JOHANNESBURG — It’s October 2021 and the world is still breathing. South Africa lets out an almost tangible sigh of relief as COVID-19 restrictions on movement and the purchasing of alcohol and cigarettes — substances banned during the pandemic due to their negative health effects — are lifted incrementally.
Amapiano, the musical movement that gained much of its popularity during the lockdowns in South Africa, pours out onto the streets and dancefloors in shebeens, taverns and any other place with a sound system in a cathartic deluge.
Meanwhile, twin DJ-producers Banele and Bandile Mbere — known as Major League Djz — are establishign themselves via their Amapiano Balcony Mix. One of the most successful Amapiano DJ mix franchises, the series got its name from being performed live on the balcony of a suburban apartment complex during the lockdowns and streamed online to countries around the globe.
“During COVID [lockdown] days, the Balcony Mix did wonders for people; not just South Africans, across the world,” Banele Mbere tells Billboard. Collectively, these mixes were streamed millions of times. But it was the twins’ October 2021 Amapiano Balcony Mix — performed from the patio of Diplo’s Malibu estate — that would change the course of their careers irreversibly.
Major League had been working on new music with several artists from outside of South Africa, primarily among them, Diplo, who they met while he was touring in Africa. “We worked on a few songs then we did a Balcony Mix in his house that did pretty well,” says Banele. “Then he said, ‘Let’s actually work on a project.’ And the rest is history.”
The result is Piano Republik, a nine-track album out via Mad Decent this past Friday (March 24.) The LP is a collaboration between Major League Djz and Diplo’s longstanding Major Lazer project, in which he plays alongside Walshy Fire and Ape Drums. Since its 2009 inception, Major Lazer has helped deliver global dance sounds to a more mainstream, U.S. audience — including Brazilian baile funk, Jamaican dancehall, Dominican dembow and now, South African Amapiano.
A cross-continental collaboration between the two Majors, the album became a balancing act between the current and timeless styles of Amapiano. It presents Amapiano music that is more practical than inventive, erring towards the established over the disruptive.
This is all on purpose, as the album is intended to help break the sound globally and put streaming numbers behind a genre that’s for the last year been touted as the Next Big Thing in the dance world, but has yet to deliver a U.S. charting hit.
Major League’s position as the frontrunners in Amapiano’s shift from a South African sensation to a cornerstone of global dance music is partly a function of their birth and upbringing. Their father, the late Dr. Aggrey Mbere, was a South African anti-apartheid activist who lived a significant part of his life in exile, outside of his home country. The twins, now 32, were born in Boston, Mass. and grew up in South Africa after the advent of democracy in 1994. They now live between the U.K. and Johannesburg.
Meanwhile, Diplo’s interest in South African music stretches back a decade, and he’s kept tabs on dance music currents in the country for just as long. In that time, he’s produced for a range of South African artists, from the provocateurs Die Antwoord to singer-songwriter Msaki.
“South Africa is the craziest environment culturally, socially, politically for music that is happening right now,” Diplo says on the phone from Malibu over the sound of peacocks squawking in his yard. “South Africa is a pretty big country, land wise, but it’s not that many people compared to other African nations. But the diversity is so crazy that it’s got to be the only answer for why the music is so wild.”
“It doesn’t really lean on influences from other parts of Africa,” he continues. “It’s so different and so insular, so that’s probably why it grows in such a weird way. I love the musical journey that’s happened there through the last 20 to 30 years.” (He adds that it’s almost customary if he’s in L.A. at the same time as any African artist, he’ll invite them to his studio for a session and hold on to whatever comes out of it for future projects.)
But Amapiano is an entirely different current to Gqom and other styles of dance music to be invented in South Africa, or to those that have found evolution there, as house has. The sheer churn of new Amapiano artists and styles means being on or ahead of the curve is what largely guarantees success for many South African artists producing in the genre.
