THE FACE’s guide to South African dance music

South Africa has a deep history of incredible club music, and right now it’s having another renaissance. Here’s a definitive guide to genres such as gqom, amapiano, bacardi and Afro-house.

Earlier this month, South African superstar Tyla and her American collaborator Gunna attended the KONKA club in the Soweto township. When a DJ-who-shall-not-be-named played Soulja Boy’s chronically worn-out 2008 hit Kiss Me Through Da Phone, South Africa’s keyboard warriors didn’t hesitate to set the record straight. To be fair, their frustration is understandable. South Africa’s club conductors have a strong reputation to protect.

South African club music has entered a new golden era of late, so now is hardly the time for our DJs to regress to tracks like DJ Khaled’s All I Do Is Win, especially in the presence of two superstars craving the renowned club experience that laid the foundation for Tyla’s entire career. Tyla, born and raised in Johannesburg, began her career fusing amapiano and bacardi with pop sentiments, teaming up with local producers Kooldrink, LuuDaDeejay and Yumbs in her earliest work. Since dropping her viral hit Water last summer, she’s achieved global stardom; the song made Tyla the first South African solo artist to reach the US Billboard chart in 50 years and earned her a Grammy award before her debut album was released.

Over the last 10 years, in South Africa’s club scene, the booming bass of 808 drum machines have taken a back seat to rubbery, thwacking log drums and shuffling shakers. Meanwhile, local genres made with a truly African flair have eclipsed EDM, techno, bashment, dancehall and even Afrobeats.

As one of the only countries consistently inventing new genres steeped in indigenous culture, most of South Africa’s music can be classified as spiritual, or about the spirits you’ll be sipping that night. You’ll also often hear lyrics about ambition, falling in love and loyalty to the hood, all of which are easily enjoyed in the club or the kitchen.

Whatever tickles your fancy, though, one tip will always prove handy for those crushing on South Africa’s dance music: if you’re looking for an encore with that juicy tune you discovered on your night out, don’t rely on Shazam, Spotify or any music streaming platform to keep you in the know. You’d best make a friend who can turn you on to locked” (i.e. unreleased) tunes well before they’re officially platformed online. Scour social media for dance challenges and leaks, or subscribe to any of the following acts’ YouTube profiles and see what they’ve added to their latest mixes. In the club is where every great track makes its debut, and South Africa is well ahead of the curve at the moment.


A genre for the adventurous, Durban’s gqom scene came as a surprise to many who were in their pop, house and hip-hop bags at every club event throughout the 90s and early 2000s. Post-Apartheid, the kwaito genre emerged to give Black folks a chance to embrace their identities, via their own variant of house melded with local raps. But at the same time, South Africa was being introduced to MTV, and the mainstream charts were focused on American stars like Britney Spears and Ricky Martin with a sprinkling of local pop artists rising to prominence. Kwaito would dominate for a while, but as South Africans began to focus on hip-hop (both local and international) as the new mainstream darling, kwaito as we knew it dwindled into obscurity.

Then came gqom, the first style of electronic music rooted in township culture in Durban, which opened minds and throats with ease. Melding kwaito’s energy with ghostly shufflings in the mid-120s BPM range, gqom slowly became a movement that would appear in underground clubs all over Europe, Asia, the UK and eventually even US pop music.

Gqom’s dark, sparse and challenging tone comes in numerous iterations which vary in their intensity, structure and content. The most popular are Is’ghubu and uThayela, where you’ll find DJ Lag, Omagoqa, Distruction Boyz and Campmasters experimenting with tinny or hollow sounds and various drum patterns. With the Is’Qinisi style of gqom, lovers of beats that are a bit more techno-leaning will find their groove; then there’s Cape Town’s KaapseGqom, championed by artists such as Mr Thela, TempleBoys and Surreal Sessions.

As one of the most forward-thinking of all the South African genres (which still experiences bouts of sexism, elitism and homophobia) gqom has grown to welcome queer acts such as FAKA, Nkulee and River Moon, as well as soundtracking South African ballroom culture. Lelowhatsgood, for example, hosts vogue nights with a stylish, sexy, sweaty and safe vibe.

Pioneers of the sound: Sbucardo Da Deejay, Distruction Boys, DJ Lag

3 Anthems:

Mshayi, Mr Thela – Mother’s Prayer
Goldmax, QUE DJ, Thobeka – Bamba iRoof
DJ Lag, KCDriller – Hade Boss



South Africa’s most viral genre took off during the pandemic by associating itself with dance challenges, helping it travel from the Gauteng province to the rest of the world via TikTok. It has since grown exponentially – to the extent that DJs DBN GOGO and Uncle Waffles have both played Coachella, while Piano People sold out London’s Drumsheds venue (one of the biggest clubs in the world). Nigerian stars such as Asake, Davido and Olamide have also soaked up elements of the style. When amapiano first emerged, it was considered music for the lower classes”. Today, Tshwala Bami by Yuppe and Tito M stands as the biggest amapiano song to ever be released with over 15 billion views on TikTok alone – and that’s before Burna Boy tapped it with his midas touch.

