South African Jazz: Introduction
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South African music comes in as many varieties as it has influences. About a dozen African groups called the area home before European colonization. Then, during the 18th and 19th centuries, British, Dutch, and other settlers moved in. They brought their own traditions, including an especially large dose of Christian choral and ensemble music.
African-American jazz forms began percolating into the region in the early 20th century. Ragtime and dixieland led to the development of a uniquely South African musical form called marabi , popular among blacks in urban ghettoes. With the onset of swing, this music became progressively more complex and urbane. Kwela was all the rage during the '50s, followed on its heels by the sleek and sophisticated sounds of mbaqanga . Now that the 21st century has hit South Africa, it's become impossible to resolve the many influences which give the region's music its particular flavor.
One thing is for sure: South African jazz is more vital as ever. It grew and developed during the dark ages of apartheid—as an underground movement, a statement of protest and identity; and as an expatriate music in the hands of banned international stars (including Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Hugh Masekela ). But jazz has exploded since the first South African free elections in 1994—both in amount and diversity.
When Zim Ngqawana led a group of 100 drummers, singers, and dancers at Nelson Mandela's inauguration in 1994, he heralded a new era.
Free elections mean freedom of speech and expression, and today's South African jazz artists have taken these new freedoms to the hilt. South African jazz spans the range from quiet new age sounds to outspoken fiery expressionism. And fortunately for us, some of the brightest stars on the scene have taken ample opportunities to express themselves on record.