Instruments and Languages


The voice remains the most widespread ‘instrument’ in Southern Africa, largely because access to instrumental tuition has been impossible for most people, due to the inadequate funding of African music education over many decades. Where instruments are played, the most popular is probably the guitar, and in some areas the concertina and accordion. Orchestral instruments are played by a small proportion of the population that has been privately taught, and similarly the piano. Electronic keyboards are becoming more common, and many players are self-taught.


Choral music in southern Africa now uses texts in all eleven official languages of South Africa, some of which are also spoken in the two countries surrounded by South Africa (Lesotho and Swaziland). These languages are isiNdebele, Sepedi (Northern Sotho), Sesotho (Southern Sotho), Siswati (Swazi), Setswana, Xitsonga, Tshivenda, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Afrikaans and English. Until the mid twentieth century, Sotho, Xhosa and Zulu tended to dominate the African choral repertoire because of the prevalence of mission schools that used those languages, but composers are now much more conscious of — and take pride in — their regional languages. Four African languages are in the Nguni group (isiZulu, isiXhosa, Seswati, isiNdebele), three are Sotho-Tswana (Sepedi, Sesotho, and Setswana), and Tsonga is a Tswa-Ronga language. Zulu speakers have no trouble understanding a Xhosa song text but may have some difficulty with a Setswana text. Afrikaans and English speakers do not necessarily understand each other’s language although these are both European languages. Understanding depends where composers live, and how they have been educated, but there are many people in the region who speak two or three languages.

Occasionally composers use more than one language in a song. Composers in the African tradition normally write their own texts simultaneously with the music. It is rare that a text from elsewhere, or a pre-existing poem is ‘set’, as it usually is in the Western tradition. 

As choral competitions developed in the twentieth century, three categories emerged: traditional (African), Western (classical), and vernacular. The ‘vernacular’ choral work — now called ‘indigenous’ — caters for indigenous language texts and most of the songs are still written in tonic solfa notation.

A study of the history of African choral music will show many changes in language usage, over a time frame of almost two centuries. For example in Sesotho — ‘Southern Sotho’ or simply ‘Sotho’ as it is sometimes called — which was first written down and codified by French-Swiss missionaries in the 1830s, the language used the vowel ‘o’ to represent a ‘w’ sound, and ‘e’ to represent a ‘y’ sound, resulting in words such as ‘oa’ (wa) and ‘ea’ (ya). Hyphens were also a feature of Sesotho because they are common in French but have gradually disappeared, as have some of the diacritic markings. Sesotho orthography has differed in Lesotho and South Africa since 1966, when the apartheid government of South Africa introduced profound changes, rejected by Sotho speakers in Lesotho. See