House music took root in Pretoria, South Africa in the early 1990s, then spread to Johannesburg where it was slowed down and combined with local elements to form Kwaito. But if Kwaito was the music that defined the generation that came of age after apartheid, the beats have been ramped back up and South African House music is now more in tune with today’s increasingly “globalised” South Africans.
Sometimes called Afro House, sometimes Dance music, South African House is distinctly South African. Meaning what? Ok, we’re going to put some noses out of joint by saying this but a lot of “international” House lacks a sense of place, and can sometimes sound like nothing but beats (Techno House is often guilty of this). Fine if you’re some off-his-head teenager willing to dance to anything with a fast beat, but even then it probably gets a little samey. South African DJs took what they learnt from Kwaito and applied it to House, which means taking your basic 125BPM and adding elements that ground it in the lived reality of South Africans. Thus you will sometimes hear lyrics in one of the local languages (of which there are 11 if you exclude English and Afrikaans), samples from real traditional instruments (drums, in particular, something integral to African music), and heavier basslines than you might find in House music from elsewhere. A track might use a harmony or melody from an old South African song, and the lyrics, minimal though they might be, will be about something people recognise, something political, humorous, traditional, celebratory, etc. It’s party music, but it still ties in with South African identity and history, and has meaning beyond music.
This flexible hybrid is what you’ll hear in South Africa’s clubs, or if you turn on the radio, take a ride in a taxi (it was through taxis that the early house music compilations were distributed), visit a shebeen or a shisa nyama, basically wherever there’s music playing. And with the world’s dance music lovers’ growing hunger for the “foreign but familiar” you’re almost as likely to hear the same sound whether you’re clubbing in London or Miami. Which is why the biggest names – Oskido, Black Coffee, DJ Fresh, DJ Cleo, etc. – have been racking up airmiles on the international DJ circuit for the past five years.