The Music and Artists of South Africa
  • Part 1: A brief history
  • Part 2 - Miriam Makeba

    Part 1: A brief history

    These articles are an attempt to write an account of the history of music in SA and the rocky road the country and its artists have travelled to reach this stage where SA music is finally about to take its proud place on the World Music stage.

    The story of SA music is inextricably bound to the socio-political history of a country that has moved from the dark days of Apartheid to the bright democracy of the present day. It is a fact that South Africans have always celebrated life's wonderful and terrible moments with a song on their lips and a sway in their hips. When Bill Cosby visited SA recently, he remarked that wherever he went there was always a choir to accompany him and his party. An indelible memory from those heady election days of 1994 was our victorious new president, Nelson Mandela, Toyi-Toying ( the traditional running-on the-spot dance) at a post-election celebration party.

    The new unofficial SA anthem 'Shosholoza' was originally a call-and-response song sung by the migrant labourers which echoed the onomatopoeic sound of the train carrying them home to their families. It is now sung with great pride at all types of sporting events.

    Many South African artists began their careers singing in church or in mission shool choirs and when they moved to the commercial music arena there was a well developed recording industry waiting for them. The first commercial recordings were made in SA in 1912 and Gallo, the first recording studio in SA, was established in the 1930s. Today SA has the most advanced recording industry in Africa with many established record companies such as Gallo, Polygram, Tusk, CCP/EMI and BMG.

    There are many different musical styles in SA. Among these are Kwela, Mbaqanga, Mbube, Soul, Disco, Reggae and of course Rock, Pop and Jazz. Although the inspiration for these came largely from the USA, the major radio stations have always pumped out a mixture of the more popular songs from the American and British charts. However, although the SA rock and pop bands and artists have always attempted to sound as close as possible to their overseas influences, the black artists in SA have managed to imbue their various styles with a uniquely South African identity.

    In the current post-modern music era there seems to be little that has not already been done or heard; this explains the global explosion of what is loosely termed 'World Music'. In reality this is just a boredom with the usual USA/UK music and a consequent desire to explore the music from all the other countries on the planet.

    There has been American Indian, Aboriginal, Middle-Eastern, North African and South American music but now the ears of the world's music listeners are slowly but surely beginning to turn to the music of South Africa. Just as prospecters from all over the globe streamed into SA for our Gold so too are they coming now for our music - and what a wealth of music we have.Over the next few months we will be highlighting the established artists such as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, the Soul Brothers, Ray Phiri and Stimela,Johnny Clegg and Juluka/Savuka, Lucky Dube, Ladysmith Black Mambazo,Spokes Mashiyane and Kippie Moketsi. We will then move onto the newer artists such as Chicco, Mzwake Mbuli, M'du, Tananas, Yvonne Chaka-Chaka, Prophets of the City, Qkumba Zoo and the Springbok Nude Girls. The list is endless and varied, this is our 'Rainbow Nation' and the artists and styles therein are as myriad and mixed as the people who populate this land.

    Part 2 - Miriam Makeba

    We will begin this series of sketches of outstanding South African artists with probably one of the most famous of all our pre-democracy musical ambassadors. Hugh Masekela could probably lay equal claim to this title but it's ladies first and Miriam Makeba during her many years in exile, rightfully earned the title by which she is known around the world, 'Mama Africa'.

    As with many artists of her era, Makeba was largely influenced by the great female Jazz singers of the day such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. She also began singing in her church choir before joining the vocal group Manhattan Brothers. She then left them and toured Southern Africa extensively with 'The African Jazz and Variety', a travelling group of artists. Before Miriam had turned 20, she had experienced sufficient traumas to last a lifetime. Her father died, she survived a bout of breast cancer and had a child and the first of a total of five marriages.

    Her big break came when she won the lead in the famous South African musical 'King Kong' and a part in the film 'Come Back Africa'. Her new found stardom took her to the USA where she performed at President Kennedy's birthday party (not singing a duet with Marilyn Munroe). She then began a lucrative partnership with the American artist Harry Belafonte which produced the classic African hits "The Click Song" and "Pata Pata". Back in South Africa, the Apartheid Government of the 60s deemed her a subversive element and cancelled her passport leaving her to spend the next three decades in exile in the US.

    Makeba's fall from mainstream US approval resulted from her marriage to the Black Panther activist Stokely Carmichael with whom she went to live in Guinea for nine years.It was Paul Simon's 'Graceland' world tour that eventually pulled Makeba back into the spotlight in 1986. In 1988 she cemented her comeback with the excellent 'Sangoma'album. The fall of the Apartheid regime and the return of Nelson Mandela opened the floodgates for the return of all the SA musical exiles; and Miriam Makeba was able to put all those years of trauma and tragedy behind her and regain her rightful place and home in the land of her birth. She recently recorded and toured with the late, great Jazz maestro Dizzy Gillespie.

    In 1997 she faced the evils of her past head-on when she appeared at the 'Klein Karoo Nationale Kunste Fees', an Afrikaans language Arts festival. While appearing in concert during the festival she was interrupted by a drunken pack of abusive, beercan-throwing (old-South African) racists. Undaunted, Mama Africa faced them with dignity and pride and berated them before pulling the plug on her performance.
    Stephen Segerman (

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