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Jerusalema - DJ Master KG et Nomcebo Zikode
jerusalema - DJ Master KG et Nomcebo Zikode

South Africa : Amapiano, the dance soundtrack to Covid

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 !




Jean-Christophe Servant

During the 90s, I worked the urban music magazine l'Affiche, I was also the former head of the department of Géo magazine. For thirsty years, I worked mostly for Le Monde Diplomatique about the English-speaking areas of sub-Saharan Africa. I have a particular interest for its cultural industry and its new urban music.

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