South Africa owes much to the communal culture that developed in its townships before, during and after apartheid. The practice of temporary exchange underpins this culture. Often out of necessity, neighbours borrow from each other to survive particularly challenging periods. A good neighbour is one who willingly returns what they have borrowed. A less upstanding neighbour is one from whom one must borrow that very thing which was loaned, because much time has elapsed since the original exchange.
Amapiano is rooted in this culture of borrowing. The electronic music phenomenon dominating mainstream and informal music sectors in South Africa borrows from genres of music that have flourished in the townships for decades. Jazz’s most significant contribution has been on the keys, as the genre’s name implies, with early amapiano – which was mostly instrumental – being generously slathered with keyboard solos.
“Traditional” or “folk”, kwaito, di Bacardi, afro and deep house have also added their cupful to the melange that has become amapiano.
With its growth, amapiano music has been subdivided into streams that cater to various tastes and for different occasions. For example, gong gong amapiano typically emphasises a combination of internal-organ-rattling percussions and basslines akin to di Bacardi – a Pitori-birthed party sound that lays vocals, keys and synths over a foundation of up-tempo break beats and typically single riff basslines.
Harvard Amapiano takes influences from deep and Afro tech house, which reached its zenith in the early 2000s. Vocals were introduced later in amapiano’s development for various reasons, including making each song uniquely memorable and increasing the chances of radio airplay. In its lyrical content, amapiano’s offerings range from emotional pining in the style of crooner Ringo Madlingozi to “if I die, I die” hedonism.
The sequences of amapiano numbers that have become anthemic play out like groceries held in too flimsy a plastic bag. For two handfuls of bars, a heavy, not-quite-slow but not-in-a-hurry groove builds. The high hats, something like each leg brushing against a bag on either side with each stride, hold together a synchronised cluster of ideas – a high-pitched synth, a punctuating rimshot, a sweet Fruity Loops sample. And then, the very moment neither patience nor desperation can be contained, the contents fall out in a crash of drums fashioned from what should be basslines: the synths, samples and vocals roll out in a coordinated onslaught to move even the least prone to dance.
Without all that has preceded it, amapiano’s development and proliferation would not have been possible. While the period just before and directly after the transition to democracy has been arguably the most prolific in South African music, record labels have remained central to the creation and distribution of music until fairly recently. The tools that allow for the distribution of music outside of formal structures can be credited with the movement’s deep and wide market creation and penetration.
“Anyone can make music on their PC now,” laments DJ Sumbody of Ayepyep, Ngwana Daddy and Monate Mpolaye fame. “You don’t have to go to the studio. You get a programme, you do beats. If they can master it, it’s a track, it’s out there. It’s simple now.”
While preceding genres and music movements have taken advantage of the ready availability of software that can be purchased or digitally cracked to mimic a physical studio, amapiano has been the most radical departure from established and entrenched ways of making, marketing and distributing music in South Africa thus far.
Innovation and originality are spurred on by unrelenting competition and, importantly, the music can be sent directly to market, where it flourishes in accordance with its popularity. The high-burn nature of the genre, however, means that the music being released is of a quality that does not please everyone.
Producer and deejay Junior Taurus says, “I just hope that amapiano will actually make a 360 [degree] turn to a point where we’re adding proper vocals and proper meaning. We can still dance to it but as long as the generation to come will actually play it and [say], ‘Yoh, that’s a classic.’”
WhatsApp is probably the most influential technology in the amapiano movement’s growth. With the messaging app, producers are able to send their music to a wide network of users and those listeners can send it on to their networks, if they choose.
“When you send music through Whatsapp,” says Gong Gong producer KWiiSH SA, “there is no stopping it. So the name KwiishSA was already on kids’ phones and I would hear my music being played in local taxis, not knowing how it got there.”
Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have also served unsigned shoestring amapiano producers well. On these platforms, they are able to present themselves “as brands” and remain top-of-mind, market their music, events and merchandise, and have a port of call for opportunities to perform and collaborate – all at a relatively low cost.
Other platforms, such as file hosting platform Fakaza and DataFileHost, have been hotwired into this distribution model and become instrumental as places where music can be uploaded and accessed by anyone interested enough to download it. These platforms track the number of downloads for a particular song or collection of songs. However, they do not allow for the tracking and monetisation of each play once the file has been downloaded.
Amapiano goes mainstream
With all of these tools in hand, an amapiano producer can gain access to a market that in the past might have been the preserve of artists signed to a record label. But as the movement expands, it is becoming increasingly important for artists to take their guerrilla distribution tactics into record label boardrooms.
DJ Sumbody, whose label Sumsounds recently signed a deal with Sony Music Group, says, “I have a partnership with Sony for me to release my own artists under my company, including myself. It’s a 50-50 deal, we share costs from marketing to distribution to PR. Music videos as well. Obviously, they are a bigger brand so they know more about this music industry thing.”
It’s not what amapiano has borrowed that has made it the electronic music movement of the proportions that it is today. Instead, its success is in how it has necessitated an ecosystem that supports a sound that was and continues to develop according to what audiences want to hear and the sounds with which they identify.
Update, 5 November 2019: This article was amended to better reflect New Frame‘s editorial values.