It’s been a terrible year for South Africa’s cultural and creative industry, the continent’s largest. The first-wave lockdown in the spring, then the second, stopping the end of year party season and concerts timed to coincide with the southern summer in their tracks, hit musicians across the country hard. According to a study conducted by the South African Cultural Observatory public body, nearly half of South Africa’s live music workers may be forced to quit their jobs because of the shutdown in the industry.
Despite these bleak prospects for Africa’s largest economy, there are still grounds for hope: South Africa is dancing like never before!
While Master KG’s Jerusalema – and its choreographic challenges – became the world’s weapon against depression in 2020, the sound of South African youth, Amapiano, and its equally viral dance steps, such as the ivosho, shi shi and bouncing cat, has never been so close to establishing itself on the international stage.
There’s no mistaking the signs: after signing Nigerian labels, such as Chocolate City, emblematic of the emergence of afrobeats productions, music’s major labels are now back in force on the continent and are turning to this latest avatar of southern house – the fruit of 26 years of amalgamation of South African urban born free music. Sony Music Africa has just signed Sumsounds, the label of DJ Sumbody, one of the pioneers of this style that sprang up in the mid-2010s, between the townships of Pretoria – Mamelodi, Atteridgeville – and Johannesburg – Soweto, Alexandra and Katlehong.
With Africa still coming through loud and clear in his ears, Frenchman Ludovic Navarre – better known as Saint Germain – is releasing an Amapiano adaptation of So Flute this winter, taken from his album The Tourist, released twenty years ago, on the occasion of a remixed reissue.
Meanwhile, Nigerian rappers Wizzkid and Burna Boy, who have become two of the global icons of afrobeats, feature on Sponono (given a new twist here by the French dancer Wizlex).
Sponono is produced by one of the style’s leading exponents, the DJ producer Kabza De Small, self-proclaimed king of amapiano and among the most listened to artists of 2020 on South African streaming platforms. The 28-year-old Mpumalanga native has also struck gold with Scorpion Kings, alongside another craftsman of Amapiano, DJ Maphorisa, 33, from Pretoria.
Like Midas, the pair, whose joint album was voted record of the year at the 26th SAMAs (South African Music Awards), held online last summer, turn everything that happens in their studio into gold…while supporting a new generation of DJs, such as the brilliant Vigro Deep, 19.
Irony of the story: in late 2019, it was during a festival sponsored by the beer brand Corona that the Scorpion Kings played at home, bringing the curtain down on a year of successes that sometimes saw them performing up to 15 sets in a weekend…Covid has since tarnished Corona’s image. The lockdown and social distancing enforced by President Cyril Ramaphosa will have served only to strengthen amapiano’s hypnotic aura. Assembled by dozens of bedroom studios and producers’ dens, “Yanos” mixes, often promoted by masked DJs urging their listeners to stay safe, will have served as both a musical comfort and escape for a generation stuck at home. One of the most popular online studios is that of Oscar Bonginkosi Mdlongwa, better known as Oskido, former member of the Brothers of Peace, and considered one of the godfathers of kwaito, as well as co-founder, in the mid-90s, of the Kalawa JazzMee Records label.
From Kwaito to Amapiano: full circle. Its bass lines – and darting keyboard jumps – are a direct descendent of Kwaito. But a kwaito liberated in the meantime from socially committed lyrics in favour of more bling and hedonism, while making beautiful rainbow children with the most melancholic deep house and most percussive UK funky. Not forgetting its gospel mum and dad. The church and club culture. Two standard references for Amapiano DJs.
In the late 90s, kwaito, with its infrabasses straight out of a gold mine, heavy and imposing beats turning on average at 112 BPM, and pantsula dance steps, appeared ripe to make its mark on the international stage.
Yet sadly it missed its date with the world, while Gauteng’s afro-house, Limpopo’s shangaan electro and Durban’s gqom established themselves among South Africa’s new black generation. But a bit like 90s hip-hop, twenty-year-olds are rediscovering the kwaito of their elders and its icons that were gone too soon, from the bad boy Mandoza to the diva Lebo Mathosa. Unlike the 90s, the amapiano scene has been able to count on the emergence of a national digital ecosystem to get its word out there, despite the ostracism of the main national FM radio stations, to which it fell victim for a long time. WhatsApp and TikTok messaging and file exchange sites Fakaza and DataFileHost: thanks to NICT, young amapiano artists emerged from anonymity as quickly as a BMW driven by young township residents in one of those popular speed races. Shared taxi ranks, malls and shebeens provided free promotion. The streaming platforms listened to by the upper-middle-class added playlists dedicated to more established artists and newcomers.
Now there’s something for everyone. Gong Gong amapiano is linked to the sound of Pretoria – and its so-called Bacardi house – and instrumentals. The more elegant club-style Harvard amapiano relies on the performances of its singers and tracks calibrated for radio play: the Zimbabwean Sha-Sha, who won Best New International Act at the BET Awards 2020.
Or the brilliant Samthing Soweto, 32, whose second solo album, Isiphithiphithi, also bestowed with a gilded Amapiano touch by the Scorpion Kings, was voted Best Male Artist 2020 at the SAMAs.
With Amapiano, South Africa is sending a reminder that it produced the most exciting dance music in the world for more than 25 years. Which, after providing a rhythm for the pandemic, could well be the soundtrack for the sociable spring now on the horizon across the world. The anthem for the occasion is already set: Bella Ciao…Bring your whistles!