Recording Studio Kwela is a jazzy instrumental style of music that was born on the streets of Johannesburg, in the black areas of Soweto and Sophiatown in the 1940s and 1950s. It remained popular through the 1960s until mbaquanga became more popular. The recording studio music is in general richly textured, uptempo, danceable, happy, light and distinctively African. The style was also sometimes called pata-pata. Predecessor styles are primarily marabi, but also tsaba-tsaba, and traditional Southern African music.
Recording Studio: Kwela – Penny Whistle
Its signature instrument is the penny whistle, “the simplest wind instrument invented” and no doubt one of the cheapest. A typical band line-up would be three penny whistles, accompanied by guitar, bass, and drums. The bass or even the guitar may be homemade, improvised from scraps of wood and wire. The single-string bass is an urban improvisation on the theme of traditional African plucked instruments.
Kwela was inspired by contemporary American jazz forms of the Swing period in Jazz history. It soon assimilated, however, African recording studio musical forms of various southern African regions, such as sinjonjo, vula matambo, saba saba, resulting in a novel and original blend of musical traits.
Special techniques were developed on musical instruments, for example an unusual oblique embouchure for playing the metal recorder-type flute, which marks the kwela-sound. Specific construction, tension and playing techniques also characterize the one-string bass which displays remote historical connections with the African ground-bow, although it was inspired by the bass in 1950s skiffle groups. Guitar playing techniques also deviate considerably from standard “classical” guitar playing, even in the number of strings.
Groups of ragamuffin Kwela musicians would travel from the townships to the city centers and play on the street corners. Most of these musicians were young teenagers and even some in their pre-teens. Recording Studio Kwela music soon became a national South African genre and the music industry quickly cashed in on the Kwela revolution. The music died out in the late ’60’s as a new form of amplified township music called Mbaqanga took over.
The derivation of the word is the verb kwela — to to climb up”, “to rise”, “mount”, get into the swing of things; to get onto the bus or train in (Xhosa, Zulu and related Bantu languages)” Kwela- Kwela was slang for a police van at the time. Alternate spellings are khwela, quela, qwela, but these are rare.