Boiler Room x Ballantine’s True Music Studios – Soweto Club-Life Remains An Inspiration

Clash heads to South Africa for a stunning event

Soweto has long been more than just a township that borders Johannesburg’s gold mining belt. From it’s pivotal role as the home of the 1976 Soweto Uprising – which paved the long, hard road to the end of the brutal apartheid regime – to the birthplace of kwaito, and most symbolically, home of Nelson and Winnie Mandela when they were freedom fighters, it has long cemented its status as a hub of cultural, musical and political expression.

It makes sense then, that when Boiler Room x Ballantine’s brought their True Music series back to South Africa, they settled there – after all, where else could they champion local communities and promote inclusive dancefloors but the very province that Amapiano music was founded in? Although the series had visited Johannesburg only last year – Soweto is symbolic as a township, like so many, that shaped South African dance music in ways many are still recognising today.

Amapiano, which quite literally translates to ‘the pianos’ in Zulu, is an embodiment of the South African way of life (fans argue it is a lifestyle more than a genre). Initially emerging into popular culture during lockdown as the catchy dances went viral on social media, ‘piano has since taken the world by storm. Local DJs turned overnight international superstars as the world’s dancefloors reopened following the pandemic with an appetite for the trance-inducing hybrid of deep house, kwaito and lounge music. 

 Although it’s origins are hotly contested, its generally accepted that Amapiano started in the mid 2010s, and rather than being attributable to one person for its origin, it’s the contributions of many (MFR Soul, Kabza da Small, DJ Maphorisa and DBN Gogo to name a few) that would build the genre into what it is today. 

This culture of open collaboration and community has gone on to become a common thread in South Africa’s steady ascension to one of Africa’s most exciting musical exports.One look at any Amapiano track will see a long list of featured artists – often a mix of both up-and-coming starlets as well as the virtuosos , allowing local artists the chance to expand their fanbase and travel abroad to perform increasingly sold out shows. As social media platforms like TikTok become the modern markers of popular culture, DJs like Uncle Waffles have capitalised off virality and built a solid career from a couple of seconds of exposure.

The instantly recognizable log drums synonymous with Amapiano have also been adopted across the continent, with afrobeats heavyweights Davido, Wizkid and Burna Boy all collaborating with Kabza, Focalistic and DJ Maphorisa and many genres borrowing elements.

When Boiler Room x Ballantine’s invited Clash to Soweto as part of their ‘True Music’ series, we got to see the programme’s ethos in action; celebrating the local community from the four day event’s hub at Chaf Pozi – a local restaurant based under the iconic Orlando Towers, supporting and giving a stage to diverse artists with a line-up specially curated by Soweto-born DJ and artist Njelic and promoting inclusive experiences with equality on the dancefloor with a community event with Le Grand Brand, a LGBTIQA+ platform celebrating queer Black excellence.

The opening night at Chaf Pozi introduced Soweto’s story and significance – first with Njelic, the programme’s leading collaborator and curator of the broadcast party’s stellar line up. An Amapiano pioneer and a son of Soweto himself, in conversation with Mpumelelo ‘Frypan’ Mfula a local journalist and entrepreneur, Njelic highlighted his own journey that has seen him become a powerhouse in his community. From a child that followed his sister to choir practice, to a young adult DJing at local Soweto shebeens and perfecting his craft, to cementing his status as a Amapiano heavyweight, his own rise parallels that of Amapiano. Following this, Frypan hosted a panel discussion that anecdotally highlighted just how much the townships have shaped and evolved South African dance music – whether it’s gqom from Umlazi , kwaito from Soweto or bacardi from Atteridgeville. In conversation with trailblazers such as Nkosi Zuthulele (a member of Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness), kwaito’s living legend M’du Masilela, event manager and DJ Lady Sakhe and Soweto native Nobantu Vilakazi.

