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All About Jazz: South Africa

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.

Political History

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.

mbaqanga - From the Zulu word for a African maize bread, which became derogatory slang. Sometimes called "township jive." A dance music which evolved in South African townships and became broadly popular in the '60s and '70s. Vocal groups such the Manhattan Brothers, the Skylarks, and Malathini & the Mahotella Queens popularized their vocal version of the mbaqanga sound. Usually includes guitars and bass, often brass, atop cascading rhythms. Mbaqanga remains a dominant force in the music of South Africa today, incorporated into both jazz forms and popular music.

mbube - A range of choral musics combinging Zulu-Swazi forms with the sounds of African church choirs. Mbube was a mixture of Zulu-Swazi, European, Afrikaans, and Afro-American styles. Favored by migrants in the '40s and '50s.

shebeen - Gaelic term meaning "little shop," coined by early Irish policemen in Cape Town. Illegal establishments which sold alcohol (in various home-brewed forms, known as "utshwala" or "kaffir beer"; as well as the more colloquial "isikilimikwiki," or "kill me quick") to black South Africans. Early in the 20th century, the South African government attempted to control access to beer by establishing a monopoly on the product and specifying that it could only be consumed in municipal beer halls. Shebeens, often held in black homes and usually sponsored by women, were the underground answer to this and similar decrees. They featured entertainment in the form of music and musical theater, as well as (of course) dancing (and services). Shebeen performers were classified by the South African government as "vagrants" and thus denied professional status. The shebeens were a frequent site of underground political activity.

slumyard - The term used to describe areas where African workers were housed early in South African urban development. The distinguishing feature of a slumyard (as opposed to a slum) was that it existed on land owned by whites, essentially in their backyard. Slumyards were notoriously terrible places to live, but they also brought about an ironic sense of community among their densely- packed residents.

stokfel - These loosely-structured social groups (whose name derives from early cattle trading fairs known as stockfairs) exemplify ubuntu in their organization. Each member invests in a general fund of money and effort, and the proceeds are shared equally among members of the collective. These groups, often organized by women, also play a role in preserving traditional healing arts and rituals, especially musical performance.

township - Urban residential areas which housed African workers disenfranchised by the Group Areas act of 1950. Rentals only; this term does not include freehold or slumyard areas.

ubuntu - A Zulu word, literally meaning "humanness." Ubuntu is a social and spiritual philosophy serving as a framework for African society. Its essential meaning can be conveyed using the Zulu maxim "umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu"—meaning, in essence, "a person is a person through other persons." The practice of ubuntu is fundamentally inclusive, involving respect and concern for one's family and one's neighbors. It also implies respect for one's ancestors, in a deeper spiritual sense. Ubuntu defines the individual as a component of a greater (inclusive) collective whole, and it stresses social consciousness and unity. (Most dramatically, ubuntu stands diametrically opposite to the concept of apartheid.)

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Jazz article: South African Jazz: Articles
All About Jazz: South Africa
South African Jazz: Articles


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