Jazz Guitarist, penny whistler, composer and bandleader Allen Kwela was born on 11 September 1939 in Chesterville, Durban. According to Dave Coplan, he was ‘just like his musical peers, Reggie Msomi and penny whistler Ben Nkosi, who were born or spent periods of their childhood in rural areas where they herded cattle and made their own umtshingo, later carrying to Johannesburg these reed flute traditions of Zululand’.

Allen Kwela was one of South Africa’s gifted and influential jazz guitarists who started his chequered career on the kwela route as kwela king Johannes ‘Spokes’ Mashiyane’s chief composer at Gallo records. Both became the principal architects of the kwela sound – a term that has no bearing on his surname. Their fruitful collaboration was a milestone in the history of South African music, as they changed the image of kwela from the street music of young delinquent buskers into a top-selling genre and the country’s first international sound.

A series of workshops in Maseru in 1977, conducted by Rutgers/Livingstone professors, convinced him that they had little to teach him. He said that their lessons were an affirmation of what he already knew. In the 1980s and 1990s, he continued teaching young musicians while playing as a session musician with many household names such as Pat Matshikiza, Barney Rachabane, Johnny Fourie, Winston Mankunku Ngozi and was a regular guest on Darius Brubeck’s Afro Cool Concept.

Allen Kwela died on 30 June 2003 of an asthma attack in Yeoville, Johannesburg.


Coplan, David B. 1985. In Township Tonight! Johannesburg: Raven.

Mathe, Sam. 2019. ‘ALLEN DUMA KWELA’, Jazz Life Magazine, 11 September. Available at https://www.facebook.com/539158326179672/posts/2492814310814054/?d=n