The Black Concertina Tradition of South Africa

A Brief Outline

Two important developments in the nineteenth century bear directly on our topic. First, the Industrial Revolution made possible the mass production of consumer goods—including musical instruments—at greatly reduced costs to the consumer; and among these instruments were the concertina, accordion, and other squeezebox relatives of the free-reed family. Second, the combination of exploration and burgeoning of capitalist trade opened up Africa, Asia, and other ‘distant lands’ hitherto unfamiliar to Europeans. Among these was South Africa, which fell under British administration in 1814. And with the realization in the 1880s of South Africa’s underground resources, there began the great rush for gold and diamonds in the areas around Kimberley and Johannesburg, as well as the formation of the country’s mining towns. As Christoph Wagner notes, the global spread of mass-produced free-reed instruments ‘offered everyone active participation in the practice of music …’. He continues:

in the second half of the 19th century, young people were leaving rural areas and moving into the cities … The same went for the concertina in the newly developing mining towns of South Africa, [and for] the bandoneon in the tango music of Buenos Aires and Montevideo … people from different districts, regions and countries, with different skin colours, religions, languages, dialects and needs met each other.

And finally, he talks about the development of ‘new-style forms of musical expression’.1

Before beginning our narrative about the concertina in South Africa, a few words are necessary about that nation’s racial, political, and economic structures. That the black majority was limited in terms of both economic and musical-cultural opportunities goes without saying. In the twentieth century, for example, songs were strictly censored,2 and white and black musicians were discouraged from playing together. In fact, many social divisions were reflected in distinctive musical traditions. On the other hand, the reservoir of cheap rural labour (called upon as needed to work the country’s urban industries) meant that, despite the untold misery, there was an on-going social and cultural interchange—including a musical cross-fertilisation—between races and classes, countryside and city.3

From the early 1880s on, then, labour was required as the mines and dependent industries opened up. And since it was not possible for whole families to move into this raw, new environment, a workforce was quickly built up of rural black males of varying ethnic backgrounds and cultures who were brought into the cities by the chance of paid work. Moreover, it quickly became obvious that entertainment was needed for the miners and other workers. One of the ways in which this need was filled was by the mine shops, which sold musical instruments, in particular guitars, violins, harmonicas, and, of course, concertinas. From the start, the concertinas were the cheap German or Italian models, as the mineworkers’ main aim was usually to provide for families back in their sometimes far-distant villages and rural communities (not that they could have afforded the superior English-made instruments even had they been available).

In recent times, Bastari (now Stagi) have been the main suppliers. In fact, Zulu speakers sometimes call the concertina ‘iBastari’,4 though it is commonly known as the ‘squashbox’. The concertina most often used by black musicians (and by some Boeremusiek players, as well) is based on the twenty-button ‘Anglo-German’ system, and usually has two riveted accordion-type reeds per note, tuned an octave apart. This gives a full sound, ‘a dense texture that resembles the broad sonority of a Sotho male-voice chorus’, as David Coplan describes it.5 And though the action on these instruments is less than fast, it is astonishing to hear what a good player can accomplish.

The button board of the standard squashbox (as built by Stagi) is laid out as follows (see Figure 1):

Fig. 1. Layout of buttons on the standard squashbox.

Like the Anglo, this gives two different notes for each button, one when the bellows are pulled, the other when pushed. And to those familiar with the Anglo buttonboard, it is like an Anglo in E flat and B flat, but with the push/pull reversed on both the right-hand end of the E-flat row and the left-hand end of the B-flat row. (In addition, there is a D on the pull on the right-hand row.) To an Anglo player like myself, it is a bit like trying to ride a bicycle on which, upon turning the handlebar left, the bike turns right—but only sometimes.

In his history of the accordion, Pierre Monichon traces back to 1832 the convention that push/pull instruments have the chord of the major tonic on the push all along one row of buttons.6 This is true for melodeons, diatonic accordions, bandoneons, concertinas, and even mouth organs. In fact, the squashbox is the only instrument that I’ve come across that breaks the rule. Why? And when did this special layout become the standard in South Africa?

