Journey Music: South Africa’s AfroTech sound travels globally and transports spiritually - Features - Mixmag

Journey Music: South Africa’s AfroTech sound travels globally and transports spiritually

AfroTech is a prominent dance music style in clubs around the world — but in its country of origin the genre's future hangs in the balance. Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi reports on the need to support creativity and spirituality within South Africa's scene

  • Words & photos: Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi
  • 6 December 2023

Waving hands reach for the sky, or something beyond it; some with flat palms quivering, others with balled fists punching; some with digits pointing upwards, other hands grabbing at what the owners of each extremity can sense, but can’t quite put their fingers on.

Those are the scenes at a party playing AfroTech, the dance music style created by South African producers in the early 2010s which melds organic and digital sound elements without compromise from any of its sonic sources. But as converts to the sound increase in established and quickly-growing dance music territories globally, AfroTech faces a watershed moment in South Africa, where the combination of amapiano’s dominance, industry players’ lacklustre uptake, and sporadic new music releases by artists could cause the South African AfroTech scene to stagnate or even shrink.

Sonically, AfroTech is connected to Afro, Tribal and Ancestral house. Its base rhythms are constant, unrelenting, entrancing even — pulsating as though they were being beaten from a rawhide drum, wrung from steel or shaken from grain and stones. “The rhythm of it is particularly African,” says DJ and producer DESIREE, “this is brought about by the percussive elements; there are a lot of djembe drums, congas, different instruments that you would find in traditional African music, that are infused with electronic or synthetic music.”

Layers upon layers of intricate electronic melodies build on the base rhythms in short, recurring and progressive patterns, creating tight aural weaves. Together, the rhythms, harmonies and synths summon a creative tension into existence that transports the listener. “It's music that takes you to a different space,” radio host, producer and DJ Supta says, “it literally takes you out of yourself.”

AfroTech evolving from Tribal house rings truest for DJ and promoter Perfecto Mlu. He says that “the Tribal [house] music scene became a window into making AfroTech what it is now. Tribal was something that we resonated with quite organically. It’s drum sounds that had been embedded in us forever.” This perspective influences Perfecto’s sets and helps to determine the artists he books for the Key Music events he runs. Perfecto says that AfroTech borrows from techno, drops the BPM and adds elements that give it an African groove sensibility.

Afro house wunderkind Enoo Napa calls it “journey music”, eschewing the term “AfroTech” altogether in favour of a longer, historical view of dance music innovation in South Africa. “For me, it’s always been Afro house, which stems from deep house. People keep giving the music different names, I don’t know to fit what agenda.” He acknowledges that to grow an audience for the current style of music he makes and plays, the term “AfroTech” sets the parameters of a particular sound, its artists and community. “But it does also take away from what already exists and wasn’t really given a chance to breathe, simmer, and let people take it for what it is,” he argues. “Just because we’ve added a new element to something, doesn’t mean that what was shouldn’t be anymore.”

A recurring theme of what makes South Africa unique in global dance music is the intermittently shifting line in the sand delineating innovation from invention in the country. Amapiano, South Africa’s biggest popular culture export this decade, does both. Amapiano music melds the influences of music styles historically popular in South Africa like deep house, Gospel, Kwaito, diBacardi and others; it has also been sonically groundbreaking, innovating the use of the log drum, for example.

AfroTech is similar. It has a symbiotic relationship with older styles of dance music made and popularised in South Africa. Afro house and AfroTech have been mutually benefitial to each other, both contributing to and advancing from the dance music renaissance taking shape in South Africa. There has been more Afro house playlisting on the country’s bigget radio stations, most of which are native language stations that have both rural and urban listenerships. AfroTech gained a presence on terrestrial and satellite television during the COVID lockdowns and its growing circuit of dedicated AfroTech events thereafter has ensured that dance music punters have more choice in the types of events they attend.

AfroTech is also partly an invention of necessity, says Shimza, one of its pioneers. “We’ve added techno elements into our Afro [house] sound so that it translates into a market that would ordinarily not be able to relate to our music as is.” AfroTech’s growing popularity in Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South-west Asia and other international territories is a testament to this original purpose. “We are trying to tap into that market and lure them into our sound. As they come in, they discover the real Afro [house] that we started with in South Africa.”

It goes further for Nigerian-German DJ and producer JAMIIE, who believes that the popularity of AfroTech somehow responds to global dance music currents for audiences in the Western and Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries where she most frequently plays. In her live and recorded sets, JAMIIE sees her role as a selector as partly educational. For her, it is important to introduce diehard techno fans to a broader palette of dance music styles that are alternative to, but also complement the hugely popular techno sets she is often nestled between at parties. “AfroTech is the answer to techno,” she says, noting how different types of AfroTech have offered an alternative to the prevailing dance music style where she lives and tours. “It has the same energy. AfroTech can be very dark, very deep. But it can also be vibey and uplifting. It really draws you into this hypnotic state.”

