South Africa’s youngest and fastest growing electronic music movement, Amapiano has grown from underground to mainstream disruptor; now it is going global. South African writer and documentary photographer, Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi journeys through Amapiano history to illustrate how.
Amapiano is the youngest sibling in the South African musical family. It’s almost customary, then, that ‘Piano, like young Black South Africans at family gatherings, is held by the hand and presented to its older family members. As a uniquely South African sound, ‘Piano borrows from the country’s deep musical catalogue – even though its specific township of birth is undetermined, as though its birth certificate is still pressed under its parents’ mattress. But at times, the South African electronic music movement is chastised for not even remembering the clan name of its oldest ancestor, Jazz; censured for being coddled by its youngest uncle, Kwaito; and scolded for not paying enough homage to its closest relatives, diBacardi and AfroHouse.
All of the genres which influence Piano have homes in most South African townships and have played their respective essential roles in the country’s political and creative history. South African Jazz, from which Piano borrows its keys – and is named for that – was instrumental in helping to overthrowing apartheid; Kwaito music was the first original sound that came from the post-democratic South Africa, its warm melodic chords informing the infant sound; whilst drum patterns which are partly taken from diBacardi – a sensation which was pioneering in its DIY approach – and other genres popular in SA townships, swirl in Piano’s DNA.
As well as paying homage to all its predecessors, Piano also has traits entirely of its own making, which differentiate it from its lineage.
‘Piano music was birthed in the townships at the edges of cities in the Gauteng province, with a few townships and artists staking a claim to originating the sound. In particular, it is Kutloano Nhlapho (who hosts The Playa’s Club on popular Gauteng radio station YFM under the pseudonym, Da Kruk) however, that has been involved with exposing mainstream audiences to the then strictly street sound since 2017. “Hore mang mang (That so and so) started with a drum and somebody put on keys, that doesn’t matter anymore. I really think it doesn’t matter where it started from. My biggest thing is where is it going? How are the guys going to make it more relevant in the next couple of years?” Da Kruk posed last year. He does his part to ensure ‘Piano’s global relevance through his show AmaInternational, which he hosts on the London station, The Beat FM.
Between 2017 and now, ‘Piano has not only infiltrated the mainstream, it continues to disrupt traditional music production and distribution models. If you’ve got a keen knack for striking nostalgic yet unfamiliar chords, a cracked version of Fruity Loops, access to online data sharing sites like datafilehost, WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media accounts, it’s possible to become a Piano star. After all, these are the ingredients which shot the movement’s foundational hits – namely, “Amabele” by Kabza de Small, “Shesha Geza” by De Mthuda and Kaygee and Bizizi’s “Kokota Piano” – to fame. Twenty-two year-old Lehlohonolo Marota, professionally known as Kwiish SA, who made “Isikhathi” (one of the first hard-hitting, unpolished hits popularly known as Gong Gong for how they knock) remembers his decision to focus on music, “I dropped out of school in grade 10 because of friends. I had also started smoking zol [cannabis] and things like that,” he says “plus I was getting booked for gigs so I didn’t have time for school anymore. Sometimes I would get booked for a Sunday gig and have to go to school on Monday. I would go to the gig and get paid good money. That’s when I realised that if I lived like this I might survive.” Typically, Marota’s first hit went viral without his realisation.
“When you send music through Whatsapp, there is no stopping it. So the name Kwiish SA was already on kids’ phones and I would hear my music being played in local taxis, not knowing how it got there. ”
As a sound which originated on the African continent, however, ‘Piano only very nearly missed the fate of many contemporary sounds in other African countries which are popular within a specific country’s borders but never get a passport out. “I think a lot of African countries suffer from that insular production. You make such amazing music but you never share it with anyone else and no one else will know the genre but people are comfortable within their countries that people know their music,” asserts the British-Kenyan Elvis Maswanganyi, who performs, promotes events, produces and hosts an afrobeats radio show, ‘Destination Africa’ on BBC 1Xtra as DJ Edu. The afrobeats pioneer has been keenly observing the growth of Piano’s international appeal, telling NATIVE, “Amapiano caught on faster than Gqom because with Gqom I think it was more of the white audience that caught onto it. They already have musical styles that are similar to that, so it connected with them. Amapiano has got soul in it, the chords are warm and there is singing. As much as it is still raw and organic, those very warm chords make it feel quite uplifting when you hear them.”
As DJ Edu suggests, diversity within the ‘Piano sound has differentiated this movement from others from its onset. The Beat London’s latest specialist music show host, Nohlapho, agrees, claiming that Piano’s international appeal was an inevitable and natural progression. “I started talking about Amapiano three years ago when it really wasn’t a thing. I’ve always been talking about the diversity of the genre, but obviously we were waiting for more people to warm up to it and for it to make enough noise for people like [Kabza de Small and] Burna Boy and Wizkid, and Tiwa Savage with De Mthuda to actually do stuff together.”
