The primary instrument of kwela, in the beginning, was the pennywhistle,
a cheap and simple instrument that was taken up by street performers in the
country’s shanty towns. Apart from being cheap and portable, as well as susceptible to use as a solo or an ensemble instrument, part of the popularity of the pennywhistle was perhaps based on the fact that flutes of different kinds had long been traditional instruments among the peoples of the more northerly parts of South Africa. The pennywhistle thus enabled the swift adaptation of folk tunes into the new
marabi-inflected idiom (1).

The pennywhistle


The kwela music style was very important to South African history, as it took the pennywhistle and some aspects of jazz and transformed the marabi sound into a genre that brought South African music to “international prominence” in the 50’s. The term “kwela” has two meanings, literally, “get up” and as slang, it refers to police vans known as “kwela-kwela.” This represents kwela’s acknowledgment of apartheid and subtle
resistance to it, as the street performers would play their music despite attempted oppression. Street performers would station friends a block away so they could warn them of the police in time for the performers to pocket their money and hide their pennywhistles. The biggest kwela fans were called “ducktails” who did their best to protect the performers from the police (2). The dedication to performing despite the risk of being arrested and urban feel to the music made kwela a very successful type of music of South Africa that many people could relate to. The kwela group “South African Holiday” represents the genre well, as they were true South African street performers that enjoyed the carefree style of kwela music and penny whistling.

Kwela group "South African Holiday" performing on the streets of Johannesburg in 1953


1. “South African Music: Kwela –” South Africa’s Official
Gateway – Investment, Travel, Country Information –
. Web. 22
Nov. 2011. <>.

2.  Addison, Keith. “South Africa Holiday: Music Styles – Kwela.” South Africa Holiday. (accessed October 30, 2011).

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