Exploring freedom through South Africa’s dance music

Updated: Feb 18

Editor's note : After paying attention to Pop Culture and its Impact in the Middle East and discovered different Asian innovative artists, our third Guest article takes us to South Africa., with Nickita Maesela exploring the new dance music trends taking off globally.

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Nickita Maesela is a South African writer and DJ who's passion for music and human storytelling is fuelled through her lived experiences that allow her to move through different artistic and social activist realms. Recently announced as a Mail & Guardian 200 Young South African winner for her contribution to media through her work she continues to believe in the power of collaboration to bring about inclusive and affirming engagement of spaces in mainstream media and across dance floors.

Can you imagine an algorithm that can best be described by a feeling? One that tells a tale of a culture that refuses to remain stagnant because movement feels the most natural? In 2020, the world got access to this feeling in mainstream fashion. The Master KG and Nomcembo track Jerusalema invited people and communities around the world to connect with strangers on the internet by joining in the Jerusalema Dance Challenge, started by the Angolan dance troupe Fenomenos. It went on to go viral and spread hope around the world during the isolation and loss that COVID-19 lockdowns brought. A global connection through a dance track whose lyrics most of its consumers did not understand, but could feel something.

There’s something about the dance music that is birthed in South Africa (SA). From Amapiano songs blowing up nationally through WhatsApp (which has been a huge platform in the Amapiano movement), to Gqom producers like DJ Lag playing their music in the global festival circuit on line-ups like Sónar Barcelona and MELT Festival in Germany, it finds itself unavoidably captivating. Amidst a heavy history of gross discrimination that continues to proliferate in SA’s very present deep socio-economic inequality, there’s an overt expression of freedom which we experience through the medium of music.

A brief journey

Dance music is a portal to moments of freedom. The sound of the Bubblegum Era, was a very synth-heavy and distinctly South African pop sound. It was delivered by cosmic figures like Brenda Fassie, ‘the black Madonna of the township’ who was among many things a Xhosa girl from Cape Town who made sure the world knew that her contribution to the music realm would go on to be immeasurable.

The musical genre associated with post-Apartheid SA’s black youth is known as kwaito, which was intentionally apolitical and represented music ‘after the struggle’ as Gavin Steingo wrote in an article titled South African music after apartheid.

Brenda Fassie on stage on January 16, 1985. (Photo by Gallo Images : Sunday Times : Joe Sefale)

We saw South African house music grandmasters like Oskido, Vinny Da Vinci and DJ Christos playing house music before the end of the Apartheid regime. However, with the country fresh out of isolation, the 1990’s saw the birth of club culture in the city of Johannesburg and actively spreading the music across the country.

Telling the world tales from the Kasi – or township – is the full-bodied essence of the polyrhythmic sounds in the genre of Gqom, a word from isiZulu (one of SA’s eleven official languages) signifying a drum. It is a genre which emerged from Durban around 2010. This South African dance music sound has been described as raw, broken beats, that you would hear local taxi drivers blasting through their speakers as they pick up commuters on their way to work or school. It comes from young men who decided to produce the dark, grimy and percussion-heavy sound in their bedrooms turned studios.

Then we catch up to the present trend that is Amapiano, a sensual orchestration of jazz influenced keys. Its nostalgic basslines, drums and percussion capturing it’s consumers at a tempo range of moderato 105 to 117 beats per minutes.

The genre’s exact originator and point of conception remains contested but the mandate has been clear, the sound is a feel-good combination through and through.

Sentiments of freedom through dance music

When we go back in time on the journey of SA’s dance music, it is clearly articulated by an essential figure in the global underground, Lerato Khati aka Lakuti Soweto-born longstanding DJ, curator and booking agent. In the South African 90’s club culture documentary, Rave & Resistance she said, ‘There was anarchy but in a very beautiful way.’ This lingering essence of anarchy certainly remains, it is just playing out in a different time.

Rave and Resistance documentary by Red Bull Music

‘There is a global interest in South African music in general because, as a country, we are blessed with musical talent and diversity,’ says DJ Okapi who has been researching and collecting South African dance music from the 80’s and 90’s for over a decade. When he first DJ’d in Europe in 2016 with only a bag of records of South African dance music from the 80s, there was an immediate interest in the music he was playing. The Afrosynth Records founder is unyielding regarding the old school sound. His view of Bubblegum, a dominant trend in SA music of the 80’s, is that South African musicians found a way to inject a local flavour and often a political context into it, and although on the surface the music often seems joyous and ecstatic, there is an underlying pain and sincerity.

Today’s popular sounds of Gqom and Amapiano consist of an importing of sonic compilations from the country’s dance music that came before, like kwaito and house. It’s the richness of SA’s music history through Gqom and Ampiano that’s being played on airwaves around the world like BBC Radio. Recently, London producer and DJ Ikonika played a selection of popular Amapiano songs in her mix on the show. The consumption of these dance music trends illustrates the trust the world has in South African’s burgeoning art movement of freedom through music.