Read this next: Shimza is using house music to connect South Africa with the rest of the world

Instrumental AfroTech songs tend to be darker, marked by long menacing notes setting a backdrop for the electronic melodies to create drawn out, symphonic patterns. On some AfroTech songs, voices pierce through the taught tapestry, their presence simultaneously commanding and ethereal, sounding closer to invocation than singing. And the words, predominantly in isiZulu and isiXhosa indigenous South African languages, feel like incantations rather than lyrics.

Shimza, speaking generally, says: “We as Africans are people that are more rhythmic and we love singing, we love harmonies, we love music that speaks to the soul. I think those elements you find mostly in AfroTech.”

On the aptly-named ‘Prayer’ by South African vocalist Lizwi, she delivers a Christian prayer in the Zulu language, alongside backing vocals that are stylistically in the African choral tradition but invoke African spiritual practice. She does all of this while straddling a straightforward AfroTech instrumental, complete with bells, appregiators and synths.

Spirituality in South Africa is complex and changing — a reality reflected in the music. Traditional African spiritual practice acknowledges the role one’s ancestors play in one’s current physical and spiritual conditions. In 2008, traditional healers were given full health practitioners status in South African law, which permitted registered healers to claim from private medical aid schemes. Although traditional medicine and African spiritual practice shouldn’t be collapsed, it is significant that the number of practicing traditional healers in South Africa is now estimated at more than 200,000, which calculates to 1 in 300 South Africans. Another measure of the growing acceptance and exploration of traditional African spirituality in South African society is its contribution to popular culture. In the past five years, reality TV shows featuring traditional healers as their stars have proliferated. One of the most popular, Izangoma Zodumo, follows young initiates through the tribulations of leading an “African” way of life in a largely Westernised country.

There is an increasing number of young Black South Africans who honour sacred spiritual callings from their ancestors in contemporary South Africa. It is also young South Africans driving the AfroTech sound, on streaming platforms and at gatherings that feel more akin to rituals than parties. AfroTech has immersed itself in this zeitgeist, and adopted spirituality as one of its core themes and topics.

“You cannot create AfroTech if you yourself are not spiritually connected to something in one way or another,” says Supta. “During your creative process, it just comes naturally where you want to connect to the spiritual sense of things. AfroTech is more than just a genre. Even from the chords that are used, the sounds that are used, it connects to a spiritual realm.”

Read this next: 17 women shaping African dance and electronic music

“I look at it more like Gospel Tech,” says Thandi Draai, whose near evangelical propagation of AfroTech in South Africa and abroad has seen her curate her second Africa Gets Physical compilation, slated for release on December 15 this year. “Nevermind the instruments, in the lyrical content, we’re having conversations with God, we are asking for things from the higher power. I think that’s what makes the lyrical content so powerful. It brings people together as we are all actually really praying for the same thing. Whatever your prayer is, you’ll find that in AfroTech. Most of our events feel like you’re going to church, you’re getting healed.”

Thandi’s voice becomes softer, she becomes pensive when she opens up about the growing global interest in AfroTech, compared to back home. “People take you more seriously when you’re not in your own province and when you're not in your own country,” she says “I’ve never met any AfroTech DJ or artist that makes a living within our country. For me to make my living, I need to go out of the country all the time.”

Territories with advanced music infrastructures financially support AfroTech artists, but the music’s enduring existence is tied to the unique, dynamic creativity found in South Africa’s dance scene. The South African zeitgeist has given AfroTech a relateable theme to respond to an increasingly spiritually curious and connected generation. Artists come home to heed a spiritual calling, with remittances brought back in the form of (mostly) artist-run festivals and events such as Kunye and Anywhere In Your City, helping to fuel a future for the music.

As it stands, South Africa is a scene in recovery. The whole world felt the effects of COVID, but infrastructurally advanced music territories have been able to recover stronger and faster than those in the Global South, where the damage is likely to remain more accute for longer periods. Typically, music sectors in the Global South are even more fragile and pass on that fragility to the people who work in them.

South Africa’s COVID lockdowns were some of the most stringent in the world, at certain stages restricting not only movement but also the sale and purchase of liquor and tobacco products. These measures, of course, devastated the dance music scene as it had existed pre-COVID. But its resolve was indicated by the virtual parties coming to the fore during and after the lockdown periods, creating space for innovation - akin to how London’s Afro-influeced house scene diversified during COVID - which reflects the brimming potential found within.

Read this next: Why London's house underground is evolving

Lockdown House Party, a virtual, live DJ mixing event which is the brainchild of Shimza gained prominence during the COVID lockdowns. “When we got into lockdown and we couldn’t have those live events, the strategy was that we’re going to start this thing online and have an audience that will follow us every week,” he says. “We would invite our friends that love this music on a balcony at one of my offices and we’d have a party and record that.”

