South African music: pop, rock and crossover


The story of South African music is one of dialogue with imported forms, and varying degrees of hybridisation over the years.From the earliest colonial days until the present time, South African music has created itself out of the mingling of local ideas and forms with those imported from outside the country, giving it all a special twist that carries with it the unmistakeable flavour of the country.


In the Dutch colonial era, from the 17th century on, indigenous tribespeople and slaves imported from the east adapted Western musical instruments and ideas.The Khoi-Khoi, for instance, developed the ramkie, a guitar with three or four strings, based on that of Malabar slaves, and used it to blend Khoi and Western folk songs.The mamokhorong was a single-string violin that was used by the Khoi in their own music-making and in the dances of the colonial centre, Cape Town, which rapidly became a melting pot of cultural influences from all over the world.Western music was played by slave orchestras (the governor of the Cape, for instance, had his own slave orchestra in the 1670s), and travelling musicians of mixed-blood stock moved around the colony entertaining at dances and other functions, a tradition that continued into the era of British domination after 1806.In a style similar to that of British marching military bands, coloured (mixed race) bands of musicians began parading through the streets of Cape Town in the early 1820s, a tradition that was given added impetus by the travelling minstrel shows of the 1880s and has continued to the present day with the great carnival held in Cape Town every New Year.

Missionaries and choirs

The penetration of missionaries into the interior over the succeeding centuries also had a profound influence on South African musical styles. In the late 1800s, early African composers such as John Knox Bokwe began composing hymns that drew on traditional Xhosa harmonic patterns.In 1897, Enoch Sontonga, then a teacher, composed the hymn Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa), which was later adopted by thea liberation movement and ultimately became the National Anthem of a democratic South Africa.The missionary influence, plus the later influence of American spirituals, spurred a gospel movement that is still very strong in South Africa today. Drawing on the traditions of churches such as the Zion Christian Church, one of the largest such groupings in Africa, it has exponents whose styles range from the more traditional to the pop-infused sounds of, for instance, former pop singer Rebecca Malope.Gospel, in its many forms, is one of the best-selling genres in South Africa today, with artists who regularly achieve sales of gold and platinum status.The missionary emphasis on choirs, combined with the traditional vocal music of South Africa, and taking in other elements as well, also gave rise to a mode of a capella singing that blend the style of Western hymns with indigenous harmonies.This tradition is still alive today in the isicathamiya form, of which Ladysmith Black Mambazo are the foremost and most famous exponents.This vocal music is the oldest traditional music known in South Africa. It was communal, accompanying dances or other social gatherings, and involved elaborate call-and-response patterns.

Though some instruments such as the mouth bow were used, drums were relatively unknown. Later, instruments used in areas to the north of what is now South Africa, such as the mbira or thumb-piano from Zimbabwe, or drums or xylophones from Mozambique, began to find a place in the traditions of South African music-making.Still later, Western instruments such as the concertina or the guitar were integrated into indigenous musical styles, contributing, for instance, to the Zulu mode of maskanda music.The development of a black urban proletariat and the movement of many black workers to the mines in the 1800s meant that differing regional traditional folk musics met and began to flow into one another.Western instrumentation was used to adapt rural songs, which in turn started to influence the development of new hybrid modes of music-making (as well as dances) in South Africa’s developing urban centres.

In the mid-1800s, travelling minstrel shows began to visit South Africa.At first, as far as can be ascertained, these minstrels were white performers in “black face”, but by the 1860s genuine black American minstrel troupes had begun to tour the country, singing spirituals of the American South and influencing many South African groups to form themselves into similar choirs.Regular meetings and competitions between such choirs soon became popular, forming an entire sub-culture unto itself that continues to this day in South Africa.Orpheus McAdoo and the Virginia Jubilee Singers were among the most popular of the visiting minstrel groups, touring the country four times (some of his troupe’s members, in fact, decided to stay in South Africa). McAdoo was a hero to South Africans of colour, as a model of what a black man could achieve.This tradition of minstrelsy, joined with other forms, also contributed to the development of isicathamiya, which had its first international hit in 1939 with “Mbube”.This remarkable song by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds was an adaption of a traditional Zulu melody, and has been recycled and reworked innumerable times, most notably as Pete Seeger’s hit “Wimoweh” and the international classic “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”.

  • From the 1960s onward, more and more white rockers and pop groups appeared to appeal to white audiences in a segregated South Africa.

