Inside the UK Afro house renaissance
The Afro house sound is an ever-growing presence in UK dance music, with new labels, club-nights and a dedicated radio station springing up. Alongside a mix from Mr Silk, Ria Hylton explores the sound’s history, and speaks to some of the scene’s key players about forging strong connections with their growing audiences, and their aim to nurture a unique UK Afro house identity
Afro house is steeped in the percussive materials of South Africa’s townships. For decades, its polyrhythms played out on traditional African instruments — bongos, congas, claves, djembes — in synthesised form, its pulsing riffs and piercing hi-hats calling to mind the past and the future. It’s a brooding sound, both ancestral and futuristic; a calling and a reminder; a journey and a home.
It’s also a sound that’s found a home in countries as far-flung as Kenya, the US, Japan and Greece. But Afro house has, for much of its history, struggled to take root in the UK — until now. In recent years, a handful of DJs, promoters and label owners have been forging a new path, pushing the scene beyond the party faithful, wrestling for a place in the wider underground community. The result? A quiet renaissance.
It’s a crisp January evening when we approach South London’s Peckham Audio. The venue has replaced the street-level bustle of Rye Lane with muted thuds from its 200-capacity basement, plush with revellers hours-deep in the dance. They cut shapes ground level while the new arrivals watch from the mezzanine. J2K, a South London party series pushing the lineal rhythms of African electronic music, has found a home in the steely, subsurface club. They call it Afro house in the UK, but to Prince, a recently-migrated Zimbabwean to our left, it’s all part of a piece. “It’s all house,” he tells us, “and it’s easy to find back home and in the US, but where are the nights here?”
In 2013, Traxsource introduced Afro house as a dedicated category to its platform, followed by Beatport in 2017, but Zepherin Saint, a DJ and producer, traces the sound back as far as the mid-’80s. And he should know, having supplied soundsystems to the first wave of acid raves in the UK.
The Melbourne-based label head takes us through the various iterations of Afro house. He notes a few key releases — Cultural Vibe’s 1986 hit ‘Ma Foom Bey’, on Easy Street Records, No Smoke’s 1989 track ‘Koro-Koro’, on London’s Warriors Dance — “but you can’t talk about Afro house without talking about Ron and Joe,” he insists. “Every genre has a godfather and for me, they are the godfathers of the sound. They created the foundation because they stayed true to it for so long.”
And the record shows that Ron Trent and Joe Claussell were working African-influenced percussion into their production decades before it had a name. Tracks like ‘Pop, Dip And Spin’ and ‘Awade’, with their emphasis on live and intricate instrumentals, are the core elements of the Afro house genre.
By the turn of the century, these African-influenced rhythms were catching on in parts of Europe. Saint notes French producers Bob Sinclar and DJ Gregory, who were compiling tracks for the ‘Africanism All Stars’ project, a now-legendary CD series of collaborative works between western and African artists. Meanwhile in Greece, Angelos (formerly known as DJ Angelo) began to book South African DJs for his much-loved Global Fantasy parties.
For Saint and many others, these sounds were crystallised on the now-defunct AfrodesiaMp3 platform, launched in 2005 to promote the work of electronic music artists in Africa. There, he found a groundswell of tracks that moved house beyond its 4/4 roots, invoking the spiritual potentials of the sound. “Their interpretation of house music was completely new,” Saint says with awe. “They were taking their patterns and making them from the electronic drum — that’s what caught my attention.”
While artists like Trent and Claussell used instruments to produce organic sounds, producers in South Africa were working in reverse, synthesising every rhythm, many of which were played live.
“There’s another side that brings out a spiritual connection on the dancefloor, and that’s Afro house. It’s a spiritual gateway” – Zepherin Saint
The UK Afro house scene began to take shape in 2009 with Saint’s Tribe label and party series. He licensed tracks on AfrodesiaMP3 and launched the Tribe nights, first at Dex in Brixton and later at Corsica Studios in Elephant & Castle. Black Coffee, Culoe De Song, Timmy Regisford, Dennis Ferrer and DJ Spen all made an appearance, spinning Afro, deep and soulful sets for dance music veterans and those just discovering the sound.
