South African electronic music is having a global moment, thanks to the new sound of amapiano. Its slow, steady house beat with crisp production, the deepest of bass, and surging emotive atmospheres is rightly winning fans from Virginia to Vietnam, spawning all kinds of new hybrids in the process. And before that, the sound of gqom music from the city of Durban had already been echoing through international underground dance floors for the past half decade or so: moody and claustrophobic, its raw synths touch the same nerves that UK grime often has.
But they’re just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the nation’s electronic output – amapiano music is far from the only deep, slow house to come out of the country. Since the ‘90s, the most advanced and musical of American and British house has been beloved by audiences of all races, and South Africa has long recorded higher sales of house music per head than any other country on Earth. That has spawned all kinds of takes on the genre, from the hugely popular chugging sound of kwaito to soulful house incorporating live jazz and soul musicians.
Nowadays, though many musicians play established genres like amapiano, gqom or straightforward house, even those styles are constantly innovating around the edges, cross-fertilising constantly. There are many figures like English expat Jumping Back Slash, who subvert local styles with everything from grime to experimental metal. Acts like The Wretched cross the lines between dance music and the thriving South African jazz scene. Artists like Desire Marea and Angel-Ho (aka Miss Angie) bring a proudly queer aesthetic to electronica – a daring thing to do in a country where violent homophobia persists. There’s a dazzling, clashing diversity in all this, but somehow, all these musicians overlap and mix. Listeners are given the sense of a nation moving fast, trying to come to terms with its troubled past and multicultural present.
On our playlist, we’ve curated only new music – from the last year, occasionally a little more, but all representative of this flux and clash. It ranges from rowdy, ragged club beats and ambient, dreamy amapiano all the way to razor-edged techno. As you listen through the sequence though, we hope you’ll get a bigger picture: an understanding of a nation that isn’t simply adopting and adapting Western club sounds, but creating its own array of sonic identities at a rate of knots. It’s not all easy listening by any means, but it is thrilling in its proud self-possession and stride in staking out a place in the world, not dependent on anything or anyone. Strap in, it’s quite a ride!
Cover Credits: Angel Ho, Desire Marea, Jumping Backslash, Rose Bonica, Jamal Nxedlana, Jono Kyriakou, Tatyana Levanal, Brownswood
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.