Gifted: Allen Kwela began his musical journey with kwela (his surname is a coincidence) before shifting into jazz. Photo: Drum Magazine
Part charismatic stylist, part purist grouch — impressions of guitarist Allen Kwela are as commonplace as they are reductive.
In some, he appears as a fully formed Wes Montgomery disciple versed in the art of complicating predictable marabi harmonies. In others, his scholarship is disputed, his catalogue unaccounted for and his contributions downplayed. With the reissue of his opus, Black Beauty, Kwela, who died of an apparent asthma attack in 2003, re-enters the conversation, opening the door for a reappraisal of his talents and another take on this overlooked gem.
Initially released in 1975 on the Joburg/Soweto label, a subsidiary of the Satbel Recording Company, Black Beauty embodies the contradictory nature of Kwela; a reputed jazz snob whose experiential knowledge of the musics of Africa and its diaspora rendered him chameleon-like.
Kwela’s biography exists in scattershot form, with fragments contributed by disparate writers. Born in 1939 of the Kwela clan, which originates on the South Coast of present-day KwaZulu-Natal, the guitarist’s birthplace is commonly listed as Chesterville, a small township in Durban between Cato Manor and Westville.
According to fellow guitarist Madala Kunene, it is these musically fertile locales that define Kwela’s earliest musical encounters, which included watching older brothers who played guitar and other instruments. In 1954, at the age of 15, Kwela got his first “proper” guitar and then set his sights on a professional career.
“You can trace the influence of Cato Manor in his eclectic style,” says Kunene of the racially mixed inner-city ghetto that was the hub of subversive urban culture from the early 20th century until much of it was demolished in the late 1950s and 1960s. The promulgation of the Group Areas Act in 1950, which separated residential zones according to race, had a wide effect on societal networks and would go on to affect the fortunes of active and upcoming musicians.
“He and his peers would have been influenced by the likes of Ernest Khoza, Themba Kunene, Vonco Khumalo and Dixie Sibiya. Kunene [my father] and Ernest Khoza were experimenting with marabi on guitar, which later morphs into township jazz.
“I’d say Allen, by virtue of having learnt from those guys, was privy to how marabi, with the influence of and interplay with evolving American styles, becomes township jazz. In that regard, Allen was like a Joe Pass — naturally quick-fingered — and also keen to pick up on what American guitarists were doing. We called Sandile Shange [who collaborated with Kwela] Wes Montgomery and Sdumo Ngidi was Barney Kessel. It was the intermixing of styles that alters marabi into township jazz. But there were others, too, from Cyril Magubane [who formed Heshoo Beshoo], to Alpheus Nkosi [an early adopter of the electric guitar in Durban] and an obscure character I only remember as Hloni. A lot of guys learned from Hloni.”
Writing in Jazzlife on what would have been Kwela’s 80th birthday, Sam Mathe lists the guitarist, who leaves for Johannesburg in 1958 after a stint as a session player in Durban, as a “chief composer” for kwela proponent Spokes Mashiyane. Working with Mashiyane, Kwela helps to forge the harmonic structure of kwela, a marabi-based style with pennywhistle melodies as the lead.
Soon parting ways with Mashiyane, Kwela falls in with the Dorkay House scene, a hub for jazz and theatre. This amalgam of influences is evinced by the cinematic scope of pianist, composer and arranger Gideon Nxumalo’s landmark 1970 recording Early-Mart, in tribute to the slain drummer, Early Mabuza. Kwela participates in this album, orchestrated by Nxumalo, a mainstay at Dorkay House and a maestro whom Kwela considered a master and mentor.
Produced by Rashid Vally and released on his imprint Soultown Records (which, in 1974, becomes As-Shams/The Sun), the album presages a golden age of South African jazz that would spill over into the early 1980s. Although Kwela’s performance is not credited, a norm at the time, he puts in a star turn, with emotive licks in the mournful centrepiece, Slow Blues.
In the same decade, Kwela turns a corner in his recording career, releasing the warmly produced Soul Bag on Atlantic City in 1972 as the leader of an initially uncredited Allen Kwela Octet.
Kwela’s experiments on Alex Express by The Cliffs, which was released on J-Town Records in the mid-1970s, caught the ear of a young Bheki Khoza.
“I copied that recording, listening to what he was playing long before I met him,” says Khoza one Friday evening in 2023, at a rehearsal spot near Jeppestown. “Back then when we’d form bands in Durban, there was an older guy named Zithulele Dlamini who would guide us. He had albums by Allen Kwela, Dick Khoza, Heshoo Beshoo and the like. That’s how I got influenced by Allen’s playing. His marabi was polished. He added passing chords and was very advanced in harmony.”
By the mid-1970s, Kwela would have already been part of the motley crew of guitarists who hung around Lucky’s, otherwise known as Club Pelican, in Soweto.
