South Africa: Tune Me What - a Kwik Word About Kwaito

Kwaito dancing.
30 July 2014

This week, we decided to forego our usual themed show format and just play some random and assorted records without any fixed agenda. While this makes for an easy show format, it doesn't make writing the accompanying blog post very easy!

But then we noticed that we'd kicked off with a couple of tracks that might be described as 'kwaito'. This genre, which might not be familiar to our international listeners, is one of several indigenous styles of music that South Africans have created to supplement the more familiar styles of rock, reggae, folk and jazz in which we have also bred our fair share of brilliant exponents. But, as Hugh Masekela might say, enough of blowing our own flugelhorn, let's get down to brass tacks: What is kwaito?

Well, it is an urban musical style from South Africa's Gauteng province which emerged in the mid-1990s.There are various theories regarding the etymology of the word, the most obvious being that it comes from the Afrikaans word kwaai which directly translates as 'angry', but is more colloquially used, including by non-Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, to mean 'really cool'. For example, one might say: "Have you seen Sipho's new wheels? Man, that car is kwaai!" or "Jislike, that party last night was kwaai! That DJ rocked!"

An equally plausible theory is that, coming from a similar root via Afrikaans, it derives from the so-called Tsotsitaal word "amakwaitosi" which means 'gangster'.

Tsotsitaalis a sort of patois spoken in the townships around Johannesburg by, at least originally, the criminal underworld. (Incidentally, if you haven't seen it already, Gavin Hood's film Tsotsi [based on an Athol Fugard play] will give you a glimpse not only into the subculture but also expose you to the glorious Kwaito soundtrack.)

So those are the possible origins of the word, but what does kwaito actually sound like? In one sense, it is very similar to UK House music. But on another level, it shares themes and sounds with US gangster rap and hip hop. Perhaps it is a merger of the two: the ghetto life lyrical themes and vocal aggression of rap/hip hop with the danceability and production values of House with its focus on beat and bassline.

If you want to dip into the genre, the place to start is with the top artists like Arthur (Mafokate):

Mandoza (aka Mduduzi Tshabalala):

... and of course the queen (or should that be 'kween') of kwaito, the late Brenda Fassie:

But of course, don't take our word for it. For one thing, you can't dance to a blog post. But you can tune in to Tune Me What? and do just that!

Tune Me What? is a podcast and blog by Brett Lock and Leon Lazarus that highlights South African music and artists at home and around the world. For more information, visit or

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