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What is South African Music?

South African Music reflects the complex history of African and Western traditions, and of conflict and determination. South Africa lies at the very southern end of Africa and it is home to a myriad of indigenous cultures – it is the only country in the world to have 11 official languages, that is how diverse this country really is. South Africa has a vibrant music scene populated by a wide assortment of styles and genres and it has seen the birth of many original genres such as Kwaito, Mbube and African jazz.

Among the many South African cultures are the Khoisan, which is a group of two ‘tribes’, the Khoi and the San. The Khoisan people sang polyphonic (a sound involving many sounds or voices) chants in which numerous independent melodies are sung at the same time. Another tribe, the KwaXhosa which is similar to the Khoisan people in which they are made of multiple ethnic groups have strong oral musical traditions, with women performing songs and dances for ceremonies and other cultural events. Another culture which is the more popular culture these days are the Zulus and use a cappella singing. Many of these cultures also use a variety of musical instruments that will be discussed further down in this report in their own section. All of these musical traditions merged over time to became major influences of what is known today as, traditional South African Music. 

South African Music History

The history of South African music stretches as far back to the 1920s. During this time, governmental restrictions on black people amplified by announcing a nightly curfew and restricting their freedom of movement, which reduced the nightlife of Johannesburg relatively small. However, this did not inhibit their love and appreciation of music, and a style called Marabi developed from the shantytowns of Johannesburg, becoming popular music in the urban centres of South Africa and townships. Marabi is a keyboard style that has a musical link to Ragtime, Blues and American Jazz. It was typically played on pianos at local shebeens (illicit bar or club where it was frequented by black people who were barred from buying and drinking alcohol).

By the 1930s, Marabi had introduced new instruments, including guitars and banjos, springing forth new styles of Marabi. Among these was a Swing/Marabi fusion called African jazz and jive. The following video is a comparable representation of what it would have sounded like.  The 1930s also saw the increase of Isicathamiya — a style of a cappella singing by the Zulus. The style’s popularity lead to the popularity of Solomon Linda, who wrote and recorded the 1939 hit, Mbube (The Lion Sleeps Tonight). The song was later adapted and covered internationally by many 50s pop and folk revival artists. Today a cover of this song is extremely well-known. 

Across the 40s and 50s the South African music industry diversified significantly as radio became available all over the country. The first major style of South African pop music to emerge was ‘pennywhistle jive’ (later known as kwela) — pennywhistle-based street music with jazz foundations and a distinguished, skiffle-like beat. It evolved from the Marabi sound and catapulted South African music to international prominence.

In the 60s, Jive continued to be regulated to townships only and this genre was later to be called Mbaqanga. The early 1960s saw electric instruments, Marabi and Kwela influences added to the Mbaqanga style, leading to a groovier and more African sound. During this time, Mbaqanga also developed harmonies by replicating American vocals, such as Doo Wop.

Consequently, jazz was split in two – dance bands and avant-garde jazz inspired by the likes of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Sonny. By the 1970s, very few long-standing Mgqashiyo groups were well-known. With progressive jazz being hindered by government suppression, Marabi-styled dance bands became famous in the jazz world. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who surfaced in the late 60s, became one of the main Isicathamiya icons in South Africa’s history. Their first album, Amabutho (1973), was the first South African gold record by all black musicians. The band continued to do extremely well throughout few decades that followed, especially after 1986, when Paul Simon had the band record with him on his acclaimed album, Graceland. The legendary group has since won four Grammys.

In the 1980s, alternative rock became popular on the music scene in Durban and Johannesburg. In 1994 when apartheid ceased, a number of bands emerged with a South African style of Hip Hop called Kwaito. Kwaito is a variation of House music featuring the use of African samples, synthesizers and vocals that are generally chanted or shouted. Across the 2000s and into the 2010s the appearance of Blues Rock, Drum and Bass and psychedelic trance, while Kwaito continued to appeal to the masses. The South African music scene has to a large degree, been characterized by bands seeking to emulate popular genres abroad.

