Updated: Oct 18
South Africa. It’s the tip of a continent, but with enough music to fill the world. From modern genres to African takes on jazz and blues and the lasting rhythms of the Zulus, the tunes have always flowed and for many people, the sounds make them feel back at home. Increasingly, with tourism, immigration and emigration, the rest of the world is looking to South Africa for music, and what they find is brilliant, catchy, fantastic for dance and made by some of the most talented artists around. The influence is far reaching, but it’s not always clearly credited, so we’ve assembled a list of different genres to help you find the music that speaks best to you.
Kwaito is a genre of music, but it’s also much more than that. It’s a form of self-expression and style popularised in post-Apartheid South Africa and, although the music is important, the term “Kwaito” speaks to a larger culture which includes fashion and vernacula. In her essay “Kwaito: much more than music” Simone Swink described Kwaito as “a form of self-expression and a way of life—it is the way many South Africans dress, speak, and dance. It is a street style as lifestyle, where the music reflects life in the townships, much the same way hip hop reflects life in the American ghetto”. Despite its emergence nearly 25 years ago, Kwaito is still strongly associated with youth culture and remains popular amongst younger generations. The emergence of the genre is closely tied with the end of Apartheid, because Black South African people had the freedom to start their own record labels which could produce the Kwaito music that white music companies refused.
Even if you’re not aware of the history and culture, Kwaito sounds fantastic. It’s got some great beats which make it easy to dance to, and it has catchy melodies that are easy to get stuck in your head. If you’re looking for some Kwaito artists, you could start with Arthur Mafokate or M’du Masilela who claim to be ‘kings’ or originators of the genre, or Lebo Mathosa (both as a solo artist and in Boom Shaka) and Ghetto Love. If you think you might prefer a newer voice, try Stiff Pap.
If you’re looking for music that is both linked to rebelliousness and is just fun and upbeat, Kwela might be perfect for you. It’s sometimes referred to as Pennywhistle Kwela because of the frequent use of pennywhistles in the music, and the word ‘kwela’ comes from the old term “khwela khwela”, which means police van. Kwela music originated in the 1950s in South Africa, and was influenced by immigrants from Malawi. Kwela music was often played at shebeens, but it could also be used to alert people if the police were nearby so they could disperse without problems.
Kwela sounds a lot like African jazz. The pennywhistle is often used, and there won’t necessarily be any singing because the pennywhistle carries the melody instead. Kwela music will also often feature guitars, banjos, saxophones and drums. If you’d like to listen to Kwela music, try Spokes Mashiyane, Kippie Moeketsi and Big Voice Jack Lerole.
If you translate the word “Mbaqanga” into Zulu it means cornmeal porridge, a normal and unexciting meal for many. This is, I feel, an unfair name for the upbeat jazzy music that shares the name. Similarly to Kwela, Mbaqanga was developed in shebeens (but a decade later, in the 1960s) and was usually played live, because record producers and radios were often controlled by white people who didn’t want to promote Black artists. This meant that some of the most influential Mbaqanga artists never received recognition or wealth, despite their achievements.
Mbaqanga is closely associated with Township Jive - more on them later! - and mixes in traditional Zulu melodies with western doo-wap and jazz. The result is upbeat, creative and incredibly catchy. Although Mbaqanga artists didn’t get to record too often, some music from Makgona Tsohle Band is available on Spotify and you can find Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde performing on YouTube. The Mahotella Queens are still active and have been producing music for around 60 years! It’s tragic that some of the music has been lost, but increasing interest will help to preserve what we have.
4. South African house
South African house has grown to be one of the most popular music genres in the world with its upbeat and eclectic rhythm. Like a few others on this list, this genre gained its stylistic origins from Kwaito music. In South Africa, it is classed as deep house or soulful house, it also has its own unique sound and vibe which is reflected in its musical style. Gqom is a Subgenre of South African house music Known as electronic house that emerged in the early 2010s pioneered largely by producer DJ Lag, Rudeboyz, Griffit Vigo, Dominowe and Citizen Boy. Gqom is typified by minimal, raw and repetitive sound with heavy bass beats but without the four-on-the-floor rhythm pattern.
