Amongst the many genres that stylistically make up the broad, dynamic sound of amapiano, sits jazz music. As the pioneer, Kabza De Small said simply during a 2020 radio interview, “Amapiano is a mix of jazz and kwaito”. While varied dance and electronic music genres like the latter have had much greater significance in amapiano’s sonic bedrock, jazz’s influence and its contemporary styles can’t be overlooked. Jazz undertones and rhythms can be heard in the different pockets and iterations of amapiano. In soulful amapiano or “private school ‘piano”, as it is affectionately known, the omnipresent shakers, soft-hitting log-drum, and progressive chords are often accompanied by live instrumentations of a guitar, saxophone, violin, and trumpet, amongst others.
The growth and global rise of amapiano in the past few years has come with the unearthing of many artists. These have spread beyond aspiring producers and vocalists. More session and live musicians have also been afforded the chance to contribute to the expansion of the genre and, in turn, make careers out of it. Talented instrumentalists or ”sessionists” often join prolific producers (and sometimes vocalists) in the studio to deliver soulful bits that programmed instruments and vocals can’t convey. While they’re mostly credited on the tracks they’ve worked on, these musicians are amapiano’s hidden gems and unsung heroes, who stand in the shadows of the genre’s biggest stars. Their riffs, licks, and solos have featured on and carried some impactful tracks in the last two years. In no particular order, here are the musicians that have been broadening the musicality of amapiano
Moscow (on Keyz)
Piano / Keyboard
Outside of the producers who would add screeching piano solo’s into their original compositions, instrumentalists are arguably equally responsible for the genre’s eventual name. And keyboardist, Moses Khumbulani Mlambo, professionally known as Moscow on Keyz was at the forefront of it all, grinding it out during amapiano’s formative years with pioneering outfit MFR Souls. Moscow enthusiastically played the keyboard during the duo’s live DJ sets and exhibited his prowess playing with the instrument on his back. A decade since the genre’s birth, Moscow remains an amapiano mainstay, and one of the most influential figures, especially for musicians who don’t program beats.
Frequent collaborators: MFR Souls, Tee Jay, ThackzinDJ, Ntokzin, and Kwiish SA.
While the use of the saxophone in amapiano dates back as far as 2016 via songs like Kabza De Small’s Arasoul Sax-assisted track, “Hate”, Jay Sax has made it his mission to keep the instrument prevalent in the genre. As his name suggests, Jay Sax is a maestro when it comes to playing the saxophone. A trained theatre performer by profession, the artist born Nkosinathi Nkosi, is notably known for his works with Abidoza and “private school ‘piano” protagonist Kelvin Momo having appeared on “Careless Whisper” and “Funa” — the former borrowing its title from the George Michael classic, whose iconic solo was played by Stephen ‘Steve’ Gregory. The self-taught sax player is largely inspired by the likes of Kenny G and has been active in the commercial music scene since the early 2010s.
Frequent collaborators: Abidoza, Kelvin Momo, and Soa mattrix.
Sipho Magudulela first emerged on the scene on MFR Soul’s 2019 major record label debut The Beginning, however, his stardom has skyrocketed in the past two years due to his collaborations with Ace of Spade’s head honcho, De Mthuda. Speaking about Magudulela’s involvement in his seminal 2021 album The Landlord, producer extraordinaire De Mthuda told Apple Music that he employed Magudulela’s skill set, “just to mix amapiano with other sounds we [the producers] don’t normally use”. Magudulela’s honeyed guitar licks can be heard on Sam Deep’s “Kusezo Khanya”, and De Mthuda’s “Mhlaba Wonke”, amongst others. Before featuring on ‘piano tracks, Magudulela had played with some established gospel singers, and in 2019 released a three-track Afrosoul project titled In the Heart of Music. The multi-instrumentalist looks up to greats such as Jimmy Dludlu, Jonathan Butler, and Norman Brown.
Frequent collaborators: De Mthuda, Sam Deep, Murumba Pitch, and MFR Souls.
Xolani Guitars (born Xolani Gift Skosana in Tembisa) is a regular feature on DJ Maphorisa and Madumane’s live performances. However, the world of ‘piano first took notice of Xolani’s gift through his contribution to Kabza De Small’s I Am The King of Amapiano: Sweet and Dust album, where he collaborated on “Mapiano Blues”, “Qula” and the Jonathan Butler-interpolating “Many Faces”. Originally a guitarist for the genre-fusing quintet Jazzmeloz, Xolani has played live for acclaimed house vocalist, Monique Bingham. The self-taught guitarist credits Jimmy Dludlu, Jonathan Butler, B.B. King, Themba Mokoena, George Benson, Norman Brown, and Ronny Jordan as the artists who sparked his love for music and have been most influential in his technique.
Frequent collaborators: Kabza De Small, Kelvin Momo, and Abidoza
Veteran musician Skipper Shabalala or as he is respectfully known TaSkipper has been part of South Africa’s live music circuit since the ‘80s. During the mid-90s to the 2000s, TaSkipper would become the guitarist and leader of Lucky Dube’s band, whom he toured the world with until his unfortunate passing in 2007. Fast forward to 2020, TaSkipper’s decades-spawning expertise started being sought by amapiano producers such as Ntokzin and De Mthuda. At the tail end of 2021, the prolific guitarist explored the genre with his fully-instrumental project, Amapiano Fusion, Vol. 1.
Frequent collaborators: Kelvin Momo, Ntokzin, De Mthuda, and Mr JazziQ.
Rams De Violinist
Unlike the saxophone and guitar, violin solos are rarely incorporated on amapiano tracks. But thanks to the talented Rams De Violinist, the instrument has made some blissful appearances like on Abidoza’s emotive 9-minute track “Pain Never Last” — which borrows its melody from Angie Stone’s “Wish I Didn’t Miss You.” The musician, born Solomon Ramorola and raised in Alexandra township, has worked closely with fellow Gomora native Josiah De Disciple, contributing to both of his Spirit of Makoela albums, as well as his other guest features.
Frequent collaborators: Josiah De Disciple, Abidoza, and Sfarzo Rtee.
Other notable instrumentalists include Da Ish (Guitarist), Happy Jazzman (Pianist), Le Sax and Blissful Sax.