Political Influence

“If anything good came from apartheid in South Africa, it was the music that was created in opposition to it”. Every facet of life in South Africa was influenced by apartheid between 1948 and the very special day of April 27th, 1994. Culturally, music functioned as a popular initiative and response to the political repression of that era. As a result, apartheid shaped the tones, lyrics and styles of most African music written during this era, leaving in its wake a large group of musicians who produced some profoundly powerful and moving music that both helped to unite fellow oppressed Africans and educate the rest of the world of what was actually happening in South Africa; the dire political circumstances.

There is quite a long list of musicians who used their music and influence to push back against political oppression. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Brenda Fassie and Johnny Clegg were the standout artists who used their music to fight against the overpowering injustice of apartheid. There are a myriad of other musicians and entertainers that fought against the political power that stood to be, over the apartheid era although, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba and Johnny Clegg will be observed in the sections to come.

Music initially began as a mirror reflecting the popular experience. However, over time as resistance movements began to surface in the mass, creative expression and music started to become a hammer, with which to shape reality. In this sense, music in South Africa went from reflecting common experiences and concerns in the early years of apartheid to eventually functioning as a power to confront the state and as a means to actively construct an alternative political and social reality.

During apartheid, it was extremely challenging for black musicians in South Africa to perform, having it be a means of formal employment was definitely not a question that would consider seriously. The blacks were not seen as equals and were denied many opportunities and human rights. At the same time, reassuringly, performances by white musicians who were outspoken and against about apartheid or even those who performed alongside black musicians on stage, were often subject to intense police raids. However, their music was still heard, many of these musicians fought hard to oppose the political limitations, and their resistance is a vital part of the story of South Africa’s fight against and reclamation during and after apartheid.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

The voices of the male vocal group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo have come to represent great example of traditional South African culture, specifically through their incorporation of Christian gospel music with unique African rhythms and harmonies. They were formed in Durban in the 60s, and today they are revered as one of South Africa’s most exciting groups. A pinnacle point in their career was performing alongside Paul Simon on the Graceland album and world tour. Though they are often referred to as entertainers, staying true to their musical tradition is an important characteristic of their performances. They achieve this by drawing from the traditional mine music of ‘Isicathamiya’ and the other South African a capella style called ‘Mbube’ – these are the same styles of music mentioned earlier in the report.

Miriam Makeba

Makeba was a legendary South African singer and civil rights activist, she actively spoke out against the realities of apartheid. The Guardian called her “one of the most visible and outspoken opponents” of the regime. Makeba performed to small audiences in township she grew up in, but her music quickly launched her into celebrity status from south Africa to the rest of the world. Makeba appeared in the 1960 anti-apartheid documentary ‘Come Back Africa’. Makeba also had the opportunity to record with Paul Simon and tour Graceland with him.

Johnny Clegg

The son of an English father and Zimbabwean mother, Clegg became one of South Africa’s most well-liked and influential musicians, during and after the apartheid. At the peak of apartheid in South Africa, Clegg met street musician Sipho Mchunu in the 70s, and together they formed the band, Juluka. Their appealing style of Pop music, sung in both Zulu and English, immediately caught the attention of the government, and they were barred from any public performances. Their music predominantly spoke to the political situation at the time and in particular the divisive nature of apartheid. Together, the two musicians became a powerful symbol of resistance against the apartheid laws, and their performances were often subject of police raids.


South African music history has played a fundamental part in modern music history, hopefully this is evident within the report. South Africa has had its struggles over the years but with the progression of music culture and tradition it has been an escape for the many that struggled with oppression. Without different cultures interacting, emerging, uniting and connecting we may have never had the opportunity to listen to such beautiful melodies ad stores that came out of this country’s turbulent history and interesting past. Life without music or the progression of music would certainly be a peculiar world to live in, as outward expression of the heart and mind is undeniably essential to such sentient beings as humans.


  • Britannica, T. E. o. E., 2019. Miriam Makeba. [Online] Available at:
  • Collison, L.-S., 2016. A Brief Guide To South African Music. [Online] Available at:
  • Editors, H., 2010. Apartheid. [Online] Available at:
  • Przybylek, S., 2019. South African Music: Origin & History. [Online] Available at:
  • Schumann, A., 2008. The Beat that Beat Apartheid. s.l.:s.n. 
  • Thomason, A., 2019. Culture Trip. [Online] Available at: the-apartheid-era/

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