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House music is alive and well in South Africa

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

If you travel to South Africa, you will hear house music, and you'll hear different versions of it in every corner of the country like amapiano, it's the latest subgenre to take over the country. From Johannesburg, NPR's Eyder Peralta explores why house music is so beloved.

(SOUNDBITE OF KABZA DE SMALL AND DJ MAPHORISA SONG, "ABALELE")

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: This is the latest anthem in South Africa, "Abalele" by Kabza De Small.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ABALELE")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: When this song comes on, that hook turns into a chorus. I've heard South Africans pouring their hearts out at clubs, in cars. I've even heard this song played by the traditional marimba guys on street corners. It's a lover asking for forgiveness, and it's a perfect specimen of amapiano - smooth, chill house beats that build into the genre's signature log drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ABALELE")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: Amapiano has gained in popularity in the past couple of years, but those house beats have been a mainstay here since the end of apartheid in the early '90s.

OSKIDO: In South Africa, house music is pop.

PERALTA: That is Oskido, a legendary electronic music artist. He says right as the push to free Nelson Mandela reached a fever pitch, protest music dominated. But when liberation came in 1994, the taverns in the townships began importing house music from Chicago, where the music originated.

OSKIDO: The political songs, they'd done, its thing - you understand? - but we're saying that, what about our social life?

PERALTA: Oskido began making his own beats, and music in South Africa went from talking about bringing Mandela home to finding good grooves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEROPA (PITSENG TSE KGOLO)")

BROTHERS OF PEACE: (Singing in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing in non-English language).

BROTHERS OF PEACE: (Singing in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: I don't know that I would have, like, pegged house music as the soundtrack of a liberation.

OSKIDO: Yeah. Well, remember, that music, it's a spiritual thing. So therefore, I think the stuff which was coming out was talking to us.

PERALTA: Oskido says they also began layering vocals on top of the music. And they talked about personal politics, the economic hardship, about police brutality. It spoke about the challenges of a new life for South Africans.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABES WODUMO SONG, "KA DAZZ")

PERALTA: The music became known as kwaito, the basis for all electronic dance music here. And it crept into every corner of this country, picking up nuances, faster in some places, more jazzy and others. In the seaside city of Durban, it became gqom - - visceral and bass heavy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KA DAZZ")

BABES WODUMO: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: In the rest of the world, house music receded, but here, it's ebbed and flowed. And at the moment, it's a flood. The beats per minute dropped. It became more chill, the lyrics more mature. And no matter where you go, you'll hear a new mutation called amapiano.

NELLY MNGUNI: It's the beats, the beats, baba, with amapiano.

(LAUGHTER)

PERALTA: So that's what you like?

LEBO PHAGANE: Yes.

PERALTA: On a Friday night, I show up to Disoufeng, a sprawling nightclub in Soweto. Nelly Mnguni and Lebo Phagane are celebrating a birthday. Amapiano, they say, is the only thing they want to hear.

MNGUNI: It's the kind of music that can keep you moving even if you are cooking, doing something like...

PERALTA: DJ Booj was getting ready for his set. He says house music did fall a little out of favor in the mid-aughts, but amapiano was incubated in homes during the pandemic. And now the beats are coming to life on newly reopened dance floors.

DJ BOOJ: Amapiano has become our pride and joy.

PERALTA: As DJ Booj sees it, amapiano reaches back to kwaito, the music South Africans were dancing to when segregation ended. Like kwaito, amapiano is jazzy. It's sung in African languages. And it's also chill. Not long ago, house was being played at 128 beats per minute.

DJ BOOJ: It was banging like, yeah, yeah. But currently, if you play at 128, 125, it's like, hey, you on something that we don't know.

PERALTA: Indeed, even when he plays house music from somewhere else, he has to pull back on the throttles. The faster beats of deep house just aren't for South Africans right now.

OSKIDO: This slowing down and all that, it gives us the soul, man. In amapiano, they're back on the groove.

PERALTA: Oskido himself is back on the groove, making new music. When South Africa was overcome by huge riots that left more than 300 people dead last year, he wrote beats. He crafted "Sizophelelaphi," a meditation for a world on fire. Is this what we have become? - the song asks over and over.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIZOPHELELAPHI")

MSAKI: (Singing in non-English language).

PERALTA: Soul music, he calls it - music, he says, that helps South Africa reflect even if it's on a dance floor. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.