Emerged from South African townships in the early to mid-2010s, leapfrogging around the turn of the decade and taking over the music industry in what is arguably one of the fastest-moving stories of a genre to across the continent (and now the world), Amapiano is still enjoying his much-needed moment in the sun. Characterized by charismatic synths and air pads, a wide punchy bass line popularly known as ‘log drum’, and moments of restrained energy and anticipation giving way to frenetic, startling percussion, Amapiano has distinguished himself as a dancefloor staple who blends several beloved genres to create a distinct sound that has been difficult to ignore. And as we know, the infectious genre tends to spawn entertaining dance moves that grow even bigger than the songs themselves and frequently turn into challenges on social media platforms.
“Amapiano is a form of expression and escape for South African youth. It expresses the struggles and joys that young people go through on a daily basis.
— DJ/producer duo Amapiano Major League DJz
In South Africa, dance music is pop music and, frankly, a way of life. From its deep and diverse cultural heritage, and many 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. Unfortunately, much of this music is only seen through a small lens; either focused on a specific genre or a handful of popular artists. So, we take a look at 4 proudly South African dance genres – some of which even helped shape the Amapiano sound we all know and love.
Now back to the 1990s. Fusing slow house beats with melodic rap vocals and heavy bass lines, Kwaito needs no introduction – at least not among South Africans. The name itself is derived from the Afrikaans word “kwaai” which means fierce or vicious, and although house music already existed in South Africa at the time, it was two Johannesburg-based house DJs named Oscar Mdlongwa (affectionately known as Oskido), and Christos Katsaitis who was credited with being among the first to slow the tempo to around 110 bpm and introduce lyrics reflecting township life.
The music has grown to include rhythmic and melodic variations borrowed from the country’s past, including the kwela sounds of the 1950s, the bubblegum music of the 80s, and the challenge and revolutionary fire that underscored the 90s. But throughout, production values have been kept simple and straightforward, allowing musicians with few resources to adapt pre-existing house beats to create new songs, while giving voice to underrepresented communities in neglected townships .
Afro House / SA House
From its beginnings in the bars and clubs of Hillbrow in Johannesburg and across Pretoria in the 80s, South African house music has held the world in a deadly grip for years. afro House is the love child of kwaito, tribal, deep and soulful house music that is strongly derived from the country’s histories and culture. You can hear the musical rhythms and the spirit of the people in the off-kilter snares, the four-on-the-ground kick, the distinct bass line, and the hats (sometimes reproduced with clapping) – elements that set the genre apart and live in today’s SA dance music, even as styles and trends change.
Although the different subgenres are relatively similar, with House usually played between 125 and 128 bpm, and Deep House often varying between 120 and 124 bpm, Afro House is generally faster, playing at around 145 to 160 bpm . In terms of predecessors, Vinny Da Vinci and DJ Christos are considered the great masters of South African house music, while Black Coffee and Zakes Bantwini have remained loyal supporters.
Frequently described as a sonically innovative subgenre that fuses elements of House, Kwaito and electronic music, Barcadi was founded by the late DJ Spoko in Atteridgeville, just outside Pretoria. Spoko studied sound engineering with Nozinja, the godfather of the high-speed, spinning Shangaan Electro style, who in turn played a fundamental role in shaping the Bacardi sound.
Created with the aim of making people dance and sweat, the combination of percussive elements with synth pop melodies provided the perfect soundscape for the charged atmosphere of South African townships in the late first decade of the 2000s. , and the sound is steadily seeping into today’s Amapiano music.
Emerging primarily from the townships of Durban in the 2010s, Gqom is a model of raw, unconventional dance music with a polyrhythmic, skeletal and somewhat outrageous sound/feel. Although cultural parallels have been drawn between grime music and gqom (since both center on lo-fi minimalism), the latter remains distinct and intact.
Pioneered by bands like the Naked Boyz, Masive Q and the Rudeboyz, the sound plays with broken beats, moving away from the traditional four-story house rhythm. “It’s a cultural thing; a zulu kindexplained Griffit Vigo, another pioneer, during a recent interview. “It’s dark and dreary, but that depends on what kind of creativity you bring. It’s about sampling, looping, chopping, using voice clips – it sounds hyped, it sounds vibrant.And it’s perhaps this hesitation between darkness and fun that makes the music so appealing. In terms of international recognition and acclaim, well… things are moving slowly. However, Gqom reached new heights in 2015 as the sound traveled from Durban to the rest of the world via labels like Oh Gqom! put together 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 album.