The Music of South Africa

Nov 3, 2021

Continuing our exploration of world music, this week let’s dive into the vibrant music of South Africa!

South Africa’s music scene is filled with an incredibly wide variety of musical genres and styles. Over the last 100 years or so, the region’s political environment has influenced music in the area, allowing the rise of new, original genres, like kwaito, African jazz, and mbube. Let’s take a closer look at the music of South Africa, and the time periods they grew out of.


During the 1920s, the government of South Africa imposed new restrictions on the Black population by introducing a nightly curfew. This effectively curbed their freedom of movement, which in turn kept the nightlife of Johannesburg relatively small.

Of course, this did nothing to halt their appreciation for music, and a new style, called marabi rose from the slums of the city to become a popular form of music in the towns and urban centers of South Africa.

With musical links to American jazz, ragtime, and blues, marabi is a keyboard style played at local shebeens (illegal bars patronized by Black people who were otherwise not allowed to buy or drink hard alcohol).

At the same time marabi was becoming popular, Zionist Christian churches were spreading across the country. The churches incorporated African musical elements into their services, which led to the birth of South African gospel music. This genre remains one of the country’s most popular styles of music to this day.


Just a decade later, by the 1930s, marabi had added a few new instruments, including guitars, concertinas, and banjos. These additions helped create new styles of marabi, including a fusion with swing called African jazz and jive.

Around the same time, South African pop music saw a huge jump in popularity after Eric Gallo created the Brunswick Gramophone House and sent South African musicians to foggy London to record with Singer Records. Today, the Gallo Record company is still in business, and is the largest and oldest independent label in South Africa. What’s more, it is responsible for launching the careers of some of South Africa’s most influential pop artists and groups, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and many more.

This time period also saw the spread of a form of a cappella sung by the Zulus called “isicathamiya.” The popularity of this singing style hit something of a critical mass in 1939 when Solomon Linda wrote and recorded Mbube with the Evening Birds. You might recognize the song from one of its countless covers and adaptations throughout the 1950s, when it was popularly known by “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” The song and style was so influential, the whole style of music became known as mbube.


By the 1950s, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of radio broadcasting, the South African music industry had diversified quite a bit. The first new major style of South African pop to emerge was called “pennywhistle jive,” and later “kwela.” This pennywhistle-based street music used a distinctive, skiffle-beat and was largely influenced by jazz. Evolving from the marabi sound, kwela helped to launch South African music onto the world stage.


By this time, jive music, or “sax jive,” (which would go on to be called “mbaqanga”) was still mostly restricted to the townships of South Africa, without a large presence in major cities. The early years of the 1960s saw electric instruments, as well as marabi and kwela influences add to the distinctive style of mbaqanga. This created a “funkier,” more uniquely African sound.

In contrast to this, around the same time mbaqanga groups learned to create vocal harmonies by imitating American vocal doo wop bands. This helped lead to the upbeat sound of mgqashiyo music.


When the ‘70s hit, only a handful of long-stanging mgqashiyo groups were particularly popular, and progressive jazz was being hindered by suppression from the government. As a result, marabi-style dance bands started to see a rise in popularity in the African jazz world.

One group in particular, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who started out in the 1960s, rose to become one of the biggest stars in South Africa’s musical history. Their first recorded album, Amabutho, recorded in 1973, would go on to become the first South African gold record by Black musicians. They would remain a popular fixture in South African music for decades to come, especially after 1986, when popular American artist Paul Simon included them on his album Graceland, and the following tour. Ladysmith Black Mambazo would go on to earn themselves four Grammy awards.


The ‘80s in South Africa, as with much of the rest of the world, saw a rise in the popularity of alternative rock and gothic rock, especially in Johannesburg and Durban. Reggae, bubblegum pop, and the Voёlvry (free as a bird) movement -Afrikaans rock music that criticised apartheid amongst white Afrikaners- also saw a surge in popularity. Voёlvry, in particular, was largely led by Johannes Kerkorrel and his Gereformeerde Blues Band.


Apartheid came to an end in South Africa in 1994, and a new style of hip hop, call kwaito, was allowed to thrive. A variant of house music, kwaito has become known for its somewhat unique use of synthesizers, African samples, and vocals that are usually shouted or chanted.

The group Prophets of da City became the most well-known and popular hip hop crew, with other stars, like Bongo Maffin, Boom Shaka, and Tompies gaining popularity as well.


The 2000s brought a wave of blues rock, drum-and-bass, and psychedelic trance to South Africa, while kwaito remained extremely popular. What’s more, a resurgence of Afrikaans rock music resulted in a suge of new artists. One such group called Fokofpolisekar became the first alternative Afrikaans group and helped pave the way for future acts.

Today, the South African music scene remains wildly diverse, and the recent introduction of the South African Music Awards (SAMAs) has helped elevate the accomplishments of local performers.


Is it long past time for you to start your musical journey? Maybe you have children who are showing an interest in learning to play an instrument? Either way, The Music Studio’s professional instruction is here to help you along your path to music!

We’ve got programs for all ages and skill levels, so if you’re just starting out, or coming back after some time away from lessons, we’ve got the perfect program for you! And now many of our programs and lessons are available online! Visit our website and sign up today. And to see more of our exploration of the world of music, visit our weekly blog!