The South African music scene comprises unique strands of electronic genres that are not only able to capture local cultural identities but lend themselves to creating and contributing to unexpected pop culture shifts that sometimes even make a global impact.
Stemming from the unmistakable sound of bacardi house music, which is derived from Shangaan electro music, subgenres like gqom, isigubhu, sijokojoko and amapiano carry the essence of township groove culture and create contexts with a strong resonance through clever sampling of kwaito, disco, house and a myriad retro pop culture references. Despite the number of other influences that may be presented at a given time, the beats essentially trigger a visceral reaction to the call of low drum basslines that have varying degrees of riffs and distortions. These are usually created on the audio editing suite known as fruity loops studio; it supports pitch shifting, beat slicing, time stretching and chopping – its latest version allows producers to record up to 64 audio tracks at the same time.
More specifically, amapiano is characterised by synth leads, wide basslines, airy pads and lush keys among the many elements that make it an intricate hybrid of jazz, deep house and lounge music. Music is powerful when it appeals to the listener’s imagination through nostalgic references that are linked to memories, it’s even more intoxicating when it evokes an instinctive response in the subconscious.
“As a listener, amapiano’s recognisable influences from my youth growing up in Garankuwa make the genre easy for me to locate. Whether it’s Focalistic saying ‘Ase trappe tse ke pina tsa ko kasi’ or just the straight instrumentals from producers like Vigro Deep, I know an amapiano song’s makeup when I hear it and I react to it in a very specific and embodied way,” says Amogelang Maledu, a lecturer, researcher and curator whose art practice looks into black sonic popular cultures.
Musician & YouTuber Ngasiirwe Katushabe, who unpacks the power of South African music on his channel and is also writing a thesis on the impact of gqom, says he thinks amapiano is doing well because of its many influences. “It’s punctuated with parts of culture we can identify with – whether it’s kwaito or traditional drums – and it is snowballing into success because authenticity is at the centre of its DNA.”
Its origins are still highly debated, with many citing it as having made waves in Pretoria from as early as 2012; at the same, townships in Soweto, Alexander and the East Rand pride themselves in their own variations of the genre that came about around the same time.
SHAYA!, a documentary chronicling the music, lifestyle and culture of amapiano, opens with self-proclaimed King of Amapiano Kabza De Small’s artist manager David Ngoma saying amapiano belongs to the people. He further explains that in its nature it has always been a sound that comes from the township and goes out to everywhere else.
“The genealogy is quite multifaceted, from bacardi in Pretorian townships like Soshanguve, Atteridgeville, Mabopane and even Garankuwa. But amapiano in 2020 has sonically evolved per various kasis [townships] in Gauteng reviving and reinventing its genesis. It wouldn’t be fair for a specific geography to authoritatively claim it,” adds Maledu.
It’s worth noting that the version more popular in Pretoria is more upbeat than its more melodic counterpart from Johannesburg. But all the other components are relatively similar, including how vocals originate from popular isms from each township, like how DBN Gogo’s hit that features producer and vocalist Jobe London is titled Mayonice, a township slang word that refers to money.
“Where others respond better to instances when the artist delivers the complete performance, the ‘call and response’ style to performing that incorporates the audience’s feedback as part of the act is prevalent in South Africa. I think that plays a role in how we create music that reverberates with a wide audience,” said Katushabe.
And even that’s a multiplex experience in the context of the South African dance music scene where fans are split into dancer and chanter and both play a crucial role in whether a track becomes a monumental part of a cultural moment or not.
Also in the documentary SHAYA!, artist & MC Mark Khoza is quoted as saying that dancing and using a bottle or glass as a prop, as well as the popular pouncing cat dance move, were first seen being done by the late hitmaker Papers 707. The chant “dance like Paper” then became popular after footage of him went viral on WhatsApp, and they capitalised on that traction by adding vocals with the chorus on a track and that defined how amapiano dancing videos would be shared as social media content at the beginning of the genre’s mainstream takeover.
Many of these were characterised by the pouncing cat, which is the easier one of the two to finesse: it’s a sharp and calculated walk with a sway from side to side where the dancer steps on beat and alternates their pace to match the riffs and loops on the track. The aim is to mimic a cat deliberating a leap during the slower parts of the track and then to embody the chaos of when it does jump, at the points when the song peaks. The artistry in these moves is apparent when there is clear embodiment of the inspiration but you see the dancer’s flair in their range in motion and preciseness.
What’s even more interesting is how amapiano has tipped the traditional trajectory of popular culture consumption where artists rely on the media on its head; “amapiano is one of the only genres in South Africa where guys are getting booked for gigs just off Datafile host mixes and social media,” said Da Kruk, a YFM DJ and producer on SHAYA!. If anything, channels, brands and other media have to engage amapiano producers, vocalists, MCs and DJs in order to keep up with the zeitgeist.
It’s said that amapiano was initially called iNUMBA, a sound with more of a deep house feel, made popular by producers MFR Souls, Kabza De Small and JazziDisciples. When that deep house sound infused with piano keys gained momentum, MFR Souls changed its name to the genre as we know it.
The collaborative nature of how it’s taken off has opened the music industry up to even more talents who are shaping the genre’s narrative in a captivating way.
Most notably, DJ and producer DBN Gogo who not only takes you on a curated journey through the genre’s development when she plays, she also popularised the other viral dance move where the movement progresses from using the glass or bottle as a prop in your hand to balancing it in your mouth. One of the only Gauteng DJs to take the sound to Cape Town with a two-month-long residency at popular nightspots in the city during December, she’s created a brand where no line-up is complete without her. Even though her DJ sets are among those that set the standard, she tells Maverick Life that she still doesn’t quite know how to decide if a track is hot or not beforehand.
“I play songs that I like. Even if it’s a song that is said to be a hit, I won’t know how to mix it unless I feel it,” she says. And beyond her own musicality, perhaps that emotional connection to the sound is the magic that propels her.
“I’ve had promoters ask me to start with bangers and I’ve had to explain that I like to touch on every mood when I play. And with the way I build my sets up, I can see how some party-goers gradually warm up to the idea of dancing. From nodding their head to reluctantly standing up when I introduce more upbeat tunes to fully occupying the dancefloor when the recognisable hits with chants come on,” she adds.
On its own, amapiano has never needed an extra push to take over nationally, but platforms like TikTok are making it easier for dance challenges to go viral around the world while staying true to the origin of the cultural production.
“Every musical genre South Africans have invented has always been accompanied by effortless dance cultures that increase the viral appeal of the music. And mostly it’s just folks playing around, following the groove – the embodiment. And people are not going to dance studios to rehearse a synchronised ‘’I’m-A-Savage routine’’, it’s off the cuff, and I think that’s our cutting edge because it’s just like movement just comes naturally for South Africans. Especially considering our historical cultures and their relationship with music, dance, spirituality and transcendence,” said Amogelang Maledu. DM/ ML/ MC
King Tutankhamun's ceremonial dagger is forged from meteorites.