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Kwela is a pennywhistle-based street music from southern Africa with jazzy underpinnings and a distinctive, skiffle-like beat. It evolved from the marabi sound and brought South African music to international prominence in the 1950s.
The music has its roots in southern Africa but later adaptations of this and many other African folk idioms have permeated Western music (listen to the albums A Swingin' Safari by the Bert Kaempfert Orchestra (1962) and Graceland by Paul Simon (1986)), giving modern South African music, particularly jazz, much of its distinctive sound and lilting swagger.
One reason for the use of the pennywhistle is that it is cheap and portable, but it also lends itself as a solo or an ensemble instrument. The popularity of the pennywhistle may have been based on the fact that flutes of different kinds have 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-influenced music.
The most common explanation for the word "kwela" is that it is taken from the Zulu for "get up", 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 serving as a warning. 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 shebeens of the arrival of the police.
Kwela music was influenced by blending the music of Malawian immigrants to South Africa, together with the local South African sounds. In Chichewa, the word Kwela has a very similar meaning to the South African meaning: "to climb". The music was popularised in South Africa and then brought to Malawi, where contemporary Malawian artists have also begun producing Kwela music.
Although it has been asserted that kwela music exclusively uses the chord progression I-IV-I-V., others maintain that there is no specific kwela chord progression, and that I-IV-V-I and I-I-IV-V are particularly prevalent.
Artists such as Lemmy Mabaso were renowned for their pennywhistle skills, and Spokes Mashiyane was one of the most prominent with his kwela pennywhistle tunes. Other artists include The Skylarks, Jack Lerole, Aaron Lerole, The Solven Whistlers, Kippie Moeketsi, Donald Kachamba and Gwigwi Mrwebe.