Discover South Africa Music

South Africa Music: Cape Town, Jazz Festival concert

Cape Town, Jazz Festival concert

One cannot speak of South Africa music without mentioning international stars such as Miriam Makeba, queen of jazz and known for her political commitment against the Apartheid regime (she was also delegated to the, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, South African choral group, several times gold and platinum disc with their traditional music. But it was the end of Apartheid that caused the South Africa music industry to take off. The music made by blacks for blacks has proved to be the most powerful and artistically original and competitive music on the world scene. The development of South Africa music was one of the objectives of the government of the African National Congress, which decided to impose on radio broadcasts a 20 percent of local music. Commercial music then exploded with the freedom for children to go to discos.



The pride of the country is the kwaito (in Afrikaans it means “angry”), a musical genre born in the 90s in the underground subcultures of townships (especially Soweto) among the youngest who, invaded by international house music once Apartheid ended, began to decline it according to a sound more similar to their rhythms. If at the beginning kwaito was associated with crime, today it is recognized in the world as a respectable genre. Pioneer was M’ndu (and clubs like Club Eden, Uforia and DV8, in Capetown), who played the western beat mixing it with the garage and afropop. Today the lyrics are mainly in English (even if the xhosa, zulu resist and the pride of authorship is now shared (or confused) with the rest of the world, which has done so by contaminating it with other genres. In short, even kwaito has become glocal, that is, native in one place but enjoyed throughout the world and “dirtied” by it.

Today Arthur Mafokate, Oskido, Boom Shakae and Mdu Masilela are universally considered “masters” by all the followers of world hip pop culture and “Kaffir”, the first Kwaito song to climb the charts (1993) a vintage cult. As the largest music business in South Africa, specialist record labels sell dizzying amounts of records. Mapantsula Style’, feet to the rhythm of Kwaito  

A Mapantsula of the crew ‘Real Actions’ of Johannesburg dancing Pantsula.

The Atlantic has been the scene of cultural exchanges and loans of all kinds for centuries. The circulation of trends and lifestyles of what has come to be called the Black Atlantic has traced new routes between cities such as New York, Kingston, London, Havana, Lagos, Johannesburg, Dakar or Kinshasa, outlining new urban identities on both sides of the ocean. This is the case of one of the most popular urban cultures in contemporary southern Africa. Pantsula, which could roughly be defined as a modern cultural hybrid close to hip-hop and dancehall reappropriated with a local language, is a lifestyle that encompasses a specific type of dance, attitude and aesthetics. Protected by a musical genre (the Kwaito) that was born in the heart of the Townships or South African ghettos, it has gradually settled into the global imaginary of urban society and into the commercial arena of the south of the African continent.

The Zulu term ‘pantsula’, synonymous with ‘tsotsi’, has embraced the globalized image of the gangster. Thus, ‘mapantsula’, its plural, defines the gangs or crews that share this culture and identify with an urban tribe that began to take shape in the early 1950s in Johannesburg, especially in the neighbourhoods of Soweto and Sophiatown. The style of the Mapantsula was born in the street among young working class people, who found modern codes to express their discomfort, frustrations or dreams during Apartheid, and who adopted an “indigenized” form of African American rap and hip-hop that today is the soundtrack of the ghetto: Kwaito.

Kwaito has been part of the mainstream music of South Africa and the life of young people in townships since the 1990s. The term ‘kwaito’ is an expression of tsotsitaal (gangster jargon) which means ‘fierce’ or ‘bad-generate’, but in Afrikaans (the lingua franca of South Africa) it also refers to sexy, attractive and cool. Kwaito and Pantsula are so related and form part of such an inbred universe that they often become synonyms. As a musical genre, it’s an authentic cocktail: the slower rhythms of house mixed with hip-hop, reggae and other local styles, generating an Africanised Pop version of electronic Groove. It emerged in a period of celebration of freedom, the end of Apartheid and the political transformation that gave way to democracy, but it is also marked by violence, insecurity, an unbridled need for consumerism or the youthful hopelessness of the ghettos.

Already in the 21st century, ghetto music has a very important weight within the South African commercial circuit and the provocations and irreverences that had previously been harshly censored occupy the main radio stations, TV programs, websites, specialized magazines, and so on. Mestizo identity and the fight against racism are one of the preferred themes in the lyrics of Kwaito songs, but hypermasculinity and exaggerated misogyny are also imposed as a characteristic feature of the Pantsula culture, as in the Jamaican Dancehall. Bands such as Boom Shaka, M’du, The Dogg, Skeem, Skizo, Mandoza, EES or Bongo Maffin invade the musical scene of Southern Africa. Not only South Africa, but Namibia, Mozambique, Angola or Botswana have developed a growing interest in this culture.

The Pantsula has come out of the ghettos, has introduced a “Best Kwaito Award” at the famous Channel O Music Awards, and has sponsored whites and blacks, women and men, young and old like Hugh Masekela -who joins the Kwaito fever on his album Revival (2005)-, and even left the continent to influence top Western R&B artists. Life on the margins, the sound of ghettos, has been placed at the heart of capitalist society, with all its ambiguities and contradictions, placing Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana or Zulu on dance floors all over the planet.



Jazz, another specialty of this country so full of contradictions, was born in the townships, where American music coagulated with the local rhythms transforming. In March, at the Cape Town Jazz Festival, two non-stop days of jazz are celebrated: a menu of 40 entries (individual musicians or groups, African or foreign) entertain 15 thousand spectators on 5 different stages. In Johannesburg instead there is the Joy of Jazz, the largest artistic event in the city, a real cascade of jazz declined in as many as possible musical contamination: more than 200 artists, including international, perform in various venues around the city.