Some years ago, Dr Bastari assured me that he had no records concerning the origins of the system, and I have as yet found no one who can shed any light on the matter. And though there are disadvantages to the squashbox layout, there are also some advantages. One useful feature is that several notes (B flat, C, D, E flat, F, and G) are available on both push and pull, so that the player does not ‘run out of bellows’ when continually playing the same note; he can simply change button and direction. As Clegg notes: ‘The first thing you’re taught is to find out which notes sound the same when pushed in and pulled out’.7 Certainly, this factor is used to good purpose on many recordings, with exciting, sustained drone effects that cut across the rhythm, either in the bass or in a higher register, at times a fifth, at times an octave from the tonic. The system also makes it useful, if not essential, to cross rows, so that players do not think of distinct B-flat and E-flat rows, but rather in terms of discrete notes on different parts of the buttonboard.

It seems fair to assume that the earliest cheap concertinas arriving in South Africa had Anglo tunings, but that at some stage someone decided to change some of the notes around.8 Clearly, the alteration caught on, and eventually got back to the Bastari works. Though there are today high-quality concertinas made in South Africa, these would have had little relevance for the development of the black tradition.

The anthropologist-musician Johnny Clegg has developed a rich biculturalism, speaking fluent Zulu and performing throughout the world. He plays both guitar and concertina, which he learnt in his teens from black musicians (an apprenticeship which led him to many nights in custody under apartheid laws). He has a profound understanding of the concertina in Zulu music, and suggests that

A Zulu will wear a three piece suit, but with sandals on his feet. The Zulu has thus ‘neutralised’ the value attached to the suit. It is no longer a western object; he has ‘Africanised’ it … The same system of ‘neutralisation’ exists with musical instruments … each object keeps its form, but is diverted from its primary function.9

To which he adds:

[For the Zulus] the guitar and the concertina became part of what is known as the gxagxa musical tradition. The gxagxa are. . .somehow problematically situated between what we call a really fervent traditionalist, Ibhinca, somebody who wears the skins, and Ikhola, a Christian. He’s somebody who has mixed both music forms and has developed a ‘mazkande’ tradition.10

There are references to many different ethnic groups taking up the concertina at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Thus Coplan notes that

Southern Sotho miners … played … the concertina in place of traditional solo instruments as accompaniment to the individualized singing and dancing of their friends … [Mpondo miners] developed an affinity for the concertina. New concertina dances integrated rhythms and steps developed by migrants in urban areas into a framework of traditional dances.11

He goes on to say:

Mpondo players depended more on European and Cape Coloured folk rhythms and melodies than [did] the Sotho, though the latter were by no means immune to Afrikaans vastrap rhythms, Cape Melodies, and the ‘three-chord vamp’ … music constructed according to traditional Sotho principles … through the polyphonic movement of parallel fourths and fifths within the structure of the western ‘three-chord’ (tonic-dominant-subdominant) system.12

Certainly, the concertina can be used within either a two-chord or three-chord structure with few problems, though depending on the actual scales and chords used, the choice of key is limited on a twenty-button instrument.

Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, and Sotho all had their own languages, songs and dances, and instrumental traditions, and their menfolk took the new instruments back to the villages when they went on leave. Clegg talks of the Zulu concertina tradition being

generated out of acculturation, out of a process whereby migrants left their homelands, went into the city, were exposed to different musical forms and came back … in Kwasulu you will not find any exponents of good concertina music … unless they are migrants.13

Thus the concertina quickly found a place as an innovative means of interpreting the old, rural African traditions, which were still very much alive; and its low price, as well as its relative durability and portability, helped make it a favourite.

As the concertina became integrated into the black tradition, so the traditional music itself, reflecting the changes in society, was subjected to other influences. Black musicians certainly heard the folk-dance music of British and Boer traditions, as they did various styles of popular music and song. In fact, both Percy Honri and Alexander Prince, concertinsts of music hall fame (both on the Duet concertina), played in South Africa in the early twentieth century, and Honri actually made recordings there, with vocals in Afrikaans (the latter being largely irrelevant to most black musicians).