Every amapiano track features the rubbery percussive sound of the log drum – an innovation crested to the producer Mdu, aka TRP. Amapiano sets vary from balmy and easy to feverish and enlivening club experiences – with the playful dance sequences between duos Justin & Pcee and Shakes & Les, as well as the infectious moves of Uncle Waffles and TOSS, echoing well beyond crowds into social media posts. Lyricists are essential to the genre where English just won’t cut it – the isiZulu language and slang known as S’Pitori take precedence – and no one has received more warmth in club scenarios than vocalists LeeMcKrazy, Zee Nxumalo and Young Stunna. You could stay in the city for an experience that only encompasses the commercial tip of the amapiano iceberg, but amapiano is best enjoyed in the hood – where all of the freshest, most forward-thinking music is played in a battle of styles between camps blaring tracks that may never see the light of day.

At the slower end of South African club genres – around 113 BPM – amapiano is meant to inspire listeners to ride the groove, rather than tire them out with overexertion. Many who have tried to co-opt the sound internationally have mimicked early productions, running tracks at uncharacteristically breathtaking speeds. But the genre’s famous philosophy where the aim is not to sweat” remains key, as sonics continue to evolve through softer kicks and more syncopated rhythms. There have been variations on the amapiano formula, including Kelvin Momo, Stixx and Mickman’s soul-soothing private school style and the moody, marauding sgija sound of Sfarzo Rtee, Zan’Ten and Nkulee501 & Skroef28.

Amapiano is all about authenticity, so if you’re partying to this you’ll need to dress accordingly, whether that’s in a Vetements T‑shirt and shades or that Shein dress that just arrived in the post. From South African townships to Dubai towers, amapiano remembers where it came from, and has every intention of going the distance.

Pioneers of the sound: Kabza De Small, MFR Souls, Mdu aka TRP

3 Anthems:

Kelvin Momo, Bandros, Smash SA, Mr Maker – Uhambe Wrongo
King P, Augusto Mawts, Olley RSA – Jakalas
Tyler ICU, LeeMcKrazy, T‑Man Xpress, Visca Ceeka RSA, SjavasdaDeejay – Ebasini



When Tyla and her dancers hopped onto the stage at Joburg’s Hey Neighbor Festival and showed out with South Africans dancers to This is How We Celebrate, it was an appreciative nod to bacardi – a bright, fun, waist-winding genre that sits well with folks who don’t want too much bass in their booty-shaking.

In 2008, Pretoria artists DJ Mujava and DJ Spoko’s gained global popularity on YouTube with their bacardi track Township Funk. While Mujava and Spoko were on tour across the world, back home in Pretoria, the likes of the late Vusi Ma R5, Team Skorokoro, DJ Nyiko and Jelly Babie scored local hits such as Mugwanti, Tobetsa and Pusha Skorokokoro. In its earliest phases, this genre took music distribution via public transport and school commutes to another level, with producers catering to kids who weren’t quite of age for club environments but loved music just the same. School uniforms and minibuses were customised to stand out from the rest, equipped with massive speaker systems, creating a scene ripe for creative young minds looking to make a mark in music.

Today their sounds have been slowed down to the early 110 BPMs, and weaved into productions by Mellow and Sleazy, Thama Tee, Focalistic, Pabi Cooper and Ch’cco for a refreshed look at bacardi’s effervescent snares, strings and hi-hats. Make sure you stretch before attending any bacardi bashes, and be prepared to share a little space for anyone looking to show their stuff.

Pioneers of the sound: Vusi Ma R5, DJ Mujava, DJ Spoko

3 Anthems:

Biggy Lass – This Is How We Celebrate
Mapara a Jazz, Pumpkin – Wae Roba
Jelly Babie, Pabi Cooper, Thama Tee – Jukulyn


Afro-house / Afro-tech

This musical movement has created unity amongst Africans who love oontz oontz. Beginning in South Africa and sprouting up most prominently in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Côte d’Ivoire, Zambia, Angola, Mozambique and Morocco, Afro-house’s origins aimed to stay true to its root in African instrumentation, pride and spirituality, even as it leans away from its archaic tribal” label – which, like the term World Music”, tries to lump many different peoples together under one lazy catch-all.

Lyrics in Kikuyu from Kenya and Venda from South Africa can be heard in Afro-house amongst many other languages, creating a sense of common ancestry on the dancefloor. Where Afro-scenes in the UK and EU prefer darkened clubs and bottle service, South African communities prefer to gather under the stars – whether that be on rooftops, wineries, emptied parking lots or any space with a direct view of the open sky.

In Afro-house, time ceases to exist. Shimza revived Angelique Kidjo’s 1994 track Agolo and Bongo Maffin’s Thathisgubhu (2014) in 2022; 2023 saw Magic System’s Premier Gaou (2000) get finessed by Nitefreak and Black Motion; this year Desiree releases her Selaelo Selota Thrr Pha (2001) remix, while Da Capo’s Touch series has our Fridays in a chokehold with his iterations of classic African hits such as Khadja Nin’s Wale Watu (1992) and Sambolera (1996). That said, original productions with refreshed approaches keep streaming in, and the latest mutation comes via 3 Step – an amalgamation of the distinct drum patterns, basslines, wordplay and more that make amapiano, gqom and Afro-house artists the juggernauts they are. Think of the three beat pattern it follows as if it were a Christmas tree that artists come to adorn according to their own styles, creating a festive bridge between all three genres.

