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A History of
South African Dance

by Shiba Melissa Mazaza
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South-Africa-based Shiba Melissa Mazaza is a music writer, consultant and curator teaming up with those that value new and exciting voices across Africa. She’s worked with various music and culture giants such as mixmag, Boiler Room, Black Major, Apple Music, Platoon, Afropunk, Homecoming Festival and more, while simultaneously enjoying a voice over career in campaigns from brands such as Loreal Paris and Emirates. Nominated for SheSaidSo’s Alternative Power 100 Music List in 2018 and selected by the prestigious Salzburg Global Seminar in 2020 to participate in the Young Creative Innovators Forum, she aims to ring in the next generation of culture curators and archivists at her latest venture, Mount Makeda Media.

Since the stretching of the first animal skin drums, Africa has had an unbreakable connection with the sound known to South Africa as “isigubhu.” As the cradle of humankind, it’s no surprise that this visionary place has managed to harness the power of sound in a way that leaves generations of people in complete awe. From the sacred to the secular, music has been an integral part of the African way, and in most recent times the world’s attention has become fixated on the myriad sounds echoing from the south. 

While Afrohouse overflows with melodic strings and lively percussion, Gqom hypnotises with a dusky and visceral rhythm. Deep-and-soulful house cradles emotion with an air of sophistication and grace, and Afrotech pushes the bounds of what it means to lean on the legacy of the drumbeat. The youngest of them all, Amapiano, is a slower-paced chimaera of deep house’s vast terrain and kwaito’s unabashed calls for expression – all where the aim is not to sweat. 

Amongst the many sonics soundtracking everyday life, most – if not all – of the country’s most groundbreaking sounds stem from Black communities and townships taking ownership of their creative talents, where they were once stifled under Apartheid law that forbid cultural expression and the intermingling of tribe and race, while restricting freedom of movement and self-actualisation. Jazz-centric and traditional genres such as marabi, kwela, mbaqanga and maskandi instilled a sense of hope and gave way to artists who would usher in a new age of purely and proudly South African urban music.

In the late 80s and 90s, genres such as bubblegum soul and kwaito laid the foundation for a country poised toward a rebelliously flavourful way of life. After years of oppression and hopelessness, South Africa’s musicians including M’du Masilela, Yvonna Chaka Chaka and Chicco geared up to manifest their innermost creativity to bring a sense of aliveness to its clubs and dancefloors; and with the first democratic elections in 1994, a house-appreciating nation was born. South Africa needed music that emulated how its people lived and aspired to live – freely, openly and at pace with the rest of the world. With that, different forms of house music went on to dominate in the mainstream as pop music – a feat that would continue to be hard-earned anywhere else. For many South African house heads, the music is all about legacy and passing the baton from one era of creators to the next:

“Having grown up listening to the likes of Busi Mhlongo, Lucky Dube, Hugh Masekela, Madala Kunene, Brenda Fassie and so forth, it is very important to carry the sound they pioneered proudly,” says DJ Kabila. “In the most evolving world of music, telling an African story lies in never leaving our roots – and in turn, that has been the base of creating the kind of music you hear me make today.”

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In the city of gold, godfathers Vinny Da Vinci and Christos spread this new gospel via House Afrika Records, breaking cultural boundaries that prohibited their collaboration pre-1994, while Johannesburg-proud Soul Candi evolved from its brick-and-mortar record store to become a household record label. As the sound travelled to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Namibia, Afro-house embraced a continent of creators who held fast to their roots fusing traditional instrumentation with electronic synths and sirens. Heavy K, DJ Ganyani, Kentphonic and Prince Kaybee took hold of pop vocals and woke the continent up to a sound that would become integral to Southern Africa’s sonic identity. Today, producer-DJs in Shimza, Zakes Bantwini and GRAMMY wielding Black Coffee leads the charge internationally, while new blood in the likes of Lady Sakhe,  and DJ Le Soul bring an effervescence to the scene like never before.  