“There was always this competitive spirit, but particularly with him and Themba Mokoena,” says Pelican scenester and then-Harari member Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse. “But Allen was almost a one-man band. He could play guitar and add other structures within the music, like backing bass.”
In 1975, when Kwela stepped into the state-of-the-art Satbel Music Recording Studios on 195 Marshall Street to work on Black Beauty for the Joburg/Soweto labels, the long wave of Mannenberg’s popularity was just beginning its swell. Its effect on the craft of South African jazz production, however, was immediate. Mannenberg’s open-ended structure, in which a chord progression unfurls into a series of solos and a jam-like atmosphere, resulting in a hypnotic, almost 15-minute composition, became a hugely replicable template.
While Black Beauty stands as a distinctive showcase of Kwela’s skills, not least because he doesn’t get buried in the mix by inadequate technology that had defined much of his output hitherto, he was still conflicted by the pressure for commercial success.
The title track opens things up with a strong marabi feel and a cyclical melody that centres soloing. “If you knew Allen, you’d dispute that it’s him playing here, because he is playing the very thing that he was criticising,” says contemporary and former Movers and Boyoyo Boys member Lulu Masilela of the opening song. “Maybe this valorisation of American jazz was a viewpoint imposed on him. But what I know is that musicians from Durban — wow! That’s where the Americans landed. Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London. People from there were too jazzy and they dug jazz [before everyone else].”
Masilela argues that Kwela’s styling of the title track was “out of character”, probably a result of bowing down to pressure to produce a commercially viable product. Masilela says the song’s melody was pilfered from the Elite Swingsters’ Johnny Selilo, most likely at the behest of a producer. “Mbaqanga is the foundation,” says Masilela. “But I think, in general, Allen’s style evolved out of wanting to evade being copied.”
A lot about Black Beauty remains in the realm of speculation. For one, its line-up is contested, left to those who can (mis)identify signature styles by ear. Over the course of several sessions with Gallo archivist Robert Allingham, Masilela reached the conclusion that Black Beauty was helmed by a squad including Dennis Mpale on trumpet, Kippie Moeketsi on first alto sax, Barney Rachabane on second alto sax, Stanley Sitole on tenor sax, Dimpie Tshabalala on piano, Boy Ramotsie on bass, Gilbert Matthews on drums and Sipho Gumede on bass for Mild Storm.
The producer for the sessions, Patric van Blerk, remembers little of the time, except that Kwela was his usual strong-willed self, unwilling to be nudged towards the pop trends of the day. “He was a monster talent and deserved much more than he got at the time,” says Van Blerk. “At the time, we had had some success with saxophonist Mike Makhalamele and singer Margaret Singana. Baba Matiwane, my partner in the black music areas, was very closely linked to all the radio stations. With Allen’s stuff at the time, and I’m open to correction, it didn’t pick up a lot of airplay. Radio thought it was too jazzy and not geared for a broader, more commercial market. I don’t think that was Allen’s target — to do commercial music. He wanted to do what he wanted to do.” Pivotally, Van Blerk remembers that he never saw Kwela again after the session.
If Kwela’s star and recorded output waned somewhat from that point on, his influence continued to loom large over South Africa’s music scene. “When I came to Joburg in the early ’80s with Sakhile, I was already playing some of the things from Alex Express,” says Khoza. “So when I saw him, I got very excited. I just approached him straight and wanted lessons. But I was playing in a band that was paying a lot of money, playing in all the pop festivals. Because of the [declining popularity of that] ‘jazzman’ trend, he was already playing in small clubs, with very low pay.”
Khoza says the lessons never came because Kwela’s Yeoville pad at that time was a halfway house, and lessons could always be put off for the following week, but he did follow the man around Joburg stages, absorbing his chord work into a style of his own.
“When I started playing jazz guitar,” says Billy Monama, another devotee, “his music was on the airwaves. Seven Days Ago [from the Sheer Sound album The Broken Strings of Allen Kwela] was a hit. It was playing on every radio station. The song was released in 1998 and I started playing guitar in 1997.”
For Monama, who has embarked on a comparative study of guitar styles, Kwela’s legacy was to defy the bounds and limits stipulated for black musicians. “It was always known that a black guitar player would play amarabi, but he went to study and understand improvisation because every jazz musician needs to know how to improvise — it’s an expression of the inner self. He was the ultimate expressionist on the guitar.”
For all the different narratives and perspectives on Kwela, perhaps now with this timely reissue his contributions can be re-assessed and his music enjoyed afresh. His place in the canon of South African jazz guitarists can be cemented.
This is a slightly edited version of Kwanele Sosibo’s liner notes of Allen Kwela’s Black Beauty, recently reissued by Matsuli Music.