Sister Pearl’s ‘Bang The Drum’, Culoe De Song’s ‘Dragon’s End’ and Peven Everett’s ‘Burning Hot’ helped solidify the scene, which began to attract out-of-town ravers from Birmingham and Manchester. “Those into the music would travel far to get that vibe,” Saint remembers. This was especially true for Southern African communities in the North and the Midlands, eager to see South African DJs on UK soil. “It was a beautiful thing in the beginning because those that were coming, knew why they were coming.”
By the mid-2010s, other UK-based labels were following Tribe’s path — Peng Africa, DM.Recordings, Aluku Records and FOMP — in releasing music by African electronic artists. More dedicated club nights emerged — Nyumba Deep, Sanctuary Sessions and Native Soul, to name a few — but promoters struggled to find reliable venues, and party-goers weren’t getting any younger. This didn’t initially phase Saint, who had witnessed the birth of house.
“When house came, there were only 50 of us in London at the party,” he says with a slight chuckle. “So I just saw this as the same thing — there’s a sound coming and people aren’t quite ready for it... we’re so used to the euphoric ‘get your hands in the air’, wait for the drop side of house,” he continues, “but there’s another side that brings out a spiritual connection on the dancefloor, and that’s Afro house. It’s a spiritual gateway.”
But soon enough, he noticed a shift: an influx of “shit” productions and “bandwagon jumpers” began to weaken the scene. “With the Afro house sound, a lot of people jumped on it as the next big thing and this is what happens with any new genre that comes along,” he explains. “You knew from the email and the demo that they were just here for a couple of tracks. But outside of Africa there wasn’t a scene strong enough to protect it.”
After a number of Tribe UK tours, Saint took the party to Djoon’s Paris, and finally the US. “They got it straight away.” By 2016, the regular Tribe events had come to an end. The only party to survive this period was Sef Kombo’s Til Two.
“As soon as I touched down [in South Africa], everything changed, even though I was only here for 10 days. You really understand that this is a lifestyle. This is what people breathe every single day. I breathed something different. I took something different back to the UK” — Sef Kombo
Of all the people pushing the Afro house sound in the UK, none have proven as successful as Sef Kombo and Kitty Amor. Kombo’s much-loved Til Two — which celebrated its 10th year in 2019 — and the duo’s Motherland party series, previously run with D. Malice, have brought the sound to a new generation of house lovers. Housed in London’s West End, Til Two stood out on account of its vibrant mix of both young people and elders. Noting a disconnect between fans and Afro house DJs, Kombo decided to build a community with emerging social media, namely Twitter. He set up a website to host sets recorded at Til Two events, wrote bios for the night’s regular DJs and shared the content with fans.
“I felt that there was just so much more we could do to connect with our own audience and connect with new audiences, because that’s how I felt other DJs were managing to get through,” he explains. “If you’ve got no story, people might rate your music or DJing, but that’s as far as it goes.” He took a similar approach to the Motherland parties when he joined Amor and Malice in 2018. Professional photography and a social media strategy all helped to grow the scene beyond its target audience, bringing renewed attention to the sound.
When we speak with Sef Kombo and Kitty in late December, they are on tour in Africa, but keen to explain a key change in their journey with the sound. In 2018, Kombo first set foot on South African soil; Amor followed a year later. “As soon as I touched down, everything changed, even though I was only here for 10 days,” he tells us. “You really understand that this is a lifestyle. This is what people breathe every single day. I breathed something different. I took something different back to the UK.”
“I think even how we deliver the music in the UK has changed massively from being over [in Africa],” Amor adds. “You can’t pick up energy from a video clip on Instagram or Twitter, you just have to feel it and be in that moment to understand why this music is so prominent in this country. You also have more respect for how you then present the music outside of the country, because you respect what you experience.”
The arrival of Defected imprint Sondela, helmed by Kombo and Louie Dunmore, is doing more work to bridge the gap between South Africa’s house scene and the world, and bolster the sound in the UK. Last November saw the first edition of its party series at London’s Ministry Of Sound, where house heavyweights Black Motion, Da Capo and Kid Fonque played alongside Portugal’s DJEFF and Kombo and Amor.
