Despite making use of exactly the same instrument, Irish and African ‘whistle’ songs have a very different sound to them. In Ireland people talk about the ‘tin whistle’, but in South Africa we call it the ‘pennywhistle’, or iMpempe. Supposedly the difference in the sound can be attributed to the way in which the whistle is held – in the 1950s Willard Cele popularised what has since become the accepted way of playing the pennywhistle in South Africa, by turning the instrument sideways in his mouth, creating a ‘thick’ sound.

Willard Cele, Drum Magazine, 1951
Willard Cele, Drum Magazine, 1951

Pennywhistling took off after Cele’s appearance in the movie The Magic Garden, and so the popular genre of kwela music was born! The ‘pennywhistle jive’ – the music which would go on to become known as kwela – was one of the first African sounds to enjoy international commercial success. By the end of the 1950s kwela LPs could be found in countries across the globe, including the UK, Argentina, Spain, France and Germany, with the kwela sound also influencing American swing music. With its roots in the marabi tradition, the music blended elements of rock ’n roll, blues, jazz and swing, creating a sound that had universal appeal. In South Africa artists such as Spokes Mashiyane and Lemmy Special Mabaso popularised this urban dance music that soon had the townships hopping!

P.S. Kwela is an isiZulu word which means to ‘get up’ or ‘climb’. It’s also township slang for police vans, which were referred to during apartheid as the “kwela-kwela”. It is thought that the name kwela could be viewed as either an invitation to join the dance, or act as a warning: young men who played the pennywhistle on street corners acted as lookouts to warn people drinking in the shebeens of the arrival of the police.

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