Pioneers of the sound: Black Coffee, Black Motion, Culoe De Song

3 Anthems…

Nitefreak, Emmanuel Jal – Gorah
NAAK, Deep Narratives – Wushi
Theology HD, TO Starquality – uMthetho


Bolo house

While amapiano, Afro-house and bacardi find their roots in Gauteng, bolo house takes hold in the region of Limpopo, which shares borders with both Botswana and Mozambique. Balobedu, or Lobedu people, speak a Sotho-Tswana dialect that is understood across many sub-groups of Southern Africa, including Lozi people of Zambia – which explains why this wildly popular genre continues to fill club spaces and top charts at astounding rates every year. The music flows just as smoothly as the roll-off-the-tongue languages do, with upbeat, sunny melodies even on the most heart-rending of subjects, brimming with enough drama to challenge any telenovela.

Bolo House, which is peppered with the lively and soothing sound of marimbas, can be described as gqom’s more cheerful cousin. Racking up spins alongside the producer Master KG in this scene is producer and singer King Monada, who rose to stardom with his viral track Ska Bhora Moreki (“don’t bore the blesser”) in 2016, which reminded folks that it’s probably a good idea to make sure whoever’s paying for rounds at the club is having a good time lest they get bored and leave. The queen herself comes next: singer Makhadzi, who has been performing since she was 12 but took the spotlight in 2019 with her award-winning single Matorokisi. Prince Benza and Double Trouble add their own verve to the energetic genre as well, along with the latest and most controversial addition to the scene: Shebeshxt, who’s often found shirtless and short in temper, but is always surrounded by adoring fans.

Pioneers of the sound: King Monada, Master KG, Makhadzi

3 Anthems:

King Monada – Ex Yaka
Shebeshxt – Ambulance


Deep house

Deep house in South Africa is a well-loved time capsule of some of the most hopeful years post-apartheid. Who can forget the first time Tracey K’s silky vocals on The Cure and the Cause brought on the realisation that people who don’t look or speak like you, can feel everything you do? Years later, the sentiment is as fresh and widely felt as ever. Think of deep house and kwaito as the mirepoix or sofrito to all of SA club music recipes, providing the base for every style we enjoy today. Before streaming services, deep house also enjoyed a robust radio presence and culture of exclusive tunes, the best of which would end up being pirated off of dedicated websites such as the now defunct YuriUnibelas​.com. Who was Yuri Unibelas, you ask? Is he even a real person? No one really knew or cared – as long as the music was free.

Today’s prodigies are Oscar Mbo, Sculptured Music, Fatso 98 and Buhle, who carry the sound on their shoulders. In comparison to the other genres, this one has quite a bougie feel, even in its most casual spaces, so don’t feel as if you’ll be judged too harshly for that mimosa at brunch if paired with a little gospel-inspired Artwork Sounds session at a Sunday gathering – even Jesus enjoyed a tipple from time to time. A genre that has endured across decades with a following that values loyalty and steadfastness, those in deep are comfortable and satisfied within a scene that feels like home. If you want something unwavering and beautiful, soulful and grounding, South African deep house is for you.

Pioneers of the sound: Glen Lewis, Vinny da Vinci, DJ Kent

3 Anthems:

Poizen – Crossroads Remix
Kid Fonque, FKA Mash, Khensy, Jonny miller, Fernando Damon – Tshinela
Pierre Johnson – Roots


There's also this other stuff...

Not every club scene in South Africa is rave-centric. There will always be electronic music that is produced for acquired tastes, with experiences that range from humorous to meditative or sonically challenging – and purely artful. This nameless terrain is where South Africa’s boldest and bravest creatives live, experimenting, tinkering, blending and forging in all areas of their lives. The 2010s were rife with this energy, boasting Soundcloud era acts like BIG FKN GUN, Card on Spokes and Fantasma pulling inspiration from African jazz, techno, kwaito, ambient music and gqom with varying raps, spoken word and skits.

Spoek Mathambo reigns supreme here, bringing elements from all over the continent together to usher in an era of electronic music that’s unmatched. Jumping Black Slash’s playful yet technically bulletproof sounds run the gamut, sometimes entrancing and ethereal or deliciously unhinged, alongside the good folks at Swak Catalog. Rose Bonica’s Roses Are Red label is a household name in Cape Town, too, with fresh sonics time-travelling from 80s synths to 90s kwaito flows and beyond. MUZI stands as a notable firm favourite, with a sound referred to as Bantu Bounce”, where his Zulu heritage collides with Western sentiments in funk, bounce and more.

Pioneers of the Sound: Nonku Phiri, MUZI, Spoek Mathambo

3 Anthems:
[kimetsu.] – Sometimes I wish my soul’dmate would replace my pillow at night
Bujin & Jumping Back Slash – Order of Change


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