The duo may be the face of the UK Afro house scene, but they are keen to bring along as many other voices as possible. “This is beyond Sef Kombo and Kitty Amor,” Amor insists. “The question for us is: how can we be a vessel for others and for this music?” “It’s a big ecosystem,” Kombo continues. “If we’re all pushing together, it can only be positive for the future of the music, wherever it lies.”
A new wave of Afro house nights has appeared in the last five years, with collectives emerging in the south, the Midlands and as far north as Glasgow. Croydon’s Undiluted party series takes place just off the town high street: there you’ll find My Vibe My Tribe members DJ IC and Hardihood. Natives, which launched last year and is run by INTUIT and Bobby Digital, pairs local talent with top tier South African producers.
Afrohouse Party is held in Brixton, and Afrotastic, a Soho night, regularly packs out the Orange Yard. In Nottingham, the T.O.N.E.S collective, founded in 2018 by Trekkah, is busy making waves. The newest and most prominent night, however, is Defected’s Sondela event, held at Ministry Of Sound. Its second edition will take place in April, offering another showcase of international talent.
Further north in Leeds, Manchester and Glasgow, a strong contingent of Southern African DJs and producers is promoting Afro house parties. Artist Lebo, a vocalist and DJ, has witnessed the wax and wane of the scene over the past decade. Savanna, an annual street and indoor party launched in 2009, was for many years the main locus of the Southern African house community. “Up north, the crowd is mainly South African,” she tells us. “The Afro house scene used to be good in Leeds, it was really good in Manchester as well, but I suppose it’s moved on with the older generation. At a lot of events, I’ll be the only DJ playing Afro house.”
DJs and producers like Dj.Respect.Afrika, DJ Toots, Terrie T, Mthulisi Patrick and Sowetoboy kept the scene alive in the fallow years, but the scene remained too insular for some, and many moved on with the amapiano wave. To tackle this, Lebo set up Piano In The City, a monthly Afro house, Afro tech and amapiano party in Manchester’s city centre.
Through the party, Lebo deliberately targets the broadest possible coalition. “We’re trying to capture the local crowd, everybody in Manchester — anyone can walk in,” she enthuses. “The night is still growing, but we’ve had some really good turnouts.” Savanna organisers Phil Morgan and Mthulisi Patrick have more recently launched Afro house party Tribe at Leeds’ Sheaf St.
It took the pandemic for Optimistic Soul to find his future collective partner, ButhoTheWarrior. It was in the first lockdown that the Glasgow-based Zimbabweans discovered one another. “I felt like, ‘Jesus, it’s a bit lonely out here’, but during the lockdown, people started to reach out and get to know each other,” Soul tells us. After joining ButhoTheWarrior’s JAIVA collective, the DJ pair set up a regular night at Glasgow’s Sub Club, the first instalment of which nearly sold out. “For me, it was evidence that the sound is starting to grow in Glasgow — the response has been great so far.”
The event inspired Optimistic Soul to branch out with his own party, Africa Is Now, which launched at Glasgow’s The Berkeley Suite in early 2022. Soul sees the future growth of Afro house in the wider UK audience but, as with most Afro house nights, he is still having to tailor his sets to bring in new audiences. “We can’t play a purely Afro house set and we understand that some people may come for something different, so if we really want to penetrate the sound, we have to accommodate.”
“We’re pushing a sound that’s relatively unknown, but it’s a movement that’s attracting people worldwide. It’s like striking oil but not really knowing how to give it to the masses” - Mr Silk
Harlesden, in north-west London, is the home of the UK’s first 24/7 Afro house radio station. Launched in 2017, Drums Radio is run from The Beat London 103.6FM, the UK’s only Black-owned FM broadcaster. We arrive at The Beat London office in early December to meet Drums Radio founders, Mr Silk and DaMs, who can be found there most Wednesdays, prepping for Silk’s evening show and discussing the ins and outs of the scene. These chats, we soon learn, can go into the wee hours. Aside from the radio station, the pair run Afrohouse Party and Afrotastic, lead online and in-person talks, and on March 26th, they’ll also host Sounds Of African Electronic Music, London’s first dedicated African dance music festival, at the Prince of Wales in Brixton, London.