There is an interesting perspective on this ‘mixed’ musical development in J. R. Couper’s novel, Mixed Humanity, published in Natal in 1892. He offers the following description of a dance:

After knocking at the door, which was opened by a coloured man, they were accosted by a very fat, bloated woman, almost black, sitting on a chair just inside the entrance … Underneath the stage, in the place set apart for the orchestra, and facing outwards, was a band consisting of five men of various shades of colour. Their musical instruments were two squeaking fiddles, two guitars, and a loud-toned concertina. The body of the hall was occupied by about thirty couples dancing a set of quadrilles. The ladies, like the bandmen, were of all colours, from the delicate complexion of the Colonial girl to the coal-like black of the zulu. There were but few whites amongst them, and, with hardly one exception, all were ugly and coarse-looking. They were gaudily attired in ill-fitting dresses.14

Clearly, Couper hardly approved of the ‘mixed’ scene. Another passage is even more censorious:

Charlie was a ‘Christian Nigger’—a term applied to civilized and converted Kaffirs. He had been educated at a mission station in his native land, but, like many South African blacks who enjoyed this wholesome and beneficial influence, he had turned his privileges to but poor account, at least so far as honesty was concerned … He had a rather good tenor voice, which the missionaries had taken no little pains to cultivate for choir purposes … And he was a proficient concertina player.15

One more note about the nineteenth century: the Afrikaaners (Boers), too, adopted the concertina in all its forms, and even today, there are thriving Boeremusiek groups and clubs, often featuring excellent players. The instrument is seen by many to be part of the traditional Boer identity, even to the extent that I have been told that traditional music was played on the concertina during the ‘Great Trek’ (1830s), though that took place before the widespread production and commercialization of the instrument worlds away in Europe!

The process amongst those touched by the developing mixed culture of the black mineworkers continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century, and the concertina became fully part of the evolving musical tradition.16 Always versatile, it was used to accompany both songs and dancing, both as a solo instrument and as part of various ensembles. Only as the years went by, did some musicians develop a preference for the piano accordion.17

Bongeni Mthethwa of the University of Natal, mentions another—if seemingly unlikely—use for the instrument:

Traditionally, the Maskanda uses his instruments as a mode of transport. He can walk long distances to the music of his guitar/concertina. The concertina is supposed to ‘transport’ him, since the walk becomes transformed into a musical experience. It is also common to find the guitar, violin, concertina ensemble forming a walking band in the rural areas.18

To this Clegg adds, referring to the concertina:

This is a bus, this is transport, this will take you wherever you want to go … This is a very physical instrument … if you walk playing … the isifutho [air button] … will allow you to open and close it. It’s got to be pushed at the right times during the rhythms to enable you to go in and out … while you’re playing your tune … As you’re playing, you’re walking, your fingers are playing the notes … and I know that my little finger is going to go with my left foot when I put it down.19

The cross-fertilisation of musics went on. For example, a strong jazz tradition developed in the cities of South Africa, sometimes closely derivative of American jazz, at other times having its own special character. Other styles, in turn, sprang from this, notably the Kwela tin-whistle music. As time passed, recordings were released on 78 rpm discs. Some, from the 1940s, feature concertina playing that shows the influence of western, jazz-flavoured dance bands, just as they sometimes hint at European folk influences, and even echo the ‘blackface minstrel’ music which was also popular, particularly in Capetown. At the same time, the on-going two-way contact with the countryside — mineworkers came and went — ensured repeated ‘new’ influences from that source.

As everywhere, popular music styles develop and change. Yet as other instruments were introduced, the squashbox continued to hold its place well into the 1970s, by which time western pop music was making itself felt everywhere. The styles known as ‘Township Jive’ and ‘Mbaqanga’ developed as something of a synthesis of the earlier urban styles, the continuing rural traditions, and rock and pop imported mainly from the United States and Britain. Thousands of recordings were made using various combinations that one associates with rock, but which also included violins, accordions, and concertinas. And though the musical style is quite different, the concertina often plays a role somewhat parallel to the clarinet in New Orleans jazz, in that while it is not necessarily the lead instrument, it weaves in and out of the mix, with crisp, sharp, repeated phrases, adding a special feel and dimension to the overall sound.

