Tip #63 – Taking Influence from Kwela Music

What is Kwela music?

It is pennywhistle-based folk music played in the streets of South Africa, playing decorated jazzy/blues-y melodic lines over a cyclical harmonic progression.

The name, “Kwela” has nothing to do with any music aspect. In fact, it is a verb from the Isizulu and African Bantu languages meaning “to climb.” Prior to this become an established music genre, it was used as jargon and also as code among kids to warn when the police was coming by. If they couldn’t hide, they would act innocent by taking out their pennywhistles and playing this lively skiffle music.

While the melody was improvised using select pitches from the blues scale, the harmonic progression was always a recurring variation of one of these three:

Play around with these chord progressions by having yourself record or use a DAW to playback as you improves a melody line over it.

Historically, these progressions then influenced the blues because so many South Africans had their ears tuned to the Kwela music harmonic predictability. Thus, the common 12-bar blues were adapted into these variations:

Once again, play around with these progressions to feel where and how the harmonic forces are different from the “original.”


Thank you so much for taking the time to read! Feel free to comment, share, and subscribe for more daily tips below! Till next time.

Author: Bryan M. Waring

Bryan Waring is a graduate of USM's School of Music with a B.M. in Performance – Composition and is now attending Belmont University for a M.M. in Commercial Media – Composition & Arranging. During his time at USM, he studied violin with Dino Liva and composition with Dr. Daniel Sonenberg, as well as has premiered several pieces during the semiannual Composer's Ensemble concert series. In 2017, Bryan was a writer for the original musical theater work of "Molded By The Flow," directed by Paul Dresher and Rinde Eckert. Outside of school, Bryan has been involved with writing music for videogame developers at Portland's CI2 Lab, collaborating with the King Tide Party, and studying with Larry Groupé (Straw Dogs) in San Diego. Now living in Nashville. Along with composing, Bryan teaches music to children, receiving the Master Teacher Award for his work at ESF Camps; and does audio engineering for live ensembles. Besides talents in music, Bryan is a team-player in any competitive work environment; equipped with skills in leadership, organization, mathematics, creativity, communication, and managing. On the side, Bryan has worked as a model for several skilled artists in the New England area. Among his other accomplishments include obtaining the rank of Eagle Scout in April 2013 with a project of building a side parking area with guide rails for Webb Mountain Park in Monroe, CT.

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