Silk and DaMs are formidable conversation partners, recalling the various iterations of Afro house and its key players with a scholarly reverence you don’t come across often. “When we do these global Afro house talks, I tell artists, ‘You need to remember where you’re at. You’re the forefathers of a scene that’s about to grow,’” Silk tells us. “We’re pushing a sound that’s relatively unknown, but it’s a movement that’s attracting people worldwide. It’s like striking oil but not really knowing how to give it to the masses.”
It was a trip to South Africa in late 2017 that inspired Silk to launch Drums. He was managing The Beat London, where he was hosting a weekly Afro house radio show, but longing for a permanent space for Afro house lovers. “I remember leaving the Red Bull Studios in Cape Town and thinking, ‘Well, if there’s no 24/7 Afro house station, I’ve just got to create it’.” On his return to the UK, he floated the idea to DaMs, his producer at The Beat London. Drums Radio was launched on Boxing Day that same year. “I wouldn’t say we were a [proper] radio station at the time,” DaMs chimes in, “but overnight we went from being able to listen to Afro house legally once a week to being able to hear it all the time.”
The arrival of Drums Radio has been a real game changer; the station is now home to over 50 shows and has grown its initial audience of 5,000 listeners a month to 50,000. It’s brought disparate groupings throughout the UK under one roof, encouraging new constellations of collaboration.
“Afro house was on the cusp a few years ago,” DaMs confides back in The Beat London office. “More people were talking about it and listening to it, and more DJs were starting to play it.” Silk nods solemnly: “I think one of the reasons it didn’t come through is because all of those tunes got attributed to UK funky.”
Identity, or lack thereof, is a recurring theme in the history of the UK Afro house scene. As the sound became more widespread, it seemed like easy pickings for genre-adjacent sounds. Kentphonik’s ‘Sunday Showers’ and Bucie’s ‘Get Over It’ were — and still are — mistakenly labelled as UK funky. In fact, you’ll still find these tracks on ‘UK funky favourite’ lists.
A similar thing happened with Afrobeats in the mid-2010s. “When Afrobeats first came out, it was closer to the funky house tribal sound,” Aluku Records founder Aluku Rebels tells us over Zoom from his home in Bali. “The production was very stripped and very basic, it wasn’t as rhythmic or warm as it is now.” He attributes the shift from Afro house to Afro tech to one Afrobeats song in particular: Uhuru and WizKid’s 2015 release ‘Duze’.
“I think that was a turning point. Afrobeats started to go into a more South African ancestral vibe, and it was difficult to play Afro house because people would confuse it with Afrobeats. It felt like a lost cause,” he says, slightly despondent. “We had to go more electronic — that’s how Afro tech came about.”
It’s tricky to pinpoint exactly when Afro tech arrived as a fully-fledged sound, but tracks like ‘Thief’ by Rancido and Culoe De Song’s ‘Y.O.U.D’ set the scene somewhat. The edgy, melodic tones and big drops play well to the European ear, creating instant classics. You hear this in the solemn chords and acid bassline on Da Capo’s remix of ‘Abiro’, and Kususa’s remix of ‘Traveller’, which, though still heavy on the percussion, has a light techno thread. From 2015 on, Aluku Records and DM.Recordings started pushing the sound — and Black Coffee championed it, so much so that producers started fashioning tracks especially for him.
“It definitely pushed more South African artists to produce for Black Coffee,” Aluku says. “Big, game-changing tracks came into the scene that are probably part of the furniture now because they had both elements particularly on point. It was an African vibration, but it was slightly electronic. They were the ones that really worked.” Now, Afro house finds itself — once again — in a strange loggerheads, with a sound much closer to home.
2021 will go down as the UK’s summer of amapiano. While the Southern African community was already working its way through Major League DJz, DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small’s back catalogue, UK ravers were only just getting turned on to the theatrics of the sound. The spacious intros and melodic log drum that mark the genre brought a skank to the dancefloor not seen since the heights of funky.
