As well as being cheap and portable, the pennywhistle could also be used by a solo performer or as an ensemble instrument. Part of the popularity of the pennywhistle was based on the fact that flutes of different kinds had long been traditional instruments among the peoples of the more northerly parts of South Africa, and the pennywhistle thus enabled the swift adaptation of folk tunes into the new marabi-inflected idiom.
The harmonies of the kwela are simple and cyclical in nature, usually C-F-C-G7; the music combines a rapid ostinato foundation with elements of Afro-American jazz swing forms.
The kwela music which developed during the ’40s and ’50s almost always featured the pennywhistle, a cheap and reliable (tin flute) instrument which served as the lead voice. Early music by Willard Cele caught the ears of many, and the 1951 movie “The Magic Garden” also played a role.
Talent scouts were sent out by the recording industry to lure pennywhistlers into the studio and have them record their tunes with full band backing.
Lemmy Mabaso is perhaps the earliest of the pennywhistle stars –  he began performing in the streets at the age of 10. Spokes Mashiyane and his All Star Flutes were widely popular by 1954.
The derivation of the term ‘kwela’ is uncertain. It most likely from the Zulu for ‘get up’ or ‘climb on’, though in township slang it also referred to the police vans, the ‘kwela-kwela’. Thus it could be an invitation to join the dance as well as a warning. It could also have derivations in the Zulu and Xhosa word, “ikhwelo,” meaning a shrill whistle.
It is said that the young men who played the pennywhistle on street corners also acted as lookouts to warn those enjoying themselves in the illegal drinking dens of the arrival of the cops.
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The story of ‘Kwela Jake’ Missionaries & choirs; Minstrels; Marabi; Mbaqanga; Jazz; Kwaito
In 1959, the recording ‘Tom Hark’ by Elias Lerole and his Zig-Zag Flutes was a hit around the world, being taken over and reworked by, for instance, British bandleader Ted Heath.
The origins of ‘Tom Hark’
‘In the mid 1950s Jake took his flute and began to play, and his brother Elias joined in. It was a new tune, vibrant with the fast freedoms of the street corners, and it swept them away. They played on and on, with only the goats to hear, until it was dark and they were breathless.
Five years later Jake and Elias went back to Johannesburg, and the streets. Soon they had a band: three pennywhistles, a bass made from an upended tea box, a bit of rope and a broomstick, and a skiffle guitar. Jake thrived – this was better than the church choirs of Moria. And it could pay twenty pounds in an afternoon.
A year later a record company scout heard the band playing in the street and offered them a chance to make a recording. They went to the studio and recorded the tune Jake had composed that day six years earlier in the hills of Moria. They called it Tom Hark.
The record started with the sound of money clinking down onto a pavement. Dice rattle, streetwise young voices call bets and argue, the dice stop rolling, cheers and groans as the coins are scooped up again.
Feet come running and an urgent voice calls: ‘E Bops, kom maak gou — hier kom die kwela kwela van!’ (‘Hurry up, here comes the police van’). ‘Tom Hark’ has been watching for police at the corner.
Dice and cash vanish, out come pennywhistles and guitars, and the gambling school becomes a kwela band (the music named after the police van) and they swing into the irresistible tune of Tom Hark. The police rumble past in their van. All clear – the music stops, dice rattle down, a new Tom Hark takes his stand at the corner.
(From ‘Kwela Jake’ by Keith Addison)

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