Defected’s Virtual Festival series has been a timely reminder of the pre-eminence of African artists and DJs (especially those from South Africa) in the 2020 house music landscape. Not only have we witnessed exhilarating performances from both Black Motion and Themba, but many tracks of African origin have featured (for example the warmly received Simon Dunmore / Dunmore Brothers 90 minute set which kicked off Defected Virtual Festival 4.0 was bookended with African productions). The term ‘afro house’ now seems woefully inadequate to cover the depth and breadth of house and electronic music being produced in this continent of 50+ countries and over a billion citizens. Arguably the term has also lost its cachet somewhat as an ever-expanding array of tracks from all manner of artists / countries are collected under the banner. So, while doffing a collective cap to those forward-looking house masters such as DJ Gregory, Osunlade, Louie Vega and Bob Sinclar who have frequently both shone a light on and worked with African artists, every featured track here bears the Made in Africa stamp.
There is only one place to start. Fifteen years on from launching his Soulistic label with his self-titled debut album, Nkosinathi Maphumulo, better known as Black Coffee, bestrides the African house scene like a colossus. Only a handful of DJs can headline an Ibiza superclub season-long residency with their own name as the brand. Black Coffee, Hï Ibiza’s Saturday selector, is one of them. Our first cut goes back to 2007, and the opening track of his second album Have Another One. The percussion-led number features a tour de force vocal performance from the late South African singer Busi Mhlongo.
The 2000s were a decade when African house slowly begun to seep into the global consciousness, with our next two choices part of that process. From the island of Manda, just off the Kenyan coast, Afefe Iku is a protégé of Osunlade, whose Defected-supported label Yoruba unleashed the instantly recognisable vibes of ‘Mirror Dance’ in 2008. A year later, Culoe de Song became one of the premier producers on Black Coffee’s Soulistic imprint. However, our pick ‘African Subway’, where a simple but insistent piano motif sits atop a funky, tribal workout, was released on Dixon & Ame’s influential Innervisions label.
The sound of the drums is at the very heart of African culture, so it is no surprise that it was to the fore in the 2010s as the continent’s dance music grew in influence throughout the decade. The two fine examples we feature here, both from 2013, are the percussive madness of ‘Matimba’ by Angola’s HomeBoyz Muzik featuring Zulu Naja; and ‘No Doubt’, a Defected gem from South Africa’s Cuebur, where ethereal pads and the plaintive vocals of Marissa Guzman both ride the intoxicating rhythm.
Deeper than deep
From Larry Heard’s groundbreaking 1980s releases onwards, there is a rich catalogue of deep house music. Many now consider deep house to be a conflicted term, one of several dance music sub-genres whose original meaning is now shrouded in a mist of differing definitions. However, what is not open to debate is its enduring influence on South African producers, so it is no surprise that many of them have put their own twist on the style. Black Coffee undoubtedly draws on it, as evidenced in our second pick from the main man, his 2015 collaboration with Monique Bingham, ‘Deep in the Bottom (of Africa)’ – Monique has guested with a who’s who of house producers, another sign of Black Coffee’s exalted position in the global scene. To sit alongside it,we have chosenMobi Dixon’s ‘City Rains’ (also 2015), whose gently plucked guitars and soulful vocals will wash over you.
African house music draws inspiration from every corner of this multi-faceted genre, but its artists emphasise the spirit of their home continent in an ever-present way in their music. This makes it pleasingly difficult to pigeonhole. Our next two choices both exemplify this happy conundrum. London-born but of Nigerian heritage, Dele Sosimi toured both with the legendary Fela Kuti, and then his son Femi. He remains a contemporary touchstone for Afrobeat, but as our featured track ‘Too Much Information’ demonstrates, that classic sound can easily be remixed into a dancefloor killer – another gem from the Innervisions stable. Meanwhile, Jazzuelle is now entering his second decade as one of South African house music’s global ambassadors, his international standing illustrated by our chosen number ‘Adaptations’, which sees him team up with Canada’s deep don Fred Everything on Berlin’s Get Physical, a label that has done much to promote African artists. Both these selections defy easy categorisation. One is vocal, the other instrumental, but they share a blissful, dream-like quality that will help banish lockdown blues.
