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South African Jazz: Glossary

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This special section is devoted to South African jazz, which has prospered for several decades and developed a distinctive character all its own. AAJ: SA was created in 2002 and has since been updated with a continual stream of new material.

This is the Glossary page. To visit the rest of this series, click on the links below.



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Glossary of terms


apartheid - an Afrikaans word which essentially means segregation. The long-term foundation of South African race relations until the 1990s. Whites and non-whites (eg. Africans, Indians, coloureds) were kept separate long before the National Party legislated very specific regulations at the middle of the 20th century defining a de jure version of apartheid. Among other rules, Africans were prohibited from most land ownership and from operating commercial enterprises—also from freedom of speech and organization. Apartheid was the foremost basis for the cultural and economic boycotts that many countries took up against South Africa starting in the early '60s and accelerating rapidly in the '80s.

ingoma - Literally means "song" or "dance" in several African languages. In practice the word refers to a variety of rural-derived group dances which evolved after the First World War among newly urbanized Zulu migrant workers. But a more general meaning is equally valid, and it has pan- African connotations.

isicathamiya - From a Zulu word "to walk or step on ones toes lightly." Derived from traditional call-and-response vocal music, combined with an open church-like sound. Mbube, a group male vocal style, evolved among Zulu migrant workers who lived in all-male communities. The international stars Ladysmith Black Mambazo exemplify the more refined isicathamiya sound. Isicathamiya choirs still appear in weekly competitions in Johannesburg and Durban.

jive - A musical form that arose in the late '50s. Jive is/was an immensely popular dance music, closely related to mbaqanga, with an insistent pulse and regular embellishments on guitar and bass. Often incorporates vocals, and often features electric instruments. Incorporates more elements of Afro-American Jazz. West Nkosi (previously a pennywhistle player; now on saxophone) infused kwela and mbaqanga roots into a string of sax jive hits in the late '60s and early '70s. The Soul Brothers brought in an R&B element.

kwaito - Named after Amakwaitos (gangsters), who were in turn named after the amalaita—an organization of Norh Sotho gangs active outisde Johannesburg during the first half of the 20th century. Related to the Afrikaans slang "kwai," meaning hot. An R&B/hip-hop flavored combination of chanted or sung vocals married to powerful (and often programmed) beats. Features sampling and effects. Also has strong roots in Jamaican reggae and European house music. Popular music in today's South Africa.

kwela - From the Xhosa and Zulu word "khwela," meaning "climb on," a term used to get performers involved in a show; also widely used by police to get them onto police vehicles. Related to the Zulu/Xhosa word "ikhwelo," for a shrill whistle. The kwela music which developed during the '40s and '50s almost always featured the pennywhistle, a cheap and reliable (tin flute) instrument which served as the lead voice. Early music by Willard Cele caught the ears of many, and the 1951 movie "The Magic Garden" also played a role. Spokes Mashiyane (And His All Star Flutes) were wildy popular by 1954. The harmonies of the kwela are simple and cyclical in nature, usually C-F-C-G7; the music combines a rapid ostinato foundation with elements of Afro-American jazz swing forms.

marabi - Perhaps derived from Marabastad, an area in Pretoria where domestic servants lived in the 1880s; and/or from the Sotho word "marabi," the plural form of the word for gangster. A very early music (and dance) form which arose in Johannesburg slumyards during the 1920s and '30s. Marabi blended early Afro-American dixieland and ragtime with cyclical harmonies and a trance-like rhythmic foundation. Regularly performed at shebeens, marabi was the defining music of urban ghettoes in South Africa. The lead voice improvised over a repeated three-chord unit played on a piano (or organ or accordion, and later a guitar), along with drumming on various impromptu instruments. Marabi did not begin to appear on record until late due to an early lack of recording technology, making recordings rare. Marabi is often used (somewhat incorrectly) to describe various South African jazz-influenced musical forms which evolved later.


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