Kwela (1992)

for chamber orchestra:

African Journal No 15a
Parts on hire
Bardic Edition Score BD in preparation
Duration: 10'00"


First performance: Saturday 17 October 1992; United Kingdom; Brighton Chamber Orchestra, Guy Richardson conductorperformance details.

Programme note

Kwela is both about memories and memory. The idea of writing a piece which both recalled and reconstructed this particularly vivid childhood memory had been taking shape in my mind for some time. But thinking about the use of memory as a compositional device is what actually got the compositional process underway. And unlike other pieces I'd been writing at the time in which I started out with no specific formal plan in mind, here I started by letting the cyclic structure of the model shape the work.

'Kwela' is a form of urban street music that developed in South Africa during the 1950s, influenced by American jazz orchestras. In addition to the characteristic pennywhistles, a typical band would include a homemade guitar, tin rattles and a one-string bass with a wooden-box resonator (such as a tea-chest). The music they played was characterised by a repeated (cyclic) chord sequence with repetitive melodic lines for the pennywhistles. Both the chord sequence and the call-and-response structure of the melody have their origins in traditional South African bow music. David Coplan, writing about the 'kwela' phenomenon in his classic study In Township Tonight, notes that "the music gave rise to a sexually suggestive form of jive dancing called 'patha patha' (touch touch), in which partners alternately touched each other all over the body with their hands in time with the rhythm. The dancers often shouted the word 'kwela' (Zulu for 'climb on' or 'get up') to induce others to join in."

On another level Kwela is an examination of 'kwela' in the broader sense — the generic form, the characteristic sound, the musical materials, the musical origins, the performance history. I started out composing a response to another cyclic work — the Bolero of Ravel — but departed from that monolithic approach after a dozen or so cycles and took a freer approach. The original version of Kwela for chamber orchestra dates from 1992; I remixed it for strings only in 1998 and added the coda in 2002. It is scored for first and second violins, violas, first and second cellos, and basses, and lasts about 9½ minutes. The first performance was given by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra conducted by Bernd Ruf on 21 December 2002 in the Mozartsaal, Stuttgart.


Komponisten wie Kevin Volans oder auch Michael Blake, dessen Komposition “Kwela” den Abend eröffnete, hielten überhaupt nichts von der Rassentrennung. Blakes Stück übersetzt den populären Tanz aus den schwarzen Townships der fünfziger Jahre in die Klangfarben des Streichorchesters.
Dietrich Helssenbüttel, Stuttgarter Zeitung, Monday 23 December 2002