- A deep dive into one of South Africa's most exciting genres.
- In recent years, amapiano has made a rapid ascent from the townships of Pretoria and Johannesburg, spreading like wildfire through clubs around the world and onto the charts. The sound is essentially a composite of New York-style deep house, R&B and South African kwaito. Think mid-tempo jams with swaying, supple melodies and airy, melodic percussion. (Amapiano's signature log-drum sound comes from the use of the traditional, hollowed-out slit drums.) Like gqom, kwaito and Bacardi house, it's one of myriad hybrid genres from the bustling South African scene that have gone on to influence club producers across the world over the past decade.
The biggest indicator of amapiano's global footprint are its superstars, who are making moves across the musical spectrum. Examples include Pretoria-born DJ Maphorisa producing Drake's 2016 chart-topper "One Dance," Moonchild Sanelly appearing on Beyoncé’s Lion King soundtrack and 26 year-old Sha Sha winning a BET award in 2020 for best international act. Maphorisa is also one-half of the duo Scorpion Kings, who have worked with Louie Vega. Sanelly, meanwhile, counts Blur's Damon Albarn as a collaborator.
Amapiano is silky smooth and melodic at its core, with a versatility that goes a long way in explaining its massive surge in popularity. When mixed with the more uplifting tempo of Afrobeats, amapiano tracks stretch out into a sultry swagger. Against techno and breaks, the music adds space and a blissed-out feel. Whether sped up, dissected or toned down, the sound retains an inherently soulful feel thanks to a few central properties: stirring vocals, groovy basslines, jazzy chords and sunny keys—the "piano" in amapiano.
"The main thing is the keys," Zimbabwe-born Sha Sha, who is often described as the queen of amapiano, told The Face earlier this month. "Then there's the lock drum and jazz element. Then, we add onto the sauce with some soulful vocals and nice chords. The fact that it's dancey carries the whole thing together. But it's the vocals that just take it to the top." Indeed, the chants and fervent screams that pepper most tracks push dancers into action.
This new NTS compilation is the latest sign of the genre's expanding reach. Compiled by Shannen SP, Joe Cotch and the UK radio station, Amapiano Now features unreleased music from both established and emerging talents. There's a clear tendency towards melodic house jams, as reflected in cuts such as Unlimited Soul's "Utlwa," or "Mabena" from Eminent Boyz and Sisters On Vocal.
These artists also explore amapiano in all its various mutations, from minimal instrumentals to intense bangers. There are hints of gqom's menacing synths, dub and poppy vocals on "Possible" from DBN Gogo, Musa Keys and Dinho while "Thula Thula" shows off the 21-year-old rising talent Kamo Mphela's feisty bars. It's set against lo-fi production, taking amapiano into trap territory. "Lockdown" by King Jazz, as the artist's name suggests, is a jazz-oriented jam with wind instruments, the compilation's most gentle track. Mr JazziQ and Mphow69's "Stuff Room," meanwhile, features a bold 40-second breakdown juxtaposing chirping birds against tight drum patterns.
Amapiano is a blend of dance styles in itself, so it isn't surprising to hear this rapid development. "There’s amapiano tech. There's Afro-amapiano—the Nigerians made that literally just now!" Sha Sha told The Face. "It's forming into these really cool things. Seeing how people are vibing with it all around the world shows how far this thing is going to go."
Bold transmutations aside, the NTS compilation also showcases amapiano's most thrilling quality—its relatively slow pace. That might sound contradictory, but as with gqom, a speed between 100 and 120 BPM helps build a charged and dramatic atmosphere. MachiinaSA's "James Bond" is a great example of this. It's mostly instrumental with feathery synths, but occasional rally calls create tension. "Groove" by Vigro Deep is classic amapiano—incorporating dramatic jazz notes, whispery vocals, and those signature log drum loops—but it's one of the LP's most powerful offerings.
Amapiano Now is a portrayal of "post-apartheid club sonics," NTS described in a statement. Like gqom, amapiano is a product of South Africa's township culture, where residents share resources, including hardware and FL Studio workstations. Once finished, the music is distributed via large WhatsApp groups. This grassroots background is critical to understanding the magnitude of amapiano's impressive ascent on the global stage. As more international platforms throw their weight behind amapiano, compilations like Amapiano Now pose the question: how will this increased exposure augment the genre's DIY roots?
01. Caltonic SA, Thabz Le Madonga — Super Star feat. DJ Buckz
02. DBN Gogo & Musa Keys & Dinho, Optimist Music SA, Makhanj & Lebza TheVillain — Possible feat. Koek Sister
03. Alfa Kat & TidoSoul — Sip Sip
04. MachiinaSA — James Bond
05. Gaba Cannal — Shona Le feat. E_Clips Mzansi
06. King Jazz — Lockdown
07. Teno Afrika — Power Station
08. MaWhoo — Mswapheni feat. DJ Obza & Bongo Beats
09. Kamo Mphela — Thula Thula
10. Mr JazziQ & Mphow69 — Stuff Room
11. Vigro Deep — Groove
12. Unlimited Soul — Utlwa
13. DBN Gogo & Felo Le Tee — Shuck n Jive
14. Entity MusiQ — 10111
15. DJ Nasty KG & VinoSA — Imali feat. Teedo
16. Eminent Boyz & Sisters On Vocal — Mabena
17. Vusinator — It's Never Too Late