Over in the coastal town of Durban, the 2010s saw a new iteration of house music hotting up. Up-and-coming producers in the townships began to experiment with a new craft around house’s 4-4 structure laden with whistles, smoky synths and agitated ad-libs. Named after the cacophony streaming from open minibus windows that navigated the city, “iGqomu” or “Gqom” saw young producers taking FL Studios’ capabilities that stole the limelight from Western techno and EDM to bring their own sounds of dark, fidgety is’qinisi and the tinner, skeletal uthayela to the fore. The likes of Distruction Boyz, DJ Lag, Babes Wodumo and Big Nuz made room for Likkyliks, Dlala Thukzin, Omagoqa and Phelimuncasi, who assisted in carrying the genre to new ears abroad, going on to stand shoulder to shoulder with inspired acts Beyonce, Gorillaz and Diplo. Today, Gqom has progressed to become integral to the sound of South African ballroom culture thanks to the likes of FAKA and Lelowhatsgood, coming full circle in accommodating the Black and queer originators that encouraged full-bodied freedom of expression in Chicago’s underground warehouses.

“Gqom to me feels spiritual and almost ancestral. There’s something in the bass and drums that feels otherworldly and of another realm. It’s almost become an identity for the SA ballroom scene,” says Lelowhatsgood. ”It’s something that separates us from the rest of the world. We have a category at Vogue Nights Jozi Ball called “Afro Dance” where 90% of the music played for the category is catered to Gqom; the fabric of the scene lies within the Gqom genre because the style and structure of voguing matches the beat and flow of Gqom music.”

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Today, Amapiano has become this generation’s sonic marker, carrying many flavours of house, jazz and Afropop. From the township jazz clubs to the inner city rooftops, Amapiano can be heard at all times of day, played by all ages, brimming with nostalgia and newness alike. Known to many as “the second coming of Kwaito” due its ability to give musicians a renewed definition of freedom, Amapiano has truly made an impact with collectives as far as Japan, the United Kingdom, Dubai, the Netherlands and Canada rising to create their own scenes.  

Echoing the spirit of Pretoria and the East Rand’s townships where it first found its feet, Amapiano’s artists come from a mix of backgrounds ranging from hip-hop to gospel and more. Primarily referred to as “iNumba” by locals who frequently exchanged music on Kasi MP3, Datafilehost and Whatsapp, Amapiano is more than just a log drum, which is said to have been first used by producer Mdu aka TRP shortly after 2010. Today, Amapiano’s iterations range far and wide. There’s the smooth, jazzy “private school” Amapiano a la Kelvin Momo, Njelic and Gaba Cannal; the slower, deep-house leaning soundscapes of “sgija” propped up by Vigro Deep, Sfarzo Rtee and Stakev; the commercially loved pop and Afro-sonics brought up in numerous ways by Daliwonga, Murumba Pitch, DBN GOGO and Musa Keys; the kwaito-favouring Amaroto, TOSS and Focalistic – all along with the endless overlaps of these in a highly collaborative scene, with Kabza De Small taking the crown as “king.”

Amapiano’s musicians who have managed to move crowds at home and abroad are a testament to the fact that the many forms of blackness that exist today can move as one, taking on a new definition of freedom and allowing revellers to commune around dancefloors no matter how far across the world they may be scattered. 

“Amapiano is like a bamboo tree that just sprouted from the ground, growing so fast that its roots beneath the streets of South Africa solidified its authenticity and culture.” says singer-songwriter Aymos. “It’s who we are… Children of the township are the soul of Amapiano. It’s the voice that echoes from the black communities, where the culture, lingo, lifestyle and dances originate… It’s our pride and identity.”

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Already hemming the fabric of massive productions such as The Lion King: The Gift, Black Panther and I May Destroy You, African electronic music continues to mutate, crossing borders while reflecting and reinstating Africa’s creative power. Even as the Covid19 virus saw the world’s stages and clubs becoming uninhabitable, Africa’s dancefloors continued to find new ways to keep the music moving. From Namibia to Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, collectives and outdoor club spaces continued to promote South Africa’s dance music across borders, live and online, keeping the rest of the globe transfixed from their living rooms. Today, music creators of African descent are celebrating and reclaiming their contributions to electronic music worldwide, with Africa standing as one of the largest consumers and producers of original electronic genres to date. As we emerge from the darkness of the early 2020s, the hope that the early 90’s brought South African keeps showing up in our music, boasting numerous ways to innovate and break new sonic ground, no matter the circumstance. It is exactly this type of resilience that will see African electronic music go down in history.

Find out more about South Africa’s sonic terrain and the township’s odds-defying influence at Boiler Room & Ballantine’s True Music Studios.

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