Kwela is a genre of music created in South Africa in the 1950s, and characterized by an upbeat, jazzy pennywhistle lead. The name is a Zulu word for "get up," and the police vans which patrolled South African townships during the Apartheid era were slangily known as "kwela kwela vans." It seems that folks who ran illegal gambling games on the streets of the townships sometimes used kwela bands as cover or as lookouts:
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.
Aaron "Big Voice Jack" Lerole was "discovered" by a record company scout playing his pennywhistle in the street with his brother. They recorded a record the same day which eventually sold around five million copies. Six months later he was sold into slavery by the South African police. He was beaten by the farmer who had purchased him, which permanently lowered his voice, resulting in his nickname in later life. He escaped slavery after the intervention of an activist lawyer, resumed music performance, went on to tour Europe and Africa.
The kwela scene in South Africa essentially died when Spokes Mashiyane, one of its chief exponents, took up the saxophone. The kwela sound fused with Marabi, another indigenous South African music, forming mbaqanga. But Big Voice Jack continued to play Kwela, and made a comeback of sorts in the 1990s when South African-born Dave Matthews heard him play at the Bassline Jazz club:
However, it was at The Bassline Jazz Club in Melville Johannesburg that Jack's finest moment was set in motion. Jack was playing at the club and Dave Mathews, guitarist, songwriter and singer with the internationally acclaimed Dave Mathews Band, was in the audience. Dave's saxophonist had asked him to pick up a few pennywhistles while he was visiting South Africa and Dave approached Big Voice Jack after the gig to ask him where he could find them. Big Voice Jack decided to rather give his own whistles to Mathews. "I thought that I would never play in a big stadium in America, so I wanted my whistles to be there," says Jack. "So I gave them to him."
Big Voice Jack's generosity was repaid when the Dave Mathews Band invited him to come over to the States and play two gigs with them at the Foxboro stadium in Boston and the Giants stadium in New York. This invitation from arguably the hottest rock act in America at the moment is a fitting tribute to the lasting contribution that Big Voice Jack has made to South African music, and went down a treat. Jack's gigs with the Dave Mathews Band were recorded in a documentary by South African filmmaker Johnathan Dorfman called "Back to Alexandra." The film shows Jack on stage before an 88,000 strong crowd, jiving and jamming with the band like a man half his age. He went down so well that the band even asked him to play one of his own tunes, "Back to Alexandra," a song in which Jack gives vent to his lifelong hatred for guns.
Thanks especially to Keith Addison for publishing much of the linked material.
Update: Here's an MP3 of Tom Hark.