    Four Jacks and a Jill

    Among the most successful was the band Four Jacks and a Jill (the name echoed their line-up of four men and a woman), who had their first number one hit with “Timothy” in 1967. Within the next year, they had an international hit on their hands with “Master Jack”, which reached number eight in the US and number one in Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia.Throughout the 1970s, Four Jacks and a Jill were perhaps South Africa’s most successful pop group, touring Britain, the US, Australia and other places, including Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).Despite the generally unthreatening, pretty nature of their music, the band managed to get a song banned by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), and were the focus of protests by ultra-conservative South Africans who found any pop music akin to devil-worship.After many line-up changes, the original pair at the heart of the band, Clive Harding and Glenys Lynne, eventually disbanded the group in 1983 when they became reborn Christians.

    Freedom’s Children, Rabbitt

    By contrast, 1966 saw the birth of Freedom’s Children, a band dedicated to the kind of “acid rock” pioneered in the US by bands such as The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.Four Jacks and a Jill may have been criticised for having long hair, but that was nothing compared to the opprobrium heaped on Freedom’s Children – they were seen as hippies who threatened the very progress of civilisation!Yet they travelled the country, building up a solid fan base among the more progressive young South Africans, and recorded two albums, “Astra” and “Galactic Vibes”, that proved inspirational to later “alternative” rockers in the country.In the mid-1970s, the “boy band” hit South Africa in the form of Rabbitt, four young men who kicked off their career with a cover of a Jethro Tull song and, in a singularly daring move, posed naked for the cover of their second album, “A Croak and a Grunt in the Night”.Imaginatively managed by producer-impresario Patric van Blerk, Rabbitt brought the teen pop market of South Africa to a pitch of Beatles-like hysteria before disbanding in 1977. Member Trevor Rabin went on to a successful career in the US, working as a sessioneer in top rock groups as well as producing movie soundtracks.

    A change in mood

    As the 1970s drew to a close, however, the mood began to change, with the echoes of Britain’s angry working-class punk movement reaching South Africa.Springs, a poorer white area on the outskirts of Johannesburg, proved to be the breeding ground of a new generation of rockers who were as unimpressed by the commercial blandishments of the mainstream industry as they were disillusioned about South Africa’s repressive white regime.The Radio Rats provided social satire, while Corporal Punishment released “Darkie”, a sarcastic picture of white angst (“Darkie’s gonna get you”). Bands such as The Asylum Kids and Dog Detachment also carried the flag of youthful rebellion, and gained significant followings.By the mid-1980s, an alternative rock culture had developed in South Africa, showing considerable diversity.James Phillips, a founding member of Corporal Punishment, was a central figure. As Bernoldus Niemand, he produced an album of satirical Afrikaans songs such as “Hou My Vas, Korporaal” (Hold Me Tight, Corporal), a satire on the army, thereby influencing an entire “alternative Afrikaans” movement of Afrikaners protesting against repressive social mores.Bands such as The Gereformeerde Blues Band and singers such as Koos Kombuis were later to gain an enthusiastic following.At the same time, Phillips produced superbly bluesy rock with his band The Cherry-Faced Lurchers. A vibrant underground rock scene, featuring bands such as The Softees, The Aeroplanes, Bright Blue and The Dynamics kept rebellious young white South Africans “jolling” through the 1980s.

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    Crossing over

    At about the same time, a crossover was beginning to happen between black and white musicians.Johnny Clegg, a sociologist who learnt so much about Zulu music and dance that he teamed up with with Sipho Mchunu to form the group Juluka, led the charge. Juluka’s ability to mix traditional Zulu music with white pop and folk was in itself a challenge to the racial boundaries the apartheid regime attempted to erect between blacks and whites.With a more pop-driven style, bands such as eVoid, Via Afrika and Mango Groove followed the crossover trail blazed by Clegg (hailed overseas as “the white Zulu”), whose later band, Savuka, continued to reproduce his earlier success.

    Moving on

    The white pop/rock tradition continues in South Africa, growing ever bigger and more diverse.Bands such as The Springbok Nude Girls, arguably the finest South African rock band of the 1990s, spearheaded a drive into harder, guitar-driven sounds, while groups such as the acclaimed Fetish began to experiment with the new electronic palette made available by computers and sampling.Today, an exciting pop/rock/electronic scene exists across South Africa.

    Source: southafricainfo

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