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Allen Kwela

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  • Died: Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Years Active: 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s


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Biography All Music Guide

All Music Guide:

Together with Spokes Mashiyane, Allen Kwela, who was considered to be one of South Africa's most outstanding guitarists, helped bring kwela music, an indigenous South African style created from jazz and pennywhistle sounds, into focus.

Born in Durban (KwaZulu-Natal), he was exposed to Western and traditional African musical styles, both of which shaped his future approach to music. Hearing the sounds of Glenn Miller for the first time, he started to practice on a self-built guitar. His move to Johannesburg, a melting pot of different musical styles, at the end of the '50s was a groundbreaking step in the history of South African music: here he met Spokes Mashiyane, a virtuoso of the flute and the tin whistle. They started a fruitful collaboration, in which Allen Kwela composed most of the kwela songs he and Mashiyane performed. Unfortunately, Kwela remained permanently in the shadow of his collaborator, who was mainly credited with the breakthrough of kwela in the late '50s. In the long run, this fact left Allen Kwela with little financial success.

After his musical partnership with Spokes Mashiyane had ended, he moved to jazz, jamming with well-known South African jazz giants such as Kippie Moeketsi, Barney Rachabane, and Duke Makasi and becoming one of the legendary South African jazz guitarists.

After a long period of a rather shadowy existence, Kwela became increasingly active at the end of the '90s and -- apart from teaching guitar and performing live -- recorded his one and only solo album, Broken Strings (1998). However, the album did not receive the airplay he expected and left him struggling for his artistic comeback. Kwela died still rather poor in 2003, after an asthma attack. He was one of the key figures of South African music and should -- along with Spokes Mashiyane -- rightly be credited as one of the creators and popularizers of kwela music.