This turned into a blessing for AfroTech, delivering sets by some of its most prominent producers and DJs - first exclusively online, and then on the satellite TV Channel O, weekly. A larger population of South Africans had access to AfroTech more regularly for the period of Lockdown House Party’s airing on television. But now, with an events sector still recovering from the effects of COVID, only a handful of venues and events offer predominantly AfroTech line–ups. Major South African festivals regularly relegate AfroTech to smaller stages or cherry pick only a select few AfroTech DJs to include on line-ups. Shimza’s event series and record label Kunye is one of the few frequent and prominent AfroTech events taking place in South Africa, where the genre’s prominent DJs and producers can administer lavish, lengthy sets.

Anywhere in Your City (AYC), co-founded by Enoo Napa, is a recent addition to the Afro house/AfroTech calendar. Based in the coastal city of Durban where gqom music was invented and is still most popular, AYC held its third and biggest event to date in July, with a sold-out crowd of 8,000 people in attendance. “On a business scale, there’s still a lot that can be done for the sound,” says Enoo Napa, whose government name is Siphiwe Mkhize. “We have these huge festivals, but a very small Afro house stage. There is a large community out there, if you give them the right platform, the right stage, the right line-ups, they are going to come through because they identify [with] and are for the same music that we believe in.” The upcoming Anywhere In Your City Festival sheduled for December 16 is planned for one of the busiest weekends of the summer, taking place on the Day of Reconciliation, a major South African public holiday. The event is co-hosted by Enoo Napa and DJ Merlon at a park adjacent to one of the biggest sports stadia in Durban, and plans to accommodate 3,000 revellers.

Read this next: Gqom is the explosive South African sound bursting into Europe

The majority of events that prominently feature AfroTech in South Africa are the products of DJs and producers who have identified an existing audience’s need for platforms that showcase the sound. The business case is that the audience is growing; investing their own capital at this moment in AfroTech’s trajectory, without major label and promoter competition, brings a multitude of benefits, including establishing themselves and their brands as pivotal champions of the style and its community.

AfroTech promoters outside of South Africa can support the dance music style by booking popular artists alongside newer artists to platform the next generation and contribute to a more sustainable ecosystem. A multi-layered scene tends to create dynamic creative tension between experiemetal interpretations and music with broad appeal. For audiences, a wider selection of music, events and merch ranging from mainstream to niche means that experiences and products can be created for different price points on the market. Audiences outside of South Africa can contribute in the same way, by supporting both new and established artists.

But in other ways, AfroTech demands that all audiences recognise and interogate their pre-conceived ideas about dance and electronic music from South Africa and the African continent at large. The way that amapiano has dominated mainstream music production, broadcast and consumption in South Africa, and become a significant cultural export for the country post-pandemic, should not skew the overall picture of South African dance. AfroTech artists often note the priotising of amapiano artists at record labels and on party line-ups, as well as the preference those artists receive for brand sponsorship and sync deals. Though Supta notes that AfroTech artists could also be more regular with releases and promoting their music to change this. “If you’re not releasing music [and] music videos as AfroTech DJs, [then] that’s why amapiano is going to cloud us from a commercial perspective. You watch MTV Base now, you’ll probably watch five 'piano videos, if not six, back-to-back,” he says. “This thing of holding on to exclusives [unreleased music], locking music in, should be a thing of the past.”

Needless to say, South Africa is a place of multifarious musical innovation and invention. Established and newer dance music styles in South Africa are an ecosystem all existing simultaneously. Amapiano trailblazer Kabza De Small's recent headline slot at the mainly AfroTech/Afro house event U'R, where he dipped into the genre, demontrates an overlap in styles and audiences that can go both ways. On the continent, more broadly, there is dance music innovation and invention demonstrated by, but not limited to, styles suc as Gengetone in East Africa, deep house in the North, and frankly, the West African take on amapiano. The continent is not lacking when it comes to quality and creativity in dance music..

The popularity of AfroTech outside of South Africa has meant that in the country of it birth it is rare to find multiple AfroTech headline acts, except at dedicated AfroTech events. The artists are either touring abroad, the event line-ups in SA oversubscribed by amapiano DJs, or a combination of both and more factors.

Audiences inside and outside of South Africa must make room for multiple styles of dance music to co-exist collaboratively but self-sufficiently in the country. A singular dominant style can flicker and fade, whereas a deeper understanding of the spectrum of homegrown and imported dance music can enable all genres and communities to flourish in one of the biggest house music markets in the world.

AfroTech is important because it is experimental and speculative. It is in communion with Afro, Tribal, Ancestral and other styles of house music — a precious auditory glimpse into how the musical styles created and spurred on by Black people from the African continent, and reverberating beyond it, can interpret the current dance music world. AfroTech represents the myriad of potential futures electronic music altogether might one day have.

Setumo-Thebe Mohlomi is a writer and photographer, follow him on Twitter

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