TikTok challenges and other choreographed dance videos did the rounds, imbuing the sound with a visible culture for all the world to see. Being a vocally-driven genre didn’t hurt things either. “Amapiano events are packed out,” Lebo tells us. “Now a lot of Afro house DJs are playing amapiano — they’ve all kind of switched — there’s literally only a few of us still playing Afro house these days.”
While amapiano and Afro house have two distinct scenes in South Africa, you’d be hard pushed to find a solely-Afro house night in the UK. In fact, most Afro house events we visited had at least one amapiano DJ — and the difference on the dancefloor was clear to see. “The pandemic played a massive role,” Lebo explains. “Every few days there was a new song, and in the UK there was a new popular song every week.”
Silk believes there are lessons to be learned from the amapiano explosion. “Producers should concentrate on becoming an artist, that’s the difference with the amapiano guys. When they’ve got a track they market it, do a video, do press and only then go on to the next track. We don’t.” It’s a point that Saint seems to share. “Dance music doesn’t have the same kind of campaign as we do in the other genres where we are prominent. That’s what leaves us behind in the dance world. That’s what I love about Black Coffee — he would always do a video for everything he released.”
Most of the UK labels that emerged in the first wave of the UK Afro house scene are still here today, but a relative newcomer is Bushman’s WeAreiDyll. Inspired by Kombo and Kitty’s success, the DJ set up his imprint in 2018 with hopes of bringing a jazz and European-infused take on Afro deep tech. “People like Sef and Atjazz pay homage to where the sound came from. I want to follow that and show the same respect, but add my taste to it,” he says.
WeAreiDyll relies on a small team, including T.O.N.E.S founder Trekkah and Optimistic Soul. In many ways, it has managed to crystallise the lessons learned from the first wave. From early on, Bushman placed a huge emphasis on quality control. Every demo that comes his way has to tick four boxes before he green lights it for release.
“The four boxes are: one, does it represent the label and does it come with a detailed description on how they came to produce the track? Two, what’s the artist been doing prior to a release? Do you put in the work yourself as an artist? Three, can this track be played across multiple events and on radio? If it’s not radio friendly, can it be made radio friendly? Four, is their social media up to date? Can they be managed effectively?”
It’s an approach that seems to work; WeAreiDyll releases are on heavy rotation in Black Coffee, Shimza and Kid Fonque sets. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a release that has not charted on Traxsource or Beatport,” he tells us with pride. “And that’s due to the four points and our due diligence.”
Since Drums Radio’s launch in 2017 and Motherland’s relaunch a year later, the UK’s Afro house scene has bolstered its ranks. Parties across London and in other major cities have revived and attracted more DJs to the sound and a key group of UK-based labels continue to promote the works of African electronic music artists. There’s also a growing group of producers, with many working on tracks with artists based in South Africa.
These collaborations not only build networks and pay homage to the pioneers of the sound, they ensure a certain level of quality, avoiding the pitfalls made years earlier. But if Afro house is to become a permanent fixture in the UK underground, many believe it will need to begin forging its own take on the sound. As FOMP label owner Joseph Hines said in a recent Drums Radio-led panel discussion: “We need to try to hone [the sound] on our own. There’s a lot of good producers coming out [but] they’re still sounding like they’re from South Africa, Angola. It’s the music you love, you wanna copy it, but what we need to do now is just tweak it.”
The genres that have flourished in the UK underground, whether they were homegrown (jungle, dubstep, grime), or imported (UK garage, UK drill), have only ever relied on a small, but faithful circle of producers and DJs. They were also hyper regional, allowing artists to co-mingle and communicate a lifestyle. Can Afro house evolve a UK-specific sound in a similar way?
“It’s a long process, but I think UK producers have the tools,” Bushman offers. “As long as people in the UK keep consistent, keep paying homage, keep growing the sound in a way that grows with the SA sound, UK producers will be fine.”
“I’ve got faith in the UK,” Saint replies. “But it needs a strong group of five or 10 people, and it will have to come from the youth, the bedroom producers. That’s where it all comes from.”
For Kombo, presentation remains key. “It’s about taking your craft to the next level where you’re accessible to fans, but you’re also accessible to festivals and bigger events. When you tell your story, that’s how you get your fans.”