What You Need to Know About South African Folk Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


If you’re a fan of world music, you’ll definitely want to check out the sounds of South African folk music. From traditional songs to modern remixes, there’s a lot to enjoy. Here’s what you need to know about this fascinating genre.


Although there is evidence of some South African folk music in the 16th century, the first reliable account of folk music in South Africa comes from the early 18th century. At that time, there were three main groups of people in South Africa: the Khoikhoi, the San, and the Europeans. Each group had its own music, which was passed down from generation to generation.

African musical traditions

South African music is so rich and diverse that it would be impossible to describe it all in one article. African musical traditions can be divided into three broad categories: traditional, popular and Western classical.

Traditional music is the music of the people, which has been passed down from generation to generation. Traditional music is often played at religious ceremonies, weddings and other important social events.

Popular music is the music of the people, which has been commercialized and is usually played on the radio or at nightclubs. Popular music often has a strong beat and is easy to dance to.

Western classical music is the music of the educated elite, which has been passed down from generation to generation. Western classical music is often played at concerts and other formal events.

Western influences

The influence of Western music and dance can be seen in many South African folk traditions. The accordion, for example, is a popular instrument in traditional Zulu music, while the violin is commonly used in Xhosa music. Western dance styles such as the polka and waltz have also become popular in South Africa, particularly in rural areas.



Isicathamiya is a form of South African choral music that developed in the mines of the country. The music is characterized by its close harmony singing and its use of the footsteps of the miners as part of the percussion. It is said to be the inspiration for the worldwide phenomenon known as “a cappella.”


Mbube is a form of South African vocal music, made famous by the Zamanguni Mbube Singers, that was originated by Zulu workers in Natal. The word “mbube” means “lion” in Zulu, and the style is also known as “izimbube”, which means “song of the lion”. This type of singing is characterized by harmonies of three or more voices, with a lead singer supported by a chorus. The lead singer typically does not use instruments, but may clap his hands or stomp his feet to keep time. The other singers use their voices to create a percussive accompaniment. Mbube songs are usually about personal topics such as love, loss, and heartbreak.


Maskandi is a unique style of South African folk music that has its origins in the Zulu people. It is characterized by a fast, rhythmicbeat and often features a lead singer backed by a chorus of singers and dancers. Maskandi music is often accompanied by traditional instruments such as the uhadi (a type of zither) and the umakhweyana (a type of flute).

The word “maskandi” comes from the Zulu word “umaskandi”, which means “traveler”. This reflects the fact that many maskandi artists are traveling musicians who go from village to village, entertaining people with their music. Maskandi music has become increasingly popular in recent years, with many young people enjoying its catchy rhythms and upbeat melodies.

Notable Artists

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a South African choral group that sings in the native isiZulu language and traditional Zulu harmonies. The group was founded in 1964 by Joseph Shabalala, and has become world-renowned for its sound, which combines the best of African and western musical traditions. Ladysmith Black Mambazo has released over 40 albums, won five Grammy Awards, and been nominated for an Emmy Award. The group has toured with Paul Simon, been featured in the movie The Lion King, and performed for Nelson Mandela.

Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba (4 March 1932 – 9 November 2008), nicknamed Mama Africa, was a South African singer, actress, United Nations goodwill ambassador, and civil rights activist. Born in Johannesburg, she lived in Guinea-Bissau for many years with her husband, the Cuban percussionist and bandleader Tito Guevara.

Makeba’s career began in the 1950s when she rose to prominence as a jazz and Afropop singer in South Africa. She recorded songs for the Gallo Record Company and appeared in the first all-African production of King Kong. As apartheid intensified, Makeba was exiled from South Africa in 1960 due to her political activism; after living in London and New York City, she settled in Guinea-Bissau. She had a hit song with “Pata Pata” in 1967, and recorded material in six different languages over her career.

In 1986, Makeba received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, became a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and was presented with the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize by UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. In later life she returned to perform in South Africa; President Nelson Mandela hailed her as “a heroine of our struggle”. The National Endowment for the Arts bestowed upon her its special American Heritage Award. In 2006 she returned to perform 11 sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall as part of a documentary film project called Amandla! A Revolution In Four Part Harmony. Following health issues including a serious stroke suffered while performing on stage during a 2007 tour of Italy after which she spent 5 years recuperating before finally succumbing to complications on November 9th 2008 aged 76.

Hugh Masekela

Born in KwaGuqa Township, Witbank, Hugh Ramapolo Masekela was a trumpet virtuoso who was exiled from his home country for nearly 30 years. He returned to South Africa in 1990, two months after Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. Masekela’s 1968 hit “Grazing in the Grass” was one of the first African pop songs to achieve mainstream success outside the continent. He also wrote the score for the 1980 movie Sarafina!, which told the story of the 1976 Soweto student uprising, and he toured with Paul Simon in 1986 on the Graceland album tour.


South African music is a reflection of the country’s diverse cultures and history. Music has always been an important part of the South African experience, and the country’s various cultures have all contributed to the development of its unique sound. From the traditional music of the various indigenous peoples to the more modern sounds of the townships and cities, South African music is a rich and varied tapestry.

Political significance

During the apartheid era, South African folk music was used as a tool for resistance and political protest. Singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela, for example, used his music to inspire hope and fight against injustice. His song “When You Come Back” was even banned by the apartheid government.

Since the end of apartheid, South African folk music has continued to be an important part of the country’s cultural identity. It is often used to tell stories about the nation’s history and to celebrate its diverse cultures. Folk musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Hugh Masekela have achieved international fame, and their music is still enjoyed by people all over the world.

Cultural significance

Folk music has always been an important part of South African culture. For many years, it was the only form of music that was allowed to be performed in public. Today, folk music is still very popular, and is often performed at cultural events and celebrations.

Folk music is a great way to connect with South African culture. It is often very lively and upbeat, and can be a lot of fun to listen to. It is also a great way to learn about the country’s history and traditions. If you are interested in learning more about South African culture, listening to folk music is a great place to start.

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