Blues and folk are the property of the Easter Festival (Oppikoppi Easter Festival, Northam, North West): smaller than the Oppikoppi Bushveld Bash in August, it has only one stage and one local audience but is very popular (1500 people).

The famous African hip pop genre is celebrated in September/October at Macufe (Bloemfontein, Free State). The Mangaung Cultural Festival is home to the world’s most celebrated African musicians, who throw themselves into extraordinary performances that include gospel, kwaito, R&B, rock, but also classical music, dance, theatre, cabaret, musicals, poetry, applied arts and crafts. Since its first edition in 1997, the success was enormous (30,000 spectators): today 140,000 people arrive from all over Africa and the world.

The Awesome Africa Music Festival, hosted in the Albert Parc since 1999, invites over 200 artists, mainly Africans, who from 20 different countries play non-stop on 3 stages.



 The Kwazulu-Natal region of South Africa is home to the “isicathamiya,” a style of song and dance made famous a decade ago by the sparkling group Ladysmith Black Mambazo in their album Graceland, produced by American musician Paul Simon.

The isicathamiya is a formidable form of black expression in South African culture, unequivocally traditional in the powerful voices of Zulu singers.

However, it is surprising the contained vocalization of its performers and the slow dancing style with feline movements, very different from the vigorous punches with the feet typical of Zulu dance.


The isicathamiya style emerged from a segregated South Africa at a time when blacks converted to Christianity could not sing traditional songs and were encouraged to sing hymns.

In the workers’ quarters, the men gathered to sing and remove the sadness of being separated from their rural families.

As Patricia Achieng Odondo, a researcher in the Department of Music at the University of Natal, pointed out, “the genre particularly pleased those who were not attracted to the places where beer ran and the roughness of segregated areas reigned.

The style was a way of bracing “the sense of brotherhood” and avoiding being dragged along by drinking, violence and crime.

“That working class, which formed migrant groups in the 1920s and 1930s, needed an escape for its frustrations and thus the element of protest was born in the isicathamiya repertoire,” Achieng added.

Today, styles vary considerably. Groups that retain “the old style” tend to be made up of single men who strictly adhere to Christian ethics. Hamilton Mbatha, leader of a group called NBA Champions, receives his audience in the name of Christ.

“In everything we do, we believe God is there,” he said in Zulu. “We pray before we sing, before we travel and when we finish interpreting our songs.

While most groups vindicate their Christianity, very few of the new choirs in practice are as strict. Some drink beer, others have female singers and many incorporated hip waving, the zapateo of the “Mapantsula” dances and the “mbaganga” music.

Richard Machi, leader of New High Brothers, said his audience enjoys the new style much more. “The steps are more daring and the vocalists have launched a new form of singing called ‘bombardment’.

While isicathamiya has become a highly competitive and sometimes rewarding form of cultural expression, it was not always as well known. Mbata remembers when it was only practiced by a group of men who met sometimes.

Mbata started singing when he was still a child and worked on a farm in rural Natal. He listened to the music of Zulu composers on the gramophone and personally sang at weddings and other special events.

In 1967, he went to Durban to look for work and found some old friends from the rural district of Babangango in Natal. Together they formed the NBA Champions. The name is not due to the American Basketball Association, but to the license plate of Babangango’s cars, which begins with the letters NBA.

Since then, NBA Champions has held on to the old style and acting in municipal or community centers in Kwazulu province, or in competitions in the Young Men’s Christian Association.

“When I started singing I was still good-looking, without this gray beard,” said Mbata. “We went to all the halls and sang the whole night. In those days, the best singer could earn a goat and the second about four dollars.

Many of these songs are nostalgic evocations of home, a way of life left behind or, very often, a love song for a girl that the singer will never forget despite marriage and children. These are songs of the heart.

“When we sing isicathamiya, we don’t write it before. It just comes from where we came from. We look for facts and things and then we do a song,” he said.

The songs themselves are part of a vibrant oral history. Mbata clings to the old style precisely for that reason, to keep those narrations. “I like to sing it because it doesn’t go away,” he said.

There are few traditional isicathamiya performers who cling to formal style structures like that, even though their name is derived from the Zulu verb “cathama,” which means to slide like a cat.

Odondo said the isicathamiya is “an Africanization of the nineteenth-century African-American sung jubilee,” which emerged from the coal-mining districts of Natal in the 1920s. Today, its provincial beginnings have become a national expression.

In 1988, with the help of Joseph Tshabalala of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo national association, the South African Traditional Music Association was created to preserve and develop the isicathamiya phenomenon.

“We started to go from one factory to another looking for a sponsor. Our dream came true and we no longer sing for goats: now we have prizes to give to the musicians. This year, the prize is $3,500,” said Theo Mtshali, a proud member of the Association.

“Since we are in recession, we want the groups to survive with that money. We preserve the music so that it doesn’t disappear and, at the same time, we promote goodness and morality. Our members don’t drink or smoke and stay on the right track,” he said.

“We want the isicathamiya to be taken overseas so that people there can sing the same music in their own way,” Mtshali added.

Since its inception as a way of keeping workers together in their accommodations, the isicathamiya has grown into a significant South African cultural expression and, despite its fusion with elements of Western Christianity, is defended as a form of cultural expression of the Zulu people.

The tradition of Zulu singing, which is gaining increasing international recognition, has only been augmented by the surprising union of feline style choirs.

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