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26 May 2014
Pennywhistle - The Magical Instrument


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Anyone can pick up a pennywhistle and blow it! It has a simple form, its portable and need not be expensive. But it is precisely within this elementary quality that its complexity lies. It’s what musicians describe as a restricted or limited instrument – not easy to play in pitch, sensitive to the slightest fingering – and then there’s the breath to manipulate, with its own subtleties. The pennywhistle is a very difficult instrument to play well!

The history of the whistle, with its many variations can be traced centuries back to different cultures on all the continents. The six-holed tinwhistle, as we know it today, may have originated in the mid-1800’s in England, and is still used around the globe as a folk instrument. However, its widespread recognition must surely be attributed to its incorporation in popular South African music. A distinctive sound arose, which was mastered by a handful of musicians, in a way synonymous only to this country.

In South Africa the soul of the pennywhistle is rooted in the organic whistle, played by rural boys herding their family’s cattle. Imagine the isolation of such a task – the mountains, the flatland and the cows, and within that silence – the birds.

The renowned musician, composer and producer Victor Ntoni, says the pennywhistle’s appeal lies in the fact that it has an “organic sound, a sound of the birds”.

But it was within the cities in the mid-1900’s that this soul found its popular voice.

Throughout the 20th century, a number of popular music styles arose in South Africa. Each evolved into the next form, while assimilating environmental and international influences. The Zulu accapella syle of the 1930’s, known as Mbube arose as rural migrant workers from the countryside, created weekend entertainment through vocal and dance competitions.

At this time Africans were barred from buying alcohol, so a number of illegal bars, called ‘shebeens’ sprang up, and out of these came the Marabi style, a unique blend of American jazz and swing combined with local sensibilities.

Young herd-boys seeking employment also formed part of this urban migration, and on arrival were eager to replace their 3-holed reed-flutes with the shinier 6-holed tinwhistles, which allowed for octave variations.

At the same time, a number of urban-born youngsters became inspired by this accessible instrument, which could be used for both solo and ensemble performances.

Amongst the youth, pennywhistle mania began, and one significant hub of musical activity was to be found in Alexandra township, just east of Johannesburg. It was here that a disabled teenager, Willard Cele discovered a new technique of placing the pennywhistle between the teeth, at an angle that allowed for more melodic variations and a richer tone. Although he died young, his appearance in a 1951 movie “The Magic Garden”, helped popularize the instrument and this newfound technique.

Thus from Marabi of the 1940’s and ‘50’s a new style emerged. Pennywhistle Jive, which also became known as Kwela, soon became the first South African musical style to achieve national popularity and international prominence.

Groups of youngsters enthusiastically gathered on street corners, composing and arranging complex pennywhistle variations, and hopefully earning a few coins. Sometimes they kept an eye open, warning ‘shebeen’ owners of approaching police, from whose wrath they too couldn’t always escape. So the name Kwela developed, meaning,”get-on”, a term the cops used when yelling at the youths to get into their vans.

Some of these boys became South African musical heroes, one of which was Spokes Mashiyane, who’d traveled from the rural, Northern part of the country to seek work as a domestic ‘servant’. He’d already mastered the traditional reed flute while tending his father’s cattle, and after acquiring his first ‘real’ pennywhistle, he joined his peers on the street corners. It was at one of these jam sessions that he was spotted by a record company talent scout.

In 1954 Spokes recorded “Ace Blues”, which became the biggest African hit of the year, elevating the pennywhistle from its solid street credibility into a mainstream genre. In the eyes of the record companies it became commercially viable, igniting a decade long ‘kwela craze’, which resulted in more than 1000 pennywhistles recordings, and the sale of over a million pennywhistles.

Simultaneously, Alexandra township continued to bear the fruit of its creative legacy, bringing forth talents such as Lemmy ’Special’ Mabaso, Ntemi Piliso and the Lerole brothers.

The young prince of pennywhistle, Lemmy ’Special’ Mabaso, began performing on the streets with his two brothers, at the age of ten. He too, was soon spotted by a talent scout and in 1957 at the age of 11, recorded his first album. Within a year he was selected to join the revolutionary musical “King Kong”, soon becoming a star member.

This 1959 “jazz opera” was born out of severe restrictions, it emerged triumphantly with a black cast in a country with whites-only theatre; and opened at the Witwatesrand University’s Great Hall to multi-racial audiences.

By 1961 the show performed in London to great acclaim, launching the careers of many South African talents, including Miriam Makeba. As part of the cast, Lemmy ‘Special’ Mabaso enchanted audiences, further exposing the inimitable South African pennywhistle sound internationally. His performance even prompted Princess Margaret to request a personal introduction to the young star.

Ntemi Piliso was the leader and a founding member, of the internationally renowned African Jazz Pioneers, until his passing in 2000. Besides his contributions as a composer and arranger, he’s best known as a saxophonist, but as a young child in the 1940’s, it was the pennywhistle that ignited his passion for performing.

The African Jazz Pioneers’ track included on this compilation is unusual in that it does not reflect their signature big band sound, instead it is a rare collaboration, between Lemmy ‘Special’ and Ntemi ‘Special’. Released in 1993, it was composed by Ntemi, who described it as reflecting on a “time when Lemmy used to put the town on fire with his band, The Alexandra Junior Bright Boys.”

In 1947, on a day which the late ‘Big Voice’ Jack Lerole described as the “the greatest day” of his life, both he and his brother Elias ‘Shamba’ Lerole were each given a “shiny steel pennywhistle” by their uncle as a Christmas gift.