If Marabi was considered a corrupting menace, isicathamiya is soft and careful. Almost literally: the word has Zulu roots and translates approximately to “walking gently”. And whilst many of the other styles we’ve looked at prioritise instruments over voices, Isicathamiya is acapella: the only noises are made by people singing, clicking and clapping. It’s often sung by large groups of men, and it’s not dissimilar to some church choirs - in fact, one of the most popular groups, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, has a song called “Amen”, and groups frequently a uniform. Traditionally, isicathamiya is heavily influenced by Zulu culture, spirituality and ideology and some of the singing is in the Zulu language. Modern isicathamiya is more organised and competitive than other genres of music: the choirs regularly hold events in Johannesburg which can last all night. Whilst a lot of people outside of South Africa might not be particularly familiar with the genre, almost everyone knows “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, which was adapted from Mbube by Solomon Linda, an isicathamiya singer.
6. Javia (Township Jive)
Javia is a genre of music associated with mbaqanga, maribi and kwaito and originated, as the name suggests, in the segregated townships of South Africa in the 20th Century. Javia was often played in shebeens and is upbeat and enjoyable, which makes it perfect for parties and social events - if you like to dance, try a little Township Jive. It’s been considered one of the most mixed genres, because it’s influenced by funk, soul, R&B and reggae. Prominent or influential javia artists include Nency Sedibe, Johnson Mkhalali and West Nkosi.
7. South African Jazz
Whoever named this genre knew exactly what they were doing: it’s literally jazz music from South Africa. The South African jazz scene has been around for decades and despite its early years not being thoroughly documented, in part because of the massive social and racial upheaval experienced by South Africa over the 20th century. But South African jazz continued and thrived, and South African jazz musicians have appeared in many key moments in the country’s history, including when pianist Abdullah Ibrahim performed at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994. Of course, pianos aren’t the only instruments present in the genre: saxophones, flutes and guitars are also often used. Other notable South African Jazz musicians include Dorothy Masuka, Moses Khumalo and Ike Moriz.
Another genre full of overlaps is mbube, which is close to isicathamiya because both are traditionally all-male groups who perform without instruments. As much of the history has, tragically, been lost, it’s difficult to piece things together but the most commonly accepted story is that mbube evolved into isicathamiya. One of the most famous isicathamiya groups, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, has also produced mbube music, but mbube is generally seen as heavier. Mbube means “lion” in Zulu, and many mbube musicians have Zulu heritage, so, in a way, so does the music itself. Mbube was developed in Natal in the 1920s by industrialist migrant workers. Miriam Makeba, who is often associated with marabi music, has also produced some mbube, which is an interesting leap from genres and unusual for a genre that is male dominated and often performed by larger groups.
From mbube we jump forward by nearly a century to amapiano, which emerged in the 2010s and is more closely linked with kwaito than anything else. It’s modern and a fusion of different genres: even the name borrows from Zulu and English - “ama” pluralises the “piano”, although the instrument doesn’t seem to be particularly prevalent in amapiano. Amapiano’s roots are small: songs are recorded, mixed and released on mobile phones, but they’re played everywhere, from shops to clubs to the radio. It’s made amapiano the most popular genre of music in South Africa.
The influence of kwaito is easy to see in amapiano, because it feels both old and modern and it’s easy to dance to. Amapiano also borrows from jazz, lounge and deep house and some of the tunes have a feel that’s both repetitive and catchy. You won’t mind it being stuck in your head for a few days. Because the genre is new and discussed online, it’s easy to find amapiano artists, who often collaborate with each other, and many amapiano songs feature other artists.
10. Township Music
Finally, we have Township music. Although it’s often referred o as an independent genre, it encompasses mbaqanga, marabi and kwela as an umbrella term. It’s influenced by traditional Zulu music combined with different forms of jazz. As with other types of music, it was developed by working class artists performing in townships, hence the name, and was often seen as a form of rebellion against the white supremacist apartheid state. One of the most influential township artists, Mbongeni Ngema, created a Broadway musical “Sarafina” which was eventually made into a film starring Whoopi Goldberg. Many of the artists that have already been mentioned have made Township Music at some point, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Mango Grove.
South Africa has long been known for its incredible arts, culture and music. Whilst looking over old and emerging genres it’s easy to see how the politics that have shaped the region for hundreds of years influence what has been created, what is popular and what is remembered. Whilst people might turn on the radio to listen to amapiano or reminisce with kwaito from their youth, the history and legacy stretches long after the last blow of the pennywhistle or harmony of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Listening to South African music - if you’re in Johannesburg, Soweto, or outside of Africa entirely, is an incredible way to connect (or reconnect) with one of the most interesting music scenes in the world. And whilst we’re loving the amapiano made at the moment, anyone outside of South Africa should be waiting expectantly to see what they come up with next.
Check out our Playlist recommendations to get you into the South African Jive