/ 16 September 2023

Amapiano the home-grown music taking over the world

Friends Of Amstel Sa
Key notes: DJ Stokie’s 2019 hit ‘Piano Vibe’ with De Mthuda is a fine example of amapiano. Photo: Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images

As someone who loves exploring new music, my entry point for amapiano was actually deep house — which isn’t surprising, seeing amapiano is widely regarded as the child of house music and kwaito.

In the mid-2010s, I started to hear more and more deep house music when my wife and I visited her family home in Soshanguve, outside Pretoria. There was something happening there — what was emerging was a richer, more jazzy, sound than the doef-doef house we were used to. 

The deep house track that pulled me in and primed me for amapiano was Kosha by Tumza — seven minutes of deep beats and something that sounds like an electronic steelpan, creating a jazzy sound. Deep house, maybe, but you could hear the roots of amapiano pushing through the soil.

Soon after I got Kosha’d, three things happened that pushed deep house into the background and brought amapiano into everyone’s face: Pretoria kids were adding more of a keyboard sound (the “piano” in amapiano), taking the speed down to 110 beats a minute, and throwing in a devastatingly deep bass sound from something called a log drum. And so, Pretoria gave birth to amapiano. 

Amapiano ticked along as niche music until around 2019, when it exploded. Bright young stars such as Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa took it to a new level and pioneered its movement onto a global stage. 

They also provided my “proper” baptism into this new genre. As an Orlando Pirates fan, my interest was piqued in 2019 by their tribute to star player Thembinkosi Lorch. Lorch was scorching and typified the way amapiano builds in layers, with keyboards and the rhythm section gaining momentum, with pulsating lyrics driving the sound even harder. 

Since then I’ve discovered (and encourage you to discover) amazing South African sounds: Major League Djz, who have a series of magnificent club sessions on YouTube that I beg your body to defy. Or DJ Stokie, whose early work was particularly keyboard-rich — try the hypnotic 2019 hit Piano Vibe with De Mthuda. 

But I generally come back to DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small, the pioneers of amapiano. Asibe Happy is a great example of their work. It builds up, layer after layer, like a funky jazz song. Ami Faku provides the perfect voice, gradually gathering steam for the singalong chorus. And when Kabza lets rip with the log drum, even Carl Niehaus would be able to catch the rhythm.

Building on that, there’s also what some call “private school amapiano”, a more sophisticated, jazzy sound best captured by Kelvin Momo. Jazzeneo, for example (typical of the sub-genre, and closer to jazz than house), has slinky licks from Xolani Guitar and some fine jazz-type scatting.

Is there a definitive amapiano track? If I had to choose just one to convert a jazz cat, K-popper or classical music fan to the genre, it would be Izolo by DJ Maphorisa and Tyler ICU. Here you’ll find the log drum at its driving best, hypnotic keyboards and some of the best local rapping. 

And the music video, appropriately to this amazing home-grown global music, features one of the coolest BMW gusheshes on the road. 

If you’re looking for the perfect introduction to a South African genre that’s taken over the world, this is it. 

Chris Vick is one of the founder members of #JazzTwitter (aka #JazzX) and, more recently, #AmapianoTwitter (aka #AmapianoX), a social media home for people who love good music.