“A lot of UK people have played our stuff; on the Spotify artist data we can see there’s a lot of people streaming our music in Europe in general,” says Jodie Williams, one half of the Cape Town Gqom DJ and producer duo Surreal Sessions. He says the world was drawn to Gqom because the energy it gives you is inexplicable. When he and Liam Bowers decided the genre was the wave they wanted to contribute to as artists there was no going back. ‘We were two kids from the hood in the north of Cape Town who grew up in a family that loves music. We’d hear house and kwaito at my aunty’s house which was also a lowkey shebeen (unlicensed private house selling alcohol) and when we started going to high school parties it was either yaadt (music founded in a specific experience, a feeling that doesn’t have a direct translation) or Gqom playing. That’s 120 bpm to 130 bpm for hours and we loved it.’ The first time Williams heard Durban’s finest, DJ CNDO and DJ Lusiman’s quintessential house house track Yamnandi Into was at his aunty’s house, a song that laid the foundation, like many others, for pivotal contributions to the world being under the spell that is South African dance music and its influence.

With an extensive list of the new generation of music makers, the genre has gone international. Talented and bold pioneers like DJ Lag, whose global footprint includes producing ‘My Power’ on Beyonce’s Black Is King visual album, (which also features powerful voices in SA dance music Busiswa and Moonchild Sanelly);

FAKA, SA music and performance duo, album cover Moonchild Sanelly, SA musician.

Sourced from www.redbull.co.za

Babes Wodumo who held the title of ‘the queen of Gqom’, and FAKA, a music and performing artist duo made up of Fela Gucci and Desire Marea, (whose music including the track Inhliziyo, a collaboration with Surreal Sessions), was played on the Versace runway in 2018.

In art practitioner Amogelang Maledu’s 2018 work titled ISIGUBUTHROUGHGQOM, a transmedia curatorial archive of Isigubu re-imagined through South African electronic music Gqom (Isigubu is a drum usually made from a hollowed tree-trunk and calf or goat skins), she describes the genre as a practicing of a different kind of freedom that is not necessarily tied to any particular conscious messaging besides black joy, a sentiment echoed by Jodie Williams when he said, ‘When you see Gqom come to life at a party, it changes your life.

‘Finding South African music back in the day was really hard, I had to go through some loopholes just to have access but now there is a demand for it.’ House music DJ, DJ AQ, whose real name is Kadijah Bah, says when she first started playing in the United States it was Gqom that was trending and now there’s also Amapiano. ‘As long as the beat keeps them moving they’re happy.’ Born to a mother from Durban – the home of Gqom – who fled the country during apartheid in the early 90’s, she throws events around NYC with her collective Tropical Jawn trying to push the South African dance music culture forward and bridge the gap between South African and the American black diaspora. Another international portal to SA dance music is Gqom OH! Records, the Rome-based home to the Durban sound with producers like Emo Kid and Griffit Vigo echoing the international consumption of the SA music dance music trend.

What has been described as South Africa’s fastest growing electronic music movement, Amapiano, the genre pays homage to the sounds that came before it like kwaito and house[LW1] . In his New Frame article (a not-for-profit, social justice media publication based in Johannesburg) music writer Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi described it as being rooted in a communal culture of borrowing that developed from South Africa’s townships. The proliferation of this epicurean sound into the global world has been rapid and blaring, with dance trends evolving from the hot off the press tracks spreading through Tik Tok videos to the work of DJs/producers Kabza de small, Maphorisa and DBN Gogo who in particular disseminates the liberating frequency that the genre encourages on the dance floor.

MFR Souls (Maero and Force Reloaded) and Calvin Fallo are amongst the names you’ll hear when asking about who started the SA dance music subgenre Amapiano. In the Papercutt TV documentary, SHAYA! Amapiano, Mark Khoza, South African MC and artist, says Amapiano is a genre that is trending and is interesting because of the keyboard sounds and thumping basslines.

On the origin of the genre he explains, ‘There’s this other guy who started this thing, when the DJ was playing he’d take the piano as if he’s in church and start playing over the music, those same sounds you’d hear on a church keyboard. So someone came up with the concept of infusing deep house with piano.’ Kohza goes on to say that the MFR Souls guys who were making this music decided to call that particular collaboration of sounds Amapiano. ‘They are the ones who started this and made it popular. It gained momentum, people started to follow it and MFR Souls became popular for this sound.’

The kicks, the melodies, the chants on the track, this new dance floor dominator in SA has groovists – a colloquial term for people who are at a party/event dancing and having a good time - indulging in what can be described as a lifestyle that’s Amapiano. Also, in the documentary, MFR Souls Maero DJ/Producer says, ‘It’s a combination of a lot of things. We used to take sounds from the music production of DJ Clock and Bekzin Terris etc, add a little deep house and mash it up into one thing.’

A keyboardist slapping out melodies that holler at your soul, an MC guiding you to the build-up and dancers inviting you to move the way your body needs to – these are algorithms of this now immensely popular dance music sound.

There are artists who are capturing the essence of SA dance music regardless of genre like Moonchild Sanelly, whose music repertoire includes Gqom, Amapiano, Kwaito and Electropop. She uses her voice, her style and her infectious individuality in a way that makes very clear the boundlessness of the music scene’s impact when embraced. The future sounds of Mzansi (South Africa) like Gqom and Amapiano are portals to sounds of the past and SA as a country has a certain rhythm that erupts through these dance music trends. Whether it's Afropop, Kwaito, Gqom or Amapiano, the exploration of a signature heartbeat, that feels like freedom, in many different ways is persistent, on-going, and highly contagious and there’s no telling what the next trend will be.


South Africa, February 2021.