Amapiano: our guide to the music sensation sweeping the world

 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

If you’re even remotely into London’s clubbing scene, it’s likely that you’ll have noticed a fresh new strain of dance music pounding across the capital over the last few years. A bit like bog standard house music if it wasn’t in such a hurry all the time, most of the welly in this viscous, slowed-down genre comes from the bass end; often, a chipper, churchy keyboard noodles jazzily over the top.

Constantly powering things forward is the gutsy, hollow thwack of the log drum, a hollowed out tree trunk which is used as a traditional percussive instrument. Though this sound has been gradually creeping onto the capital’s countless dance floors over the last few years already, in 2024 it is starting to dominate the cutting-edge of pop. Welcome to the world of amapiano.

One of last year’s biggest and most ubiquitous songs – Tyla’s smooth, steamy amapiano anthem Water – is one of the charts’ best crossover moments yet, fusing the emerging sound with more conventional pop and Rn’B hallmarks. “Amapiano has done so much for South Africa, to the point where the vibe of the country has changed,” the Johannesburg artist has said.

“Amapiano, it’s a whole genre we created back home in South Africa and it has dance moves: it’s a whole movement. We’ve been partying with it by ourselves, but now other people are enjoying it and I’m loving that. I love that people are seeing a different side of Africa.”

It all started to take off on TikTok, when a video went viral of the emerging artist gleefully chucking a bottle of water over herself while performing slickly choreographed South African Bacardi dance moves to the song. Some 113 million views later and everyone from Megan Thee Stallion to Janet Jackson has had a bash at the so-called Water Challenge. A few months later, Tyla made history, becoming the highest-charting African female solo act of all time. The song also won her a Grammy nomination.

But it’s far from just Tyla powering amapiano’s global takeover. Amapiano Grooves, Spotify’s dedicated playlist for the genre, has now raced past 600,000 likes. Last year, amapiano pioneers Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa were the streamer’s most listened-to South African artists.

In 2023 on TikTok, views of amapiano-related content surged by 100 per cent – and this year, it’s set to be bigger still. “A scroll through your For You page will tell you amapiano has officially gone global,” says Darina Connolly, head of music partnerships UK and Ireland at TikTok.

The genre’s hashtag now stands at a whopping 14 billion views and, according to Connolly, “it’s indicative of a deeper trend around the discoverability of music from African artists and how it’s being embraced around the world on TikTok.”

“Great artists draw influences from everywhere,” Connolly adds. “I don’t pretend to be an expert, but the Bacardi dance trend has been brilliantly used by Tyla with her music. It’s really an example of creative artists pushing boundaries and finding influences outside of their traditional space, which is where true creativity shines.”

The sound is also becoming a fixture of London’s club scene, with a number of parties now showcasing the sound. “It’s been incredible to witness the rise of amapiano,” says a spokesperson from Broadwick Live, the team behind London clubs Drumsheds and Printworks. “The Piano People parties helped pioneer the movement in the UK and both the sold-out Printworks event in 2022 and the more recent Drumshed follow up were highlights of their respective seasons.

“Having already welcomed the likes of Tyla, Major League DJz, DJ Maphorisa, Kabza De Small, DBN Gogo, Vigro Deep and many more across Broadwick Live venues, this sound looks set to feature more regularly for us, highlighting our commitment to showcasing musical diversity across our events.”

Intrigued? From the founding figures and key producers to stand-out club nights, here’s where to dive in.

The founders

As with all of the best things in life, there’s lively debate around which particular pioneer messing about with FruityLoops production software in their bedroom first invented amapiano. But almost everyone agrees that it first took root around 2010, rocketed to global fame around 2020, and is heavily influenced by kwaito, an South African sub-genre of funky, slowed-down dance, which first emerged in the Eighties, and later soundtracked the celebratory resilience of the country’s post-apartheid club scene.

While a number of different producers – including Kabza De Small, DJ Maphorisa, and the late Papers 707 – all helped to popularise the genre back when people still referred to it as ‘NUMBAS’ legend has it that the duo MFR Souls were the first to coin the name amapiano. Other early pioneers include Sha Sha, Mr JazziQ, DJ Stokie, DJ Jaivane and Junior Taurus.

The crossover icons

Even if you don’t think you’ve heard amapiano before, Tyla’s mega-hit Water, which was absolutely everywhere in 2023, is likely to prove that theory wrong. But she’s far from the only artist flying the flag for the South African sound, which is having an increasing influence everywhere from hip-hop to Afrobeats. Davido, Wizkid, Asake, Rema and Burna Boy have all borrowed aspects of the sound, and the UK also has its own spin-off, led by the likes of Fiyahdred and Valee Music.

The innovators

As the world catches on, a whole host of experimental producers, DJs and artists are pushing amapiano further and further, with the movement already beginning to splinter into various different sub-genres. Flying the flag for the genre’s light, breezy end – increasingly known as private school amapiano – Kelvin Momo’s latest record Kurhula is a must-listen.

Taking things to a darker, more shadowy place, Vigro Deep’s Soundcheck is one of last year’s most intense amapiano hits. Kammu Dee, Musa Keys, and Kamo Mphela are just a handful of acts destined for even bigger things in 2024.

Best spots

Though it’s undeniably going global at breakneck speeds, UK listeners make up some of amapiano’s biggest fans. According to Spotify, the UK ranks second only to South Africa for listens to its Amapiano Grooves playlist. A number of parties are already drawing crowds across the capital. As Banele Mbere – of the influential duo Major League DJz – has put it, London is “one of the first places to get it”.

Piano People is one of the biggest and best spots for all things amapiano, and has a reputation for putting on some of the genre’s most exciting talents. Last year, it hosted a whole festival dedicated to it, featuring big names like DBN Gogo, Charisse C and Major League DJz at Tottenham’s old Ikea.

In March, meanwhile, Drumsheds is hosting a massive party with the influential night Recess, which is at the heart of London’s black nightlife scene, and showcase sounds from all across the African diaspora, including heaps of amapiano.

Beyond that, keep a look out for AMA Fest – a dedicated amapiano festival, set to take place at a secret location in London on August 31 – as well as occasional London events from Major League DJz’ Balcony Mix Africa.