8 Things To Know About South Africa's Amapiano Genre: A Local's Guide to the Scene
By Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi
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By Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi
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Roughly nine years after the genre's creation, even the name speaks to a coexistence of African and Western, established and contemporary, influences.
There’s something beyond the ribcage-rattling drums, heart-clutching harmonies, piano solos that speak the soul’s language, haunting basslines and uplifting percussions that make an Amapiano party transcendental. There are other-worldly powers at play on a dancefloor flooded by Amapiano, all held together by feet dancing in unison. The music, liquor and communal reverie converge spiritually. It is an unspoken divinity.
Birthed in South Africa’s Black townships in the country’s Gauteng province, the Amapiano music movement borrows from the musical ancestry of the communities in which it was conceived. The name “Amapiano” merges the Zulu language’s plural article, “ama” with the noun for a western musical instrument “piano.” Roughly nine years after the genre's creation, even the name speaks to a coexistence of African and Western, established and contemporary, influences.
Amapiano’s foundations are in Kwaito, music created in the '90s as South Africa transitioned into democracy. Afro and deep house, tech-house, jazz and folk are also immediately recognizable threads in the sound. What has emerged is a meeting of these influences with the creative, tech-savvy and DIY spirit of the country’s youngest generations. Constantly evolving, Amapiano sometimes sounds like a dance music with jazz sensibilities; it is often soulful with innovative electronic accents, but always fresh and pioneering.
According to the New York Times, at the time of publication less than 4% percent of the South African population has been fully vaccinated. But venues that thrive on the popularity of Amapiano open and close in a seemingly infinite loop of rising infection rates, stringent lockdown restrictions being imposed as a result, and then lifted as infection rates fall, only to rise again.
The pandemic lockdowns imposed in South Africa took effect as Amapiano producers and DJs were breaking out of their underground roots in taverns, pubs, lounges, small clubs and unlicensed liquor spots known as shebeens. All the better, maybe. These DJs and producers were starting to play peak time slots at events and festivals, and their music was beginning to enjoy airplay on regional and national radio stations. The closing of venues in the pandemic meant that TV stations like MTV Base, Channel O and other popular channels took notice of the movement and broadcast Amapiano sets, while Amapiano DJ sets also proliferated on Youtube.
While the pandemic may have stalled Amapiano's proliferation onto the global scene, the lag will likely prove to be only momentary given the genre's growing popularity on the internet.
Key Producers in the Amapiano Scene
Gaba Cannal has been making this music since before it was called “Amapiano.” His catalogue stretches back to an era when DJs looking to spice up their sets would come to his home in Daveyton, a township east of Johannesburg, to collect his unreleased songs to play out in their sets. His journey has seen him release the single "Shona Le" on the recently released Amapiano Now compilation out via NTS Records, the newly minted label from the venerable London-based brand NTS.
Together, mainstrem DJ/producer Maphorisa and former underground Amapiano DJ/producer Kabza de Small go by Scorpion Kings. Theirs in a smooth Amapiano sound with warm chords, sweet, prominent vocals and a pop sensibility. Even with a string of hits, their first Scorpion Kings EP (from 2019) stands out as their strongest project.
Pretoria is one of three South African capital cities, and the townships at its margins have a unique musical history and style. Nineteen-year-old Vigro Deep is at the forefront of harnessing the hard-hitting sound of Pretoria’s townships. Different versions of his 2019 single, "Untold Stories," are on three of his projects, and each of them is still a dancefloor anthem.
What Makes Amapiano Distinct From Other Genres Popular in South Africa
Amapiano is the electronic music movement that gives the most accurate, recent portrait of South African music from the 1990s to now. The music’s pace and tempo, keyboard solos, drums that sound as though they’ve been turned in on themselves, punctuating harmonies and lyrics encapsulate the Black experience in the country’s townships. From the aspirational, like Samthing Soweto’s desire to win the national lottery, to Lihleza’s commanding breasts on men’s faces. The Amapiano music movement’s uniqueness is how all these elements are brought together, in this digital age.
Recent Amapiano Tracks You Should Listen to Right Now
De Mthuda’s "John Wick," named after the action movie character played by Keanu Reeves, is the producer adding tech (house) to Amapiano via his signature jumping bass licks, reminiscent of Kwaito music. The “hooray” of Mr. JazziQ’s "Woza" and many climaxes of Mozambican DJ Tarico’s remix of "Yaba Buluku," featuring Burna Boy, are also hits for all seasons.
Best Clubs For Amapiano (Public Health Permitting)
Soweto is South Africa’s biggest and most populous township. It is a beacon of Black cultural creation and consumption. Zone 6 Venue in Soweto is owned by DJ/producer Black Coffee and, with an over 3,000-person capacity, is a mega venue by South African standards. Zone 6 Venue has staged legendary Amapiano events over the years, like the Hood vs. Burbs events, and includes stars like Kabza de Small, DJ Maphorisa, DJ Stokie and Focalistic on its roster of frequent acts. It features a high-end sound rig, multiple bars, even a (seldom-used) swimming pool.
Best Non-Club Venue For Amapiano (Public Health Permitting)
Lounges, pubs and restaurants are on par with clubs as places where the best Amapiano events happen. Also in Soweto, Disoufeng is more a musical institution that first opened in a residential neighborhood and has hosted events at the cutting edge of South African electronic dance music, expanding to a multi-stage venue and taking over an entire block in the process. When possible, music still blares from the venue and its revelers park their cars and their coolers full of drinks alongside neighbors’ boundary walls. Ayepyep, the high-end lounge/restaurant franchise with two venues in Pretoria (and one recently opened in Cape Town), is also an essential feature of the Amapiano circuit. It is owned by the Monate Mpolaye hitmaker DJ Sumbody.
Best After Hours Party Spot (Public Health Permitting)
Taverns and shebeens (unlicensed liquor outlets) are a mainstay of South African townships. Most are run from the proprietor’s garage or any other available space, offering cheap drinks, a sound system too powerful for the place, and hours that extend until the early morning. Picture wooden benches that seat eight each (at a squeeze), bars protected by iron mesh with a little space for the exchange of money and liquor, and walls adorned with price lists and promotional posters for typically locally produced bevs -- beers like Black Label, ciders like Savanna and hard tack like Klipdrift brandy.
The Amapiano played at these venues surpasses what’s played at licensed venues in creativity and originality. The sounds have the freedom to veer from radio-friendly hits into the territory of underground Amapiano songs by artists who haven’t broken into the mainstream and still live and play in these types of venues. Taverns and shebeens cater to the tastes of the demographic that typically doesn’t frequent clubs.
Best Amapiano Festival (Public Health Permitting)
There are two constants about Boxing Day in South Africa’s Gauteng province - it will rain and Dinho Café will have the best line-up of nearly all of the summer festivals in the province. Hosted annually at Mamelodi township’s Moretele Park, the one-day outdoor festival draws crowds of up to 5,000 (by official tally) mostly from around the province, features the particular year’s most popular acts and always carries on through the rain.
One Thing People in the U.S. Should Understand About Amapiano
Amapiano music developed the way it did as a response to the South African music industry that excluded most independent artists from recording, performing and partaking in other opportunities. The first Amapiano songs were created on cracked software, distributed via messaging apps like WhatsApp and marketed by word of mouth and on social media. Amapiano’s growth builds on decades of global interest for South African electronic dance music. Amapiano’s transition from an underground sound popular in Black South African townships to a global force in electronic dance music, using digital distribution and marketing tools, holds lessons for other music scenes across the globe.