Speaking to Njelic, it’s evident that being from Soweto isn’t down to a stroke of geography but is attributable to a spark of fellowship, resilience and innovation that allows creativity to strive. Choosing to build at home, where he was raised, when he could’ve very easily left is a testament to how much Njelic values Soweto and what it stands for. “The most important thing for me is that those who are building the foundation of SA music here on the ground are recognised and championed – whilst people may come and see what’s going on here in Soweto, in South Africa, and take inspiration for their own music, what about those who are left behind?” he asks. At a time of international demand for Amapiano, it would’ve been easier for Njelic to simply take bookings abroad and enjoy the fruits of decades of hard work. “When I was starting out as a DJ, Amapiano wasn’t popular and had no vocals – even now, with its worldwide popularity and vocalists, the majority of people listening from outside South Africa don’t know what’s being said but they’re intoxicated by the groove!” 

Instead, through his Garage FM initiative based on a project of the same name, Njelic is championing those on the ground, in his local community. Addressing systemic issues of youth unemployment in a country where it has reached almost 64%, as well as the socio-economic realities of living in a township, Njelic has turned his own love of cars into a way to train and employ local young people to repair and restore cars. “When the ‘ground zero’ of talent and inspiration is nurtured, we gain as listeners, as musicians, and as a wider community with a legacy to pass on” he explains.

Looking at the line-up he curated for the Boiler Room x Ballantine’s broadcast party, it’s clear he’s practising these values. A healthy mix of superstars such as Kabza De Small alongside rising names such as Soweto son Daliwonga, rising DJ KMAT (who went viral for her set) and Gen Z multi hyphenate Kamo Mphela does that, opening ears and eyes to the next generation in the true collaborative nature of the genre.

Following a night of intense dancing, we were back in Soweto, specifically at the Black Coffee owned venue ‘Zone 6’, where Ballantine’s (not Boiler Room) had put together an all-star line up of the hottest Amapiano stars – producer and heavyweight Mr JazziQ, viral sensation turned credible heavyweight Uncle Waffles and pioneer of ‘private school piano’ Kelvin Momo to name a few. 

The following day, we had a dance class put together by Boiler Room x Ballantine’s and Kamo Mphela, another home-grown Soweto talent who in true Gen Z fashion, initially came to public awareness through Tiktok virality as a dancer and leveraged it to build a career as a full blown artist. Where other genres such as Afrobeats often have slick choreographed routines for every song, there’s no wrong way to dance to Amapiano – the aim is not to sweat.

Then, to close the programme, a ‘Satin Return Ball’ put together by Le Grand Brand – a visual and sonic extravaganza with four hauses based in Johannesburg competing for a cash prize to allow them to continue competing and building a vogue scene. Celebrating all body types and peoples in a safe space surrounded by SA’s most exciting LGBTIQA+ Hauses and collectives, soundtracked by Afro-tech and Gqom from DJ LeSoul.

Ultimately, going to SA with Boiler Room x Ballantine’s provided an opportunity to see Amapiano in its element as the genre grows beyond borders, languages and genres. Although conversations about balancing the fine line between appropriation and appreciation continue in parallel to Amapiano’s own influence over wider African and Western music, speaking to local artists and people shows that there’s nothing like the original. The political and social backdrop of South Africa has woven a rich tapestry of artistry and expertise that means the pioneers aren’t worried about imitation, but are far more concerned about preservation and foundation. Building a legacy and a sustainable ecosystem where local musicians are able to make a living from their craft, in a country where Black people have been politically and economically disenfranchised for so long, is far more important than anything. Through global institutions like Boiler Room x Ballantine’s bringing eyes to the local communities that are cultivating culture, the music speaks for itself. If there’s anything that Boiler Room x Ballantine’s have proven, its that diversity and inclusion on the dancefloor is more than just giving everybody an equal space to dance, but the equal chance to build their own dance floor and dance to their own rhythm.

Words: Rahel Aklilu

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