Many thanks to The In Crowd and his/her learning2share blog for making these very early Willard Cele tracks available. Willard was the inspiration for many kwela players, maybe including Spokes Mashiyane. Listen to these recordings (Penny Whistle Blues and Penny Whistle Boogie) and you’ll hear quite a different style of kwela to that recorded by the likes of Spokes or Lerole; it almost sounds like US American clarinet jazz.
The song Inkomo Zodwa was recorded by Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks in March 1959 and features Spokes Mashiyane on the pennywhistle. It is accredited to the South African playwright Gibson Kente. I originally got hold of this track on The Rough Guide to the Music of South Africa, and you can too (although I think it was an earlier version and the tracks have changed now).
Spoke’s whistle part is a constant solo throughout the song, playing in the lower registers during the singing, and rising up in volume and pitch in between. The key signature is somewhere between F and F#, and if we assume F, then Spoke’s whistle playing goes right down to low F. We’re talking Low Whistle territory here, and I must say that I’m rather surprised by the idea that Spoke’s had a low F – I mean, these aren’t so easy to come by nowadays and I daresay that Overton didn’t exist back then (if you have any ideas how this was played, I’d be very happy to hear them!)…
Leaving the academics behind; I’ve party transcribed, partly made up (the low bits of) the whistle part so that this can be played, along with the recording, on a Bb whistle – it’s sure to bring a tear to your eye. You might like to fractionally pitch shift it to get it in tune. -130% semitone did it for me using the demo version of Ableton. [I’ve subsequently learnt that this kind of manipulation is possible using Audacity, which is free]
I hope you enjoy trying to play this part and that it encourages you to listen to some of these old kwela recordings.
Last.fm has some good recorded content that is tagged kwela – unfortunately I can’t figure out how to embed the player here and then not complain that there is ‘Not enough content to play this station’. Follow the link to kwela on last.fm and check it out there – if it complains, try reloading the page, or try later, because there is definitely content there and it’s worth trying to hear.
This tune – Little Lemmy – is played by Little Lemmy (‘Special’ Mabaso) with Big Joe on alto sax (I might be making that second bit up – but he is credited as playing, and it sounds like Lemmy on the whistle). It can be found on the old, Decca LK 4292 “Something New from Africa”, as well as the currently available “The Pennywhistle – The Magical Instrument of Africa” on Gallo.
I have transcribed the theme (first four bars, repeated four times) which occurs at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the piece, as well as the first whistle solo. There is another whistle solo and a couple of sax solos in the complete piece which, as usual, lasts almost exactly two minutes and thirty seconds (so that two tunes fit on one side of a 45rpm single – well, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it!). You should be aiming for a speed of 150bpm (where a beat is a dotted crotchet (that’s a dotted Quarter Note to our USA pals)) which is pretty fast, especially on the run in bars 15-16.
I have no idea why I accredited the piece to Mokonotela – I must have read it off another piece by accident. The tune is actually accredited to ‘Hill’ – I wonder who that is?
If you enjoy playing this (or if you don’t) – please let me know by leaving a comment.
Back in June there was a blip in the visitor stats that was the result of a link to the Kwela Project from a post in the Banjoroots Yahoo group. The post was about Africa-American single-stringed instruments, and as well as mentioning the renowned ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik (who happens to play clarinet in Donald Kachamba‘s Kwela Heritage Jazz Band), it talks of the babatoni – South African washtub (well, more accurately, tea-chest) bass. Babatoni, aka Kwela Bass, is just one instance of a vast, worldwide class of single-string bass instruments. So now, when you listen to kwela – listen to what is happening in the bottom-end, far from the wailing pennywhistle. Maybe that’s a babatoni you’re hearing!
With a web site with as little traffic as the Kwela Project, it’s pretty easy to notice what kind of things are bringing visitors here. For example, Sunday’s BBC Prom performance by the Buskaid Soweto String Project, which you can still listen to online, resulted in a number of visits that had been referred from Google.
About a week ago, someone arrived at the Kwela Project as a result of typing ‘learn kwela‘ into Google. It has always been my intention that the project help aspiring kwelaleses (made up group noun) with music and technical tips, but it’s taken this long to listen to enough music, and read around the subject enough to feel that I’ve something worth saying.
Dolos is a catchy tune by Spokes Mashiyane that is the seventh track on King Kwela CD (available via the Kwela Project Store as a digital download). There are four main themes that Spokes varies and elaborates upon – these are transcribed below. Although they’re written in the key of D major, play them on a B flat whistle to be in the same key as the recording. Most kwela is played on a B flat whistle.
If you’ve ever wondered how “35 pennywhistlers and two drummers, dressed in Scout hats, kilts, tartan sashes, and neckerchiefs” could possibly be connected to the 1956 Alexandra bus boycott, then David B. Coplan’s essay Sophiatown and South African Jazz: Re-appropriating a Cultural Identity is for you. Telling the story of life, and music in particular, during Sophiatown’s brief 60-year lifespan, Mr Coplan provides a compelling account of the quest for genuine new-urban cultural expression in a time of both increased opportunity and oppression. Budding kwelaleses (what is the collective noun for kwela-players???) might be particularly interested in the substantial section that describes the birth of kwela (as recognised as an urban phenomenon, as opposed to a continuation of herder-flute traditions) to its demise, and how it relates to the melting pot of freehold-Sophiatown.
When you walk down Louis Botha [Avenue], you see wonders.
Shoes are worn out.
People are taking their jackets off.
It is hot, and people are walking on foot to work.
There are no busses, no motor cars.
We shall not ride! They [busses] are not ridden!
They [busses] are not ridden! We shall not ride!
The Alex Casbahs – Azikhwelwa (‘We Shall Not Ride’)
Buskaid plays mainly classical music, with a fusion of classic pop and kwela.
You can find out more about Buskaid in the Kwela Project’s post “Unite with the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble“.
Flickr user “ethekwinigirl” is a writer/journalist and photoblogger in Durban, South Africa. Her photoset Street Musicians shows that kwela is still performed live in open, public spaces; maybe by the same musicians who, as youngsters, performed on the streets and heard “Kwela, kwela!” as the police vans tried to round them up!
It would be so cool to hear what these guys are playing! I wonder if anyone was dancing Phata-phata for them :-)
Every now and again I find something really interesting as a result of the kwela project. It’s not always about kwela either, but in this case I’d say there’s quite a strong connection. ýlowek scavel-cronek is a blog that presents music that can’t be found in the shops any more. The first track on Take Cover! Zimbabwe Hits is by the Jairos Jiri Sunrise Kwela Band; not a whistle to be heard in this guitar-led song, but the three-chord-trick used in kwela is clear. But it’s the hugely reverberated guitar-percussion impressions of machine guns that the listener remembers.. it is a very disconcerting juxtaposition!