Voices of Africa
Strident spoken word vocals bind together our next two selections. We guarantee you that Native Tribe featuring Tan’s ‘Ancestor’s Calling’ (2017, here in its Saint Evo remix) will bring you out in goosebumps, whether heard on a dancefloor or through your headphones (or in your living room via the Dunmores’ Virtual Festival mix). Lyrically, it is an excoriating demolition of centuries of mistreatment of Africa. Opening with a call to “rise again”, the opening stanzas that follow must rank amongst the most powerful in house music history: “reparations unrequited, persecutors unrepentant / now is the time to overturn the paradigm cruelly inflicted upon our people / imperialist, elitist, supremacist systems / the cumulative pain of generations, barbarically slain brothers and sisters / all in the name of racist agendas.” In contrast, Punk Mbedzi featuring Sphelele’s ‘Weapons of Warfare’ (2019) treads a more spiritual path, but its message is no less eloquently delivered: “I fell all over the place dealing with things I saw as mountains / craved peace, desired purpose, searched for my destiny / others thinking that my worth may be defined by how they responded to me.” Both are musically hard-hitting too, cementing their right to sit in this illustrious company.
Heavyweight house hypnosis
Three heavweights of the South African scene deliver our next batch of tracks, all from the last couple of years. Once again none are easy to categorise, but in addition to the homeland and status of their producers, we have banded them together due to a hypnotic quality they all share. Themba has starred at both Defected Virtual Festival and Defected Croatia, as well as regularly guesting for Black Coffee in Ibiza and worldwide. Da Capo is another seasoned international traveller who has shared a stage with many a leading light. Our trio is completed by Shimza. He too has played in numerous dance music hotspots, and has seen his style described as afro-tech. Without going down that particular sub-genre road, these eclectic / electric selections do straddle the house / techno divide, all with a beating African heart.
We bring our set to a conclusion with a timely injection of spiritually uplifting tunes. Black Motion are part of the Defected family, and like Themba have starred both virtually and in Croatia. Their sets are frequently dominated by their own productions – so many to choose from, but we opted for ‘The Journey’ (2018) as its video showcases their energetic live performances, with Thabo 'Smol' Mabogwane a percussive powerhouse and Robert Mahosana (DJ Murda) dancing behind the decks. Black Motion opened their Virtual set with a track from FKA Mash, who’re up next. Defected house master Charles Webster (with such an affinity to South Africa that he now lives and works there) also turned us onto them; rounding the circle, fellow UK deep house icon Atjazz is also much revered in Africa, and has released tracks sourced there on his label, including 2019’s ‘Break of Dawn’. We close with the beautiful ‘chilled’ version of Siphe Tibeka’s ‘Ithemba’, fresh from Get Physical once again.
East Africa calling: Uganda & Kenya
South Africa is clearly house’s African epicentre, but on the East side, the electronic music scene in Uganda and neighbouring Kenya is vibrant. We wanted to showcase some of those who are central to making it so. A focal point for the region (and increasingly the continent’s clubbing community as a whole), is the highly regarded Nyege Nyege festival in Uganda (and its associated label and collective of artists and DJs). A riot of colour and pulsating electronic sounds and rhythms, here founder Derek Debru outlines the organisation’s philosophy. We follow with a wonderfully eclectic Boiler Room set filmed at the festival, starring one of a number of increasingly high profile female African DJs, Kampire, who is fast gaining an international reputation.
Meanwhile, the Midi Minds Kenya collective embarked on a fascinating project, fusing modern electronic music with the singing and chanting of the semi-nomadic Samburu community in northern Kenya. DJ Suraj explains the unique Sounds of Sahaab project thus: “We embarked on a journey with one thing in mind – an opportunity to remedy a missing link. Looking around at the evolution of our culture as Kenyans, it felt like we had chosen to disregard what makes us unique as a people. I was once told that with contemporary art, rules don’t apply. Our simple idea was to merge ancestral and traditional sounds of our people with contemporary electronic music.” Please find 10 minutes to watch this inspirational mini documentary.
In the 1970s, Afrobeat gloriously fused soul, jazz, funk and disco. Slowly, electronic sounds began to be incorporated, paving the way for future experimentation. Here are three terrific examples.