“Major League is so in tune with the [Amapiano] scene; they’re about whatever happened last weekend,” Diplo says. “That’s so South African, to be too up to date, when my job as a producer was to make this project about the world. How do we really translate a lot of these records to everybody, not about just impressing the South African Amapiano heads? Let’s try and make them happy, but also try and make something that’s easy for everybody [to] learn about Amapiano music.”
Diplo’s biggest challenge in doing so, he says, was “making songs that are in a streaming time, which is under three minutes.” Over the past handful of years, Amapiano music has tended towards songs around or beyond the five-minute mark. “[That] was the hardest part because all of the songs are [originally] six minutes long,” adds Diplo. “I’m trying to basically cut the fat off everything.” (Plus, he adds, “If [a song is] too long, they won’t stream it over and over again… Think about your money. You’re tripling it already if the streams are tripled for the time of a seven-minute song.”)
For its part, Piano Republik is more succinct. The project is also Major League’s passport to the global dance and electronic music scene with one of its most traveled stalwarts as their chaperone. “We listen to him as our older brother,” Banele says of their relationship with Diplo. “But he still respects us in our market to makes sure we are allowed to be ourselves in that space when it comes to deciding which song [to use] and what goes where.”
By the numbers, Piano Republik is close to a third in the number of tracks and six times shorter in length than Amukelani, the 2022 project from prominent Amapiano artist Kelvin Momo. Groundbreaking for the way in which the breakout artist doubles down on the “private school” style [of amapiano] that finds a middle path between jazz, deep house and amapiano, Amukelani has had longevity on national radio charts and in DJ sets few albums enjoy.
And yet while other Amapiano artists like Kabza De Small, DJ Maphorisa, Mr. Jazziq and Focalistic have all appeared on the South Africa Songs chart, they’ve yet to chart in the U.S. or U.K. (The same goes for Major League Djz, whose “Bakwa Lah” reached No. 8 on South Africa Songs last March and spent 10 weeks on the chart.)
Another reason Amapiano’s roots are still shallow outside of South Africa is because, besides one-off performances and short tours, few Amapiano acts consistently play on the biggest stages and for the hungriest audiences around the globe. Western countries including the U.K. and U.S. impose work permit restrictions on artists from countries like South Africa that are borderline exclusionary, making it difficult for artists to secure extensive, multi-city and multi-nation tours.
It’s a challenge Major League Djz — managed by Vidhi Gandhi, Renee Brodeur and Andrew McInnes at tmwrk, the company that also represents Major Lazer and Diplo — are learning to navigate, with upcoming sets at SoCal’s Lightning In a Bottle, Nashville’s Deep Tropics Music Arts & Style Festival, Seattle’s Bumbershoot and summer shows at DC10 in Ibiza.
Piano Republik, meanwhile, helps navigate the genre’s crossover with star power, enlisting Ty Dolla $ign, Tiwa Savage, Joeboy, DJ Maphorisa and other prominent artists to help chart its course to more massive audiences. The album was also made in English rather than South African vernacular to encourage, Banele says, “the growth of the sound.”
“The music is going places we never expected it to,” he continues. “But there’s still a lot of work we need to do in terms of our sound and how we plan on captivating crowds in different parts of the world. I think [Amapiano] has legs, but it needs faces, it can’t just be a vibe anymore.”
In South Africa, Amapiano’s growth continues unabated, with each day bringing fresh sounds and the potential for a viable career in music for relatively unknown DJs and producers. Piano Republik is the latest, though not the first, step for the Amapiano movement on the global stage.
Only audiences in South Africa and the markets the two Majors are beelining for will determine whether or not this step — which carries risk in its potential to be viewed as selling out among South African locals — was the correct one to take.
“In the global market,” Banele says, “you’re not the person that you think you are or the person you are at home. You humble yourself. [You learn] how people think, how they move, how to build differently, understand different territories and why you should be in this territory or that one. We wanted to encompass all of the Amapiano sounds — give a taste of what Amapiano is and the different types of sounds that come with it.”