South Africa has a complex musical history, ranging from the traditions of its many different ethnic groups to its merge with various European styles. And in many cases, it includes the mixing old traditions with newer ones. The early music of South Africa did tend to take elements of African musical styles and merge it with various European (mostly English and Dutch) and Asian styles.
The period between the 1950s and the 1980s brought about a revival in traditions of African music. By this time, recording devices had become slightly more portable, and musicologists took a newfound interest in recording their songs as well as introducing other instruments they brought with them. For example, the Portuguese brought their guitars with them when they first encountered the Zulus in the 16th century, which they then adopted as part of their musical traditions. By the 1930s, you could find cheap guitars in shops. Of course, they adapted different techniques from other instruments to the guitar. Other modern instruments have replaced more traditional ones, like the Tsonga's use of xylophones and bass marimbas.
Dance traditions certainly vary by ethnic group and can also vary by the purpose of the dance. Rhythm is at the heart of their dances, and they’re often a reflection of their daily lives and emotions, and very often celebratory. However, most traditional dances are mostly just performed at weddings these days. One of the more well-known dances come from the Zulu traditions, called the Indlamu. This dance is performed by men dressed in full traditional attire, complete with spear and shield. Always gotta look the part.
Right around the turn of the 20th century, Johannesburg had a strict curfew, which impacted the nightlife. A style of music widely played in the speakeasies emerged called marabi, a type of jazz. This style mainly consisted of piano playing accompanied by a rudely made "maracas" (that were actually cans filled with pebbles and other items) and other instruments. The popularity of South Africa's music grew so rapidly between 1912-1930 that musicians began to record with Gallo Record Company, still the largest record company in the country.
The famous song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" made famous by The Tokens was actually written by Solomon Linda in 1939. The original lyrics were written in Zulu ("mbube" means lion). A capella choral societies also became a thing in the 1930s and 1940s. Afrikaans music was mainly based on traditional Dutch styles, but they also added in some elements of German, French, and even zydeco and country styles to their music. By the time the 1950s and 1960s came along, many of the popular styles of the US and Europe infiltrated the music scene in South Africa. Charles Segal was a white musician who studied and promoted indigenous African music during the 1950s, especially through radio. Genres like the kwela began to be spread to the masses. Segal was also a jazz pianist and saw the rise of jazz and soul into clubs and bars all over the major urban areas. The 1970s and 1980s brought about newer genres like rock, punk rock, disco, reggae, and other African fusions of these styles. More electronic sounds in techno, metal, kwaito, and hip-hop emerged in the 1990s and 2000s among other genres as well. There is a lot of experimentation and expression in their music as they merge musical styles from a number of cultures and make it theirs.
I came across a bunch of bands from South Africa, and I know I’m just scratching the surface with this entire post. First of all, I didn’t realize that the rock band Seether is from South Africa. I used to listen to them quite a bit. I forgot how much I liked them when I was listening to them this week.
And I’ll venture to say that Ladysmith Black Mambazo is probably one of the more well known musical groups from South Africa, rising to international fame after their collaboration with Paul Simon. Their rich a capella harmonies highlighted the choral traditions of South African music.
And one of my favorites is Miriam Makeba. Her song “Pata Pata,” first recorded in 1967, essentially put her on the map. You can’t help but be happy when you hear this song. And she was still performing within a couple years of her death in 2008.
I sifted through quite a few other rock groups of various styles and fusions, from alternative to folk rock to blue rock. Some of the ones I listened through include Dog Detachment, Mahotella Queens, McCully Workshop, Tribe After Tribe, and Blues Broers. I also listened to a couple of Afrikaans Rock bands, Fokovpolisiekar (just sound that one out loud to yourself) and Karen Zoid.
I also found a reggae band called Lucky Dube that I sampled. I like African reggae music. While it obviously shares many similarities with its Caribbean counterpart, there are some minor things that make African reggae a little different. It’s subtle, and I also think that it really depends on the artist as well.