As well as being cheap and portable, the
pennywhistle could also be used by a solo performer or
as an ensemble
instrument. Part of the popularity of the
pennywhistle was based on the fact that
flutes of different kinds had long been traditional
instruments among the peoples of the more northerly
parts of South Africa, and the pennywhistle thus
enabled the swift adaptation of folk tunes into the
new marabi-inflected idiom.
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
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
were sent out by the recording industry to
lure pennywhistlers into the studio and have
them record their tunes with full band backing.
Lemmy Mabaso is perhaps the earliest of the pennywhistle stars
- he began performing in
the streets at the age of 10. Spokes Mashiyane
and his All
Star Flutes were widely popular by 1954.
The derivation of the term "kwela" is uncertain.
It most likely from the Zulu for "get up" or "climb
on", though in township slang it also referred to
the police vans, the "kwela-kwela". Thus it could be
an invitation to join the dance as well as a
warning. It could also have derivations in the Zulu
and Xhosa word, �ikhwelo,� meaning a shrill whistle.
It is said that the young men who played the
pennywhistle on street corners also acted as
lookouts to warn those enjoying themselves in the
illegal drinking dens of the arrival of the cops.
The all-in-one official guide and web portal to South Africa.
In 1959, the recording "Tom Hark" by
Elias Lerole and his Zig-Zag Flutes was a
hit around the world, being taken over and
reworked by, for instance, British
bandleader Ted Heath.
The origins of "Tom Hark"
"In the mid 1950s Jake took his
flute and began to play, and his
brother Elias joined in. It was a
new tune, vibrant with the fast
freedoms of the street corners, and
it swept them away. They played on
and on, with only the goats to hear,
until it was dark and they were
Five years later Jake and Elias
went back to Johannesburg, and the
streets. Soon they had a band: three
pennywhistles, a bass made from an
upended tea box, a bit of rope and a
broomstick, and a skiffle guitar.
Jake thrived - this was better than
the church choirs of Moria. And it
could pay twenty pounds in an
A year later a record company
scout heard the band playing in the
street and offered them a chance to
make a recording. They went to the
studio and recorded the tune Jake
had composed that day six years
earlier in the hills of Moria. They
called it Tom Hark.
The record started with the
sound of money clinking down onto a
pavement. Dice rattle, streetwise
young voices call bets and argue,
the dice stop rolling, cheers and
groans as the coins are scooped up
Feet come running and an urgent
voice calls: "E Bops, kom maak gou
-- hier kom die kwela kwela van!"
("Hurry up, here comes the police
van"). "Tom Hark" has been watching
for police at the corner.
Dice and cash vanish, out come
pennywhistles and guitars, and the
gambling school becomes a kwela band
(the music named after the police
van) and they swing into the
irresistible tune of Tom Hark. The
police rumble past in their van. All
clear - the music stops, dice rattle
down, a new Tom Hark takes his stand
at the corner.
(From "Kwela Jake" by Keith