In the early years of the 20th century, the increasing urbanisation of black South Africans in mining centres such as the gold mining area around Johannesburg – the so-called Witwatersrand – led to the development of township slums or ghettos, and out of this hardship came forth new forms of music, marabi and kwela amongst others.
The sound of marabi was intended to draw people into the shebeens (unlicensed bars selling homemade liquor). It used a few simple chords repeated in vamp patterns that could go on all night – a reflection of this music can be heard in the music of Basil Coetzee or Abdullah Ibrahim.
Associated with the illegal liquor dens and with vices such as prostitution, the early marabi musicians formed a kind of underground musical culture and were not recorded. Both the white authorities and more sophisticated black listeners frowned upon it, much as jazz was denigrated as a temptation to vice in its early years in the United States.
But the lilting melodies and loping rhythms of marabi found their way into the sounds of the bigger dance bands, modelled on American swing groups, which began to appear in the 1920s; it added to their distinctively South African style.
Such bands, which produced the first generation of professional black musicians in South Africa, achieved considerable popularity in the 1930s and 1940s: star groups such as The Jazz Maniacs, The Merry Blackbirds and the Jazz Revellers rose to fame, winning huge audiences among both blacks and whites.
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So successful were some of these bands, in fact, that some jealous white musicians used the regulations against racial mixing and the liquor laws (which restricted black access to ‘white’ liquor) to hamper their progress.
Over the succeeding decades, the marabi-swing style developed into early mbaqanga, the most distinctive form of South African jazz, which has given its flavour to much South African music since then, from the jazz performers of the post-war years to the more populist township forms of the 1980s.
The beginnings of broadcast radio intended for black listeners and the growth of an indigenous recording industry helped propel such sounds to immense popularity from the 1930s onward.
Travelling variety shows, vaudeville troupes and dance concerts boosted the impact of black music, and schools began to arise teaching the various jazzy styles available, among them pianist-composer Wilfred Sentso’s influential ‘School of Modern Piano Syncopation’, which taught ‘classical music, jazz syncopation, saxophone and trumpet blowing’, as well as ‘crooning, tap dancing and ragging’.
A truly indigenous musical language was coming into being.
The derivation of the term marabi is unclear. It is perhaps derived from Marabastad, an area in Pretoria where domestic servants lived in the 1880s; or from the Sotho word “marabi,” meaning gangster.

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