Afrobeats, originating in West Africa (Nigeria particularly), is the dominant sound in Sub-Saharan Africa and the region’s biggest musical export. Circa 2010 – at a time when Piano had a small but loyal following – releases like P Square, Akon, and May D’s “Chop My Money” and Fuse ODG’s “Antenna” were doing the rounds, poised to becoming charting hits in subsequent years and trailblazers for the international growth of Afrobeats. Since then, the genre and its stars have become internationally recognised and a natural choice to help South African acts break the markets of other countries on the continent, and further afield, emerged.
When they first penetrated the mainstream, Piano producers bought the ears of a wider online and radio listenership by including vocals to their instrumentals. These vocals took the form of singing and repeated party refrains and catchphrases. Piano producers have also benefited from remixing familiar vocals off already popular songs and giving them a Piano sensibility. Notable among these are Kabza de Small and DJ Maphorisa’s (known as Scorpion Kings) 2019 remix of “everything i wanted” which features South African vocalist Marichan singing Billie Eilish’s part. Other, non-piano producers have also taken advantage of remixing as a channel to international audiences. Master KG’s “Jerusalema”, for example, though it was already popular across Africa before its Burna Boy remix, has, with the African Giant’s vocals, become an international viral sensation, peaking at #2 on Billboard’s World Digital Music chart; whilst the original, which featured only the vocals of South African singer, Nomcebo Zikode, is now celebrating a platinum certification in Italy.
Recently, Sarz and WurlD’s “Ego” was remixed by Major League Djz and Abidoza. The outcome is a record sensitively reinterpreted to allow both the original and elements of its remixing just enough breathing room. Tiwa Savage’s “Dangerous Love”, released earlier in 2020, has enjoyed a ‘Pianofied treatment by South African DJs Ganyani and De Mogul. Both of these remixes lean closer to the type of Piano described by producers and listeners as musically “mature”, sarcastically nicknamed ‘Harvard Piano’ because this variant demonstrates a producer’s wide musical knowledge.
Collaborations have also ensured that relatively unknown ‘Piano producers and vocalists are able to build a following by putting their names beside more established acts. On the global stage, across genres, collaborations are an essential tool for mass appeal. “It’s very strategic,” says DJ Edu “I think that is where they connect, especially with the collaboration. I think it’s how people consume music nowadays. For example, when you go to your streaming platforms, what tends to happen is one [artist] leads you to another. So a lot of people are discovering most of the artists by chance. Literally, I think it’s a maze but once you get one song and you get the collaborations, the algorithms guide you towards who else is popular or who was collaborated with.”
Using SA-Nigerian features to full effect, Kabza de Small’s “Sponono” with Burna Boy and Wizkid (alongside Cassper Nyovest and Madumane) appeared on the producer’s fourth studio album ‘I am the King of Amapiano’. The single looks destined to garner a million Youtube views in the first three months of its release, and Sony Music’s Director of A&R for Sub-Saharan Africa, Spiro Damaskinos observes that its popularity might also be owed to the vital combination of various digital streaming and social media platforms’ recognising Piano, granting the genre international accessibility.
“Social media has played a massive role in spreading the buzz and the sound globally. The big DSPs put the spotlight onto it by creating playlists on their platforms, giving new artists exposure to the world.”
The skills that ‘Piano has picked up growing on the streets of South African townships – tussling with and winning over the mainstream, and opening its eyes to strategic collaborations as an avenue for the music to reach continental and global audiences – make it something of a golden child. The hopes of many South African musical family members rest on the shoulders of Piano representing the country, well, abroad. This is colossal pressure for a movement that, perhaps more than anything, requires space and time to come into its own.
Harvard Piano and other radio-friendly variants of SA’s youngest and most influential electronic music movement are prying open international markets for a sound which has experienced a growth spurt to rival a teenager’s and with an appetite to match. Locally though, the fastest-growing stars are the young producers leaning towards a diBacardi-influenced brand of Piano, with complex but raw and devastating drums, chest-rattling bass lines and often uplifting but sometimes dark melodies. Leading this pack in popularity is Vigro Deep, whose ability to churn out hits was introduced with “Untold Story”, became established with “International” (the refrain after which Da Kruk’s show is named) and is soaring with “Ke Star” featuring Focalistic. Close behind him is trio The Lowkeys, who have used the national lockdown period to release a project, The Main Sound of Pitori and become household names with appearances on popular music TV channels MTV Base and Channel O. Thebelebe Onalenna, Freddy K and Sje Konka among others are also helping to create a buzz around a harder-hitting Piano variant.
These producers are the incumbent royalty of Piano, now tasked with the challenge of sustaining the momentum of the Amapiano movement, across the continent and in the African diaspora.
Image Credits: Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi
As a writer, Setumo-Thebe has published with reputable South African and international publications and online platforms for over a decade. His broad area of specialisation encompasses the arts, culture, business and international politics in Sub- Saharan Africa. Working symbiotically with his writing, Setumo-Thebe’s Documentary Photography comprises still images that do not merely reiterate or illustrate what is written but offer perspective and work in conversation with his writing.