Since the end of the 1970s, the urban use of the concertina has had mixed fortunes as regards popularity. One reasons was perhaps the rising price of concertinas in South Africa, but more importantly, musical fashions moved on, and the newer disco-oriented rhythms and technology did not offer a comfortable fit for the instrument. To cite Clegg once again:

Traditional music in the late 80s was seen to be backward. [It] was seen to be politically retrogressive, reactionary. And the rise of Inkatha meant that traditional Zulu music was seen as aligned to tribalism. There’s a very strong tension in South Africa between modernism and tribalism.20

In the late 1980s, a fourteen-year-old black friend from Soweto said, upon hearing some of my township records: ‘Yes, it’s good music; it’s what older people, like my mother, listen to’.—serious condemnation, indeed, from a fourteen-year-old.

In March 1990, Johnny Clegg told me that it was very rare now to hear the concertina played in the streets. When the famous concertinist Sipho Mchunu (also a fine guitarist) issued the recording Yithi Esavimba in 1999, he did not use the concertina at all. As Clegg, a close friend of mine for years, informed me: ‘I told him he should [use the concertina] … but keyboards play the concertina part instead’.

Though perhaps out of fashion, the concertina did not die out altogether, as more recordings including the instrument were released on cassettes by the likes of Ngane and Khamba, Amaphisi, and Inzitombi Zenhlanhla. To be sure, the tapes are not found in smart city record stores, but were aimed mainly at an ‘unsophisticated’ rural market, and usually included electric bass, guitar, drums, and powerful vocals. At the same time, maskanda musicians continue to play, generally unamplified, in streets and marketplaces, their groups typically consisting of concertina, whistle, violin, and a guitar or two. Finally, ‘Gumboot’ dance teams, whose origins reach back to the early days of the mines, compete against each other, formally or informally, often accompanied by these same instruments.

I will conclude by mentioning an exciting and perhaps far-reaching step towards the rehabilitation of the concertina. Neither ‘politically retrogressive’ nor ‘reactionary’, the singer Busi Mhlongo recently released a CD titled Urbanzulu (2000). Her strong, moving, joyful voice punches out a musical message for the twenty-first century with both power and passion, backed by a sizzling, driving, electric band—with concertina! The sensitive bellows control and the dynamic subtlety and delicacy of Mphendukwlwa Mkhize’s playing, allied with the crisp rhythmic lift, overcome many of the apparent constraints of the instrument, and make a rich contribution to the overall success of the disc. Is it too soon to ask if the concertina is back? The musicianship echoes Johnny Clegg’s words: ‘We say, you’re holding a life in your hands, because it breathes. It’s like a pulsing being that you’re holding when you’re playing. You can feel it, it breathes with you’.21

Discography: What follows is a very selective discography that includes samples of a wide range of the South African concertina. (One should supplement the recordings listed here with those cited in Jared Snyder, ‘Rusted Reeds: A Short Survey of Historic and Field Recordings of Free Reeds from Africa’, The Free-Reed Journal, 1 [1999], 60-75). Most of the recordings should be available from specialist suppliers such as Stern’s: <>; telephone numbers in London and New York, respectively, are: 44 207 3875550 and 1 (212) 964-5455.

Amakhansela, Phuzekhemisi. Gallo CDGMP 40886 (2002): where ‘Trad. Zulu’ edges towards ‘Township Jive’; electric bass, guitar, drums, and concertina.

Duo Juluka, Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu. World Network WDR 9 54.036 (1992): the Clegg-Mchunu Duo, with their take on maskanda; some of the best concertina playing around; they share the CD with Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Gumboot Guitar, various artists. Topic TSCD 923 (2003): recent recordings from the international collection of the British Library; present-day street music as played for gumboot dancers; many tracks featuring excellent concertina playing; informative liner notes.

Iduma Lya Gebuza: Metal Reeds in Africa. Concertina, Melodeon & Harmonica, various artists, compiled and annotated by Peter Kennedy. Folktracks 45-815 (1976): field recordings from the 1950s, including a few concertina tracks; the rougher roots of the music; available from Folktracks, 16 Brunswick Square, Gloucester GL1 1UG; <>.

Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Ngane & Khamba. Stern’s Earthworks STEW 14CD (1985): first of a wonderful series focused mainly on ‘Township Jive’; a great concertina track by Ngane & Khamba.

Introducing Shiyani Ngcobo, Shiyani Ngcobo. World Music Network INTRO 01CD (2004): modern street maskanda; a few tracks with outstanding concertina playing.

Squashbox: Le Concertina Zoulou et Sotho en Afrique du sud, various artists, compiled and annotated by Harry Scurfield. Silex Y225107 (1993): a compilation of early 78 rpm recordings, all with concertina; currently out of print.

Urbanzulu, Busi Mhlongo. M. E. L. T. BW 2118 (2000): driving music from a wonderful voice; weaving in and out of the texture is Mphendukelwa Mkhize’s robust and subtle, punchy and delicate concertina playing.

A Pictorial Postscript: Since with the exception of Figure 4, the three illustrations that follow are not specifically related to any one point in the main text of the article, we have placed them one after the other in a postscript of sorts. All three illustrations are from the collection of free reed-related iconography amassed by Jared Snyder and are reproduced here with his kind permission.

Fig. 2 ‘A Musical Quartette’, postcard circa 1900-1910.

Fig. 3. ‘A minister visits the village’, photograph circa 1905.

Fig. 4. ‘On the way home from the mines’, from a series of postcards, circa 1900, titled ‘Sketches of South African Life’, Series I: ‘Kaffir Life’.


1. Christoph Wagner, ‘Zur Rezeption und weltweiten Verbreitung der Handharmonika-instrumente’, in Harmonium und Handharmonika: Bericht des 20. Musikinstrumentenbau-Symposiums, 1999. Michaelsteiner Konferenzberichte, 62, ed. Monika Lustig (Blankenburg: Stiftung Michaelstein, 2002), 196.

2. On the way in which music was censored on the radio, see Jeremy Marre and Hannah Charlton, Beats of the Heart: Popular Music of the World (New York: Pantheon, 1987), 44-47.

3. As Johnny Clegg points out: ‘The migrant is a tragic figure, stuck between two worlds, cut in two. He spends more time in the town than in the country, but when he arrives, he brings his culture with him’; quoted in Philippe Conrath, La Passion Zoulou (Paris: Editions Seghers, 1988), 73.

4. Johnny Clegg, The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers in Johannesburg: A Focus on Concertina and Guitar (Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand, 1981), 3.

5. David Coplan, In Township Tonight (London: Longman, 1985), 24.

6. Pierre Monichon, L’Accordéon. Collection ‘Que sais-je?’ (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1971), 44-45.

7. Clegg, The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers, 9.

8. The same process took place in connection with the bandoneon in Argentina and Uruguay, where tango musicians adapted the so-called ‘Rhenish’ layout to their own musical needs; see among others, Maria Dunkel’s excellent liner notes for Bandoneon Pure: Dances of Uruguay. Traditional Music of the World, 5. Smithsonian Folkways SF 40431 (1993), 10; my thanks to Allan Atlas for the information and the reference.

9. Clegg, quoted in Conrath, La Passion Zoulou, 73.

10. Clegg, The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers, 1.

11. Coplan, In Township Tonight, 22-24.

12. Coplan, In Township Tonight, 23.

13. Clegg, The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers, 3.

14. J. R. Couper, Mixed Humanity (Natal, 1892), 36.

15. Couper, Mixed Humanity, 107-8.

16. Coplan, In Township Tonight, 24: ‘These trade-store musical instruments achieved such a wide distribution among non-Christian Africans by the early 1900s that they came to be considered fully traditional’.

17. Coplan, In Township Tonight, 5: ‘Sotho musicians are highly conscious of the contrasting properties of various instruments; they insist that…the piano-accordion allows for greater melodic and tonal variety and solo improvisation than the concertina’.

18. Private correspondence (1990), and see Fig. 4.

19. Clegg, The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers, 7.

20. Clegg, in an interview in Dirty Linen, 67 (1996), 19.

21. Clegg, The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers, 8.