‘We didn’t just decide to stop music’ - Kwela Tebza brothers revive the penny whistle

After almost a decade of not releasing music, penny whistlers Kwela Tebza return to music.
After almost a decade of not releasing music, penny whistlers Kwela Tebza return to music.

For over 10 years, their penny whistles have been gathering dust in their basements. The last album they released was called Made in South Africa in 2009 and they've been mostly on a break since. 

Penny whistle brothers of Kwela Tebza, Mpho (45), Tebogo (42), Tshepo (41), prepare for an aggressive comeback into the music industry, joined by their nephew Neo Lerole (21), who has been their number one fan since childhood and was also taught by the veteran penny whistler Elias Shamber Lerole.

They recently tested the waters to see if they still have it in them and they performed at three events, including Paul Maleke’s birthday brunch.

They also performed at the Kyalami Castle recently and at the Collen Mashawana Foundation’s 10th anniversary, where they introduced Neo as their new band member. 

“Neo is our sister’s son. He is a brilliant dancer and he, like all of us, was taught to play the penny whistle by our father. He grew up with our grandparents and spent a lot of time with our dad, he has seen us perform and has been with and a fan of our music for a long time. So, he joins us as we embark on a full-on come back,” Tebogo tells Drum.

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After their 2009 release, they released two singles Aye featuring Nigerian veteran Femi Kuti and Black Motion, and one with Ishmael titled Jabula, and that was the end of Kwela Tebza. 

“We didn’t just decide to stop music, the focus was not there. We got to a point where we had done everything as musicians and we ventured into business,” Tebogo adds. 

“We are versatile, so we got into the events space, beverages, mining and broadband, and connectivity business,” he says. 

“We then parked the music aside, and every time we tried to attempt a comeback, the focus was not there. People would ask us why we don’t come back, and it was just not the right time. There were also new sounds, Gqom, Amapiano and we were giving other musicians space to do their thing. Even our parents have been preaching to us about making a comeback and us pulling up our weight.”

While away they formed Act Now in 2020, a national movement for men who fight against gender-based violence, sending a strong message to other men to stop all forms of abuse and degradation of women and children.

“The idea came days before Youth Day. We launched a men and boys car march. We couldn’t march on foot because of Covid-19 restrictions. [We went] to the Union Building, where we delivered a petition to make the government aware of the lack of education and tools for young men. We address issues of patriarchy in older men. Most abusers and rapists get arrested and released a few days later. They go back to the victims or get new ones. We were pushing the agenda of police taking action and being the service we require,” he says. 

“The organization is growing every day. We are on the verge of launching a call centre in Joburg for victims of GBV to get help. We are also about to launch a safe house in Pretoria where victims can come with their children and get help.” 

While busy with philanthropic work, Tebogo says music is their calling and they knew at some point, they would return.

“We grew up with the music, it’s our family legacy. No one does what we do. When you think of the penny whistle, you think of Kwela Tebza and we were just waiting for the right time to make a return, and we are ready,” Tebogo says.

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They started playing the penny whistle at 13 years old, after being taught by their father. 

“I started playing before my brothers, then they later joined. I entered a music competition, Shell Road to Fame at 14 years and did not make it and in 1994 I went all the way to the top. Shell Road to Fame played a part in setting the foundation. I released an album titled Kwela Tebza in 1996 and launched Kwela Tebza in 1996, named after my mother. The title was later used as the name of the band which introduced the three brothers,” Tebogo says. 

In 2006 they released their first album. 

“We were also very young. We stopped recording with Gallo and went into individual searches of what life is about. In 2007, we had the biggest comeback with EMI records, we won a SAMA, Feather Awards, Channel O awards, Metro FM awards, and our last album was in 2009. By then we were doing every corporate event you can think of, and we were just the talk of the town. They collaborated with Femi Kuti, Zolani Mahola, Thembi Seete, Youssou N'Dour, Black Motion, Mahotella Queens, Slikour, MXO, and many others. In 2009 we stopped performing and did special occasions.” 

Tebogo says they have missed being on stage. 

“We missed it, there is something about being on stage, performing, and keeping an audience captivated. You can even direct an entire president to go left and right while on stage. You have beautiful feelings and expressions from people.”

They have, however, also enjoyed not being recognized in the streets. 

“Being away from the limelight and having everyone not recognize you is great. You can move around without being known.”  

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The Soweto-born brothers plan to release a full album. 

“We are excited to collaborate with as many artists as possible, locally, internationally, and on the continent. We want to keep the essence of who we are but get one or two Amapiano sounds. We want to hit the big stages again. We missed it. We want to host a big Kwela Tebza come-back concert in June and include all the other work with have been doing from fashion, CSIs, and music.”

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