Emerging out of South African townships in the early to mid 2010s, surging through the turn of the decade, and taking over the music industry in what is arguably one of the fastest come-up stories of a genre across the continent (and now the globe), Amapiano is still enjoying its well-deserved moment in the sun. Characterized by charismatic synths and air pads, a wide percussive bassline popularly known as the ‘log drum’, and moments of restrained, anticipatory energy giving way to frenetic and startling drums, Amapiano has distinguished itself as a dance floor staple that blends several beloved genres to create a distinct sound that has been difficult to ignore. And as we know, the infectious genre tends to birth entertaining dance moves that become even larger than the songs themselves and frequently turn into challenges on social media platforms.
“Amapiano is a form of expression and getaway for the youth of South Africa. It expresses the struggles and enjoyments that the youth go through on a daily basis”
— Amapiano DJ/producer duo Major League DJz
In South Africa, dance music is pop music, and quite frankly, a way of life. Out of its deep and diverse cultural heritage, and numerous distinct dance styles like jaiva, marabi, kwela, and mbaqanga, comes wave after wave of incredible dance music. From the tribal sounds of Afrohouse to the edgy hypnotism of Gqom (and everything in between), the breadth and depth of South African music cannot be denied. Sadly, much of this music is only seen through a small lens; either focused on one specific genre or a handful of popular artists. Thus, we take a quick look at 4 proudly South African dance genres — some of which have even helped to shape the Amapiano sound that we’ve all come to know and love.
Now, let’s take it all the way back to the 1990s. Fusing slowed-down house beats with melodic rapped vocals and heavy bass lines, Kwaito needs no introduction — at least not amongst South Africans. The name itself is derived from the Afrikaans word “kwaai” which means fierce or vicious, and though house music already existed in South Africa at the time, it was two Johannesburg-based house DJs named Oscar Mdlongwa (fondly known as Oskido), and Christos Katsaitis who were credited as being amongst the first to slow down the tempo to around 110bpm, and introduce lyrics that reflected township life.
The music grew to include rhythmic and melodic variations that borrowed from the country’s past, including the kwela sounds of the 1950s, the bubblegum music of the 80s, and the defiance and revolutionary fire that underscored the 90s. But in all of this, the production values remained simple and straight to the point, allowing musicians with little resources to adapt pre-existing house beats to create new songs, while giving a voice to underrepresented communities in neglected townships.
Afro House/SA House
From its early beginnings in the bars and clubs of Hillbrow in Johannesburg and across Pretoria in the ‘80s, South African House music has had the world in a death grip for years. Afro House is the musical love child of kwaito, tribal, deep, and soulful house music that is heavily derived from the country’s stories and culture. You can hear the musical rhythms and spirit of the people in the off-beat snares, the four-to-the-floor kick, the distinct bassline, and hi-hats (sometimes replicated with clapping) — elements that set the genre apart and live on in today’s SA dance music, even as styles and trends change.
Although the various subgenres are relatively similar, with House generally played between 125 and 128 bpm, and Deep House often ranging between 120 and 124bpm, Afro House is usually faster, playing at roughly 145 to 160bpm. In terms of predecessors, Vinny Da Vinci and DJ Christos are considered South Africa’s House music grandmasters, while the likes of Black Coffee and Zakes Bantwini have remained faithful torchbearers.
Frequently described as a sonically innovative subgenre that fuses elements of House, Kwaito, and electronic music together, Barcadi was founded by the late DJ Spoko in Atteridgeville, just outside Pretoria. Spoko studied sound engineering under Nozinja, the godfather of the high-speed, gyrating Shangaan Electro style, which in turn, played an elemental role in the formation of the Bacardi sound.
Created with the aim of making people dance and sweat, the combination of percussive elements with pop-synth melodies provided the perfect soundscape for the charged atmosphere of South African townships at the tail end of the first decade of the 2000s, and the sound is steadily seeping back into today’s Amapiano music.
Emerging mostly from the townships of Durban in the 2010s, Gqom is a raw and unconventional dance music blueprint with a polyrhythmic, skeletal and somewhat outré sound/feel to it. Although cultural parallels have been drawn between grime music and gqom (since both are centered around lo-fi minimalism), the latter remains distinct and intact.
Pioneered by the likes of the Naked Boyz, Masive Q, and the Rudeboyz, the sound plays around with broken beats, moving away from the traditional four-to-the-floor house rhythm. “It’s a cultural thing; a Zulu genre,” explained Griffit Vigo, another pioneer, during a recent interview. “It’s dark and dreary, but it depends what kind of creativity you bring. It’s about sampling, looping, chopping, using vocal clips – it sounds hype, it sounds vibrant.” And perhaps it is this very vacillation between darkness and delight that makes the music so appealing. In terms of recognition and international acclaim, well… things are slow going. However, Gqom reached new heights in 2015 as the sound traveled from Durban to the rest of the world via labels like Gqom Oh! set up by Italian DJ Nan Kolè, and in 2019, one of gqom’s most prominent artists, DJ Lag, featured alongside other artists on Beyoncé’s Lion King soundtrack LP.