Like many of their peers, they performed on the streets and frequented Zoo lake on Sundays, where the pennywhistlers gathered to attentive audiences. Lemmy ‘Special’ describes this weekly gathering as a kind of informal festival, with different groups dotted throughout the park.

In 1954 the Lerole brothers joined with other musicians to form their first pennywhistle band, The Alexandra Shamba Boys, which produced many records. But it was in 1957, after they’d renamed themselves Black Mambazo [not to be confused with the accapella group from Ladysmith], that Elias wrote “Tom Hark”. This tune became an instant Kwela hit locally; and after being featured on British TV, it promptly rose to number 2 on the UK music charts.

By the early 1960’s, Pennywhistle Jive gave way to a newer trend, Sax Jive, which later saw the introduction of a vocal element, and which in turn evolved into Mbaqanga.

Some musicians, like Ntemi Piliso had already chosen this instrumental shift, because as a whistle-blower it was not difficult to ‘progress’ to the saxophone or clarinet.

Another artist who eased into this progression was the Pretoria born West Nkosi, who before his untimely death, was prolific as a musician, composer and producer. His career began in the late 1950’s when he formed his first Kwela group, The Pretoria Tower Boys.

West became much in demand, performing and recording with others, so he decided to head to Joburg, to seek his own recording contract. Here he joined the premier Kwela group at that time, Spokes and His All Star Flutes, but after buying a second-hand saxophone with his savings as a domestic worker, he left the group, again in search of his own record contract.

Once more, he did sessions, but this time on saxophone, and for the well-established Gallo Record Company. Together with some friends, West began to explore a new ‘harder’ sound. This quartet, The Makgona Tsohle Band is credited with inventing the next evolution of South African music, Township Jive or Mbaqanga.

In September 1991, West Nkosi co-produced Thelani AJB, a project that brought together musicians whose careers had begun in the 1950’s or early 1960’s. The result is an uplifting revival, blending contemporary Mbaqanga grooves with soulful riffs of Marabi and Kwela.

However, during the 1960’s, when Sax Jive usurped Kwela, there were also those who remained committed to pennywhistle and to this day mourn its passing as a prime instrument of popular culture. They felt financially ‘forced’ to join the bandwagon, pressurized by the then current demands of record companies and promoters.

The likes of Spokes Mashiyane and Lemmy ‘Special’ succeeded in transposing the pennywhistles’ melodic lines and lightness of spirit, onto the saxophone. Their careers as musicians continued locally and abroad, without the pennywhistle, but it forever remained their ‘first’ instrument. Lemmy insists: ”I started with the pennywhistle and I’ll end with it! I play alto sax, but this is my favourite!”

‘Big Voice’ Jack was another who performed and recorded successfully on the saxophone, but whose deep loyalty lay with the pennywhistle. In the early 1980’s he was approached by a young white musician, John Leyden, who had a vision of creating a Kwela-rock band, which would bring together black and white musicians.

In 1983, Mango Groove was formed, emerging from an environment tinted with the lightness of black music’s Disco and Bubblegum era; and toned with the lyrical darkness of white protest music.

Mango Groove was a breath of fresh air, fusing the past with the present in a musically adept, yet appealing way. After more than 20 years it revived the pennywhistle, with ‘Big Voice’ Jack as part of its birth. Unfortunately Jack became ill and was hospitalized for a year, during which time the group gained national popularity, crossing racial divides.

During this time, Mduduzi Magwaza, a Durban born pennywhistle player joined the group, which went on to achieve international recognition with its hit, “Special Star”.

Mduduzi’s musical background was similar to his Joburg counterparts’ – it began on the streets. Inspired by the sounds of Spokes, Lemmy and Jack, he began playing the pennywhistle at the age of 10. However, only one of the neighborhood children owned a pennywhistle, and so he was forced to join the daily queues, waiting in line to play.

Frustration led him to ‘borrow’ money from his mother’s purse and purchase his own instrument, even though at this time he never envisioned a musical career. Mduduzi’s skill as a composer and performer grew, and over the years he has performed with some of the country’s finest. He has a passion for reviving the role of the pennywhistle and a talent for taking it to a new level, into a new era.

Later, ‘Big Voice’ Jack recovered and chose to pursue a solo career, with which he carried the flag of his first instrument – both locally and abroad. Right up to his death in 2003, he was committed to continuing the pennywhistle legacy. For many years, without payment and with little funding, he started and ran an informal school, for less-advantaged children in Diepkloof, the township where he

For Elias ‘Shamba’, the legacy is carried by his 3 sons. Together, with both their parents, they form Kwela Tebza, a group that honours the roots of Kwela within the sensibility of a new millenium.

This soundtrack and the documentary from which it arises, tribute a profound South African musical movement. While being made, it seemed that a healing process had been ignited, a revival sparked – and hopefully this fire of old wood will glow with the light of new ideas, until the arrival of dawn. Let us never forget to listen to the birds as they welcome the new day.

“Everytime I blow, I remember the elders; and I make that remembrance a point in my heart. It’s the spirit that I’m playing with…its like sending a message to the audience…Everytime I play a note I send a message to the public – to tell them who I am, and even when I’m finished, my notes will be remembered…It’s a message sent through the pennywhistle.” – Lemmy ‘Special’ Mabaso


[Written for the cd sleeve of the soundtrack of the documentary “PENNYWHISTLE – “THE MAGICAL INSTRUMENT “]


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