The penny whistle is strongly associated with traditional Irish music, but that’s not the only musical culture in which this small but versatile instrument has gained popularity.
Kwela is a prominent penny whistle musical tradition from South Africa that evolved in the 1950s. It features a distinctive skiffle-like beat, with jazzy underpinnings and has gained popularity the world over for its bright melodies, upbeat rhythms and vibrant sound.
So today, let’s venture away from the world of the Irish tin whistle briefly and explore this exciting southern African musical tradition.
The Origins of Kwela Penny Whistle Music
Kwela is strongly inspired by Marabi music – an earlier style of South African music rooted in jazz, fused with African rhythms.
Kwela was also strongly influenced by the music of Malawian immigrants, combined with the sounds of local music.
Over time this new African jazz style evolved into its own distinct genre, spreading further afield to Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi and gaining popularity not just in Africa, but around the world.
What Does Kwela Mean?
Kwela music was predominantly played at local shebeens where people would gather to drink, dance and socialise.
The word kwela originates from the Zulu and Xhosa languages and has two meanings – the literal translation is to climb, mount, raise or ‘get on board’.
The term is also a reference however to getting ‘on board’ the local police vans, which were colloquially known as ‘kwela-kwela’. Local busking musicians faced police harrasment and were often at risk of being arrested under apartheid law. As a result they were all too familiar with theese ‘kwela-kwela’.
Watch the video below to hear Big Voice Jack Jr. (son of one of the greatest kwela penny whistle players of all time) speak about the etymology and meaning of the word:
By the late 1960s kwela became overshadowed by a new urban musical sound known as mbaqanga. Due to a renewed interest in “world music” in recent years however, kwela has experienced something of a resurgence.
The Defining Characteristics of Kwela Music
For a musical style that evolved against a backdrop of apartheid, poverty and hardship, Kwela music has a defiantly joyful sound.
A typical kwela band lineup consists of two or more whistles accompanied by guitar, bass and drums. The saxaphone also became a popular instrument as part of this lineup.
The music itself typically consists of a repeated chord sequence (the standard I-IV-V-I or I-IV-I-V7 chord progression, typically played on a string bass and guitar), with a melodic line played over it by several penny whistles. A solo penny whistle player would then improvise a new melody over the rest of the band.
The musical features of kwela include:
Penny whistle melodies
Full drum kit rather than simple percussion
Upbeat tempo & melodies
Rich musical textures
Have a listen to The Journey by Big Voice Jack Lerole in the video below and you’ll hear all of these identifying characteristics. The track begins with two whistles playing in harmony, establishing the main melodic motif, before the band joins in with rhythmic guitar playing, bass and drums:
Why the Penny Whistle?
You might be wondering why the humble penny whistle of all musical instruments rose to prominence in this new musical style?
The answer is simple. This lightweight instrument was affordable, readily available and easy to transport. Hence it became the instrument of choice for the Kwela jazz style.
With its bright, clear tone and two octave range, the penny whistle also lends itself well as a solo or an ensemble instrument.
Traditional flutes have long been indigenous to the peoples of the northern regions of South Africa, meaning musicians were able to quickly adapt to the penny whistle, using it to incorporate traditional South African folk tunes into the new Marabi-influenced Kwela music.
The Big Names: Popular Kwela Tin Whistle Players
As kwela caught the attention of western musicians, many kwela whistle players rose to significant fame, not just in South Africa, but throughout neighbouring African countries.
These performers were renowned for crafting a unique style of music that perfectly blended the sounds of penny whistling with a distinct African flair. They brought this simple fipple instrument to exciting heights creating vibrant new sounds, all while displaying an impressive level of technical skill and dexterity.
Some of the most popular and prolific performers included:
“Big Voice” Jack Lerole – leader of Elias & his Zig Zag Flutes
Kwela Influence in Western Music
Kwela music has caught the attention of a number of Western musicians over the years who have released their own kwela-inspired recordings. Two of the most prominent examples are A Swingin’ Safari by the Bert Kaempfert Orchestra in 1962, and Graceland by the legendary Paul Simon in 1986.
Swingin’ Safari borrows the signature penny whistle sound (though Bert Kaempfert replicated this sound on the piccolo, rather than incorporating the whistle to his arrangement), while Graceland features the iconic skiffle-like guitar accompaniment.
The legendary Big Voice Jack Lerole recorded his own version of Swinging Safari, returning it to a more authentic sound and its original kwela-inspired roots:
Irish Tin Whistles
Whichever style of music is for you, make sure to check out McNeela Music Instruments range of whistles. We’ve got something for everyone, from beginner to professional. We offer a wide range of tin whistles in a number of keys, ranging from soprano whistle to low whistle.
We stock a number of whistles from makers including Tony Dixon, Generation, Clarke Sweetone, Oak, Killarney, Setanta, McNeela and more – perfect for the modern tin whistle player. McNeela tin whistles are available in a number of keys, so whether you’re looking for a standard Irish whistle in the key of D, a new C whistle, or low whistles in a range of keys, we have something for you.
To learn more about the Irish tin whistle, and its role in traditional Irish music, why not browse the rest of my Irish Music Blog? It’s packed full of information about Irish musical instruments, the history of Irish folk music and profiles of iconic Irish musicians.