Though the South African techno scene is still in its infancy, the house scene has been a hallmark of its nightlife and musical history. With a variety of unique sub-genres springing up nationwide, the modern rhythms of house music owe a lot to South Africa. With this, many international artists have spent time soaking up the inspiration the country has to offer – and for those who felt a particularly strong connection, it has become a place for regular return.
One such artist who has experienced the country’s many faces of electronic music is Dutch producer, DJ and promoter Bas Amro. He has been frequenting both Johannesburg and Cape Town since the early 2000s and has naturally garnered a deep understanding of the local electronic scene. Although his formative years were primarily focused on house music, his artistic development over the years has seen him explore a more diverse palette. As such, in his most recent visit to the country he was given a taste of the bourgeoning techno scene that was barely existent during some of his earlier visits. As a promoter himself he has had first hand experience in witnessing the interesting shift taking place on a global scale.
With a unique, first-hand perspective of the South African and Dutch scenes, he answered a few questions about how these two distant parts of the world share many similarities but remain vastly different with their approach to dance music and nightlife.
Historically, South Africans and the Dutch have had a fascinating relationship. We wont go into that, however it is interesting to note this because culturally there are still numerous exchanges that exist between the two populations. Having experienced both demographics in a personal and professional capacity, do you feel that the South African music scene has noticeably evolved and are partygoers developing their tastes?
It seems that way as far as I can tell. I think the scene in South Africa was smaller when I first came in 2013. At the time, it was more about a handful of good DJs, a handful of good events and a loyal crowd that could be found at most of them. These days there seem to be more relevant events competing with one another, which is generally a good thing.
Also, I feel like there are more DJs getting bigger than before. What’s interesting to me is that the crowds seem slightly more diverse. You will find them going to different events and exposing themselves to different styles. That usually means they are people who are taking a deeper interest in the music.
Do you feel that South Africa has the potential to become more of a global hotspot for nightlife culture much like some its European counterparts? What are some of things driving it in a positive direction and what are some of the things holding it back?
I do think South Africa has that potential, although it depends on what you mean by ‘global hotspot’. For example, the scene in Tokyo seems to be amazing and it’s been like that for a long time now, but you still only see big artists getting invited to play there – and similarly only their big artists come to Europe. So it still feels very secluded.
Europe has several scenes that are very relevant, and they are located close to one another. Barcelona is closer to Amsterdam than Cape Town is to Johannesburg. Europe is a concentrated hub of electronic music scenes. This makes it much easier for promoters to learn from other events, for artists to reach new audiences and thus for fans to be exposed to new music. In other words, I don’t think other scenes can get very close to the way things are in Europe, unfortunately. South African promoters have to deal with high travel expenses to get an artist in the country. Fans rely on local promoters to serve some quality, but promoters also need to make sure that the artist they book actually sells tickets. Partygoers can’t simply get on a train and find their favourite artists in their favourite clubs elsewhere. However, this isn’t entirely a bad thing.
I do see the South African scene, and Johannesburg’s in particular, as a really unique one with it’s own identity. Everything from the way promoters host their events, to the way DJs play, to the way the people party is different there and that’s awesome – it’s very refreshing. I guess determined and dedicated promoters are what’s going to get the South African scene to the next level. They can get the artists down, they can introduce their fans to new artists and music and they have the potential to build or destroy a scene. Luckily, for as far as I can tell, there are some really great and dedicated promoters doing great things at the moment.
When speaking to DJs about the Dutch scene, many criticize the overwhelming summer festival culture as one that degrades the strength of the club scene. This is not dissimilar to the situation in a place like Cape Town. What are your feelings on this? Do you see the negative effects of festivals or do you think it is being managed correctly (in both Holland and South Africa)?
To be honest, I never thought about the negative effects of festivals on the club scene because I was never really involved in running a club. But yes, the Dutch festival market is extremely saturated and nobody can deny that. Though in general, especially when considering upcoming scenes, I would say that the festivals help build this scene. Festivals have bigger budgets so they can get big artists on the bill while offering exposure to upcoming local artists. I can imagine there are negative effects on clubs because attendees have to manage their spending, but I think the benefits of festivals are still much more significant.
Much like in Holland you will find differences in scenes within the country (i.e. Rotterdam is different to Amsterdam and Amsterdam is different to Nijmegen), in South Africa you also find differences between Johannesburg and Cape Town for example. What are some of the differences that you noticed and how do you think we can work to bridge the gap between the two?
In Johannesburg I feel like I’m in a different country on a dance floor where things are done differently, and it’s really great. The Cape Town dance floor feels a lot like Europe to me, and it seems quite ‘upper-class’. Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen, but it was only later that I found out that I haven’t really seen the ‘real’ Cape Town yet.
Visitors from other countries go from the airport to Table Mountain, the Waterfront and Cape Point, so of course they fall in love. But that is only a small section of the city and it barely represents the people and the state of affairs. I don’t want to get too political, partially because this goes way beyond the house and techno scene, but perhaps there is a way to make these kinds of events accessible for all classes. Some diversity on the dance floor, in the broadest sense, is lovely.
In Enschede you and your team run the well-established Basic Grooves parties. As one of the smaller, lesser-known areas in The Netherlands, what are some of the difficulties with throwing events and getting people interested in quality underground music?
You know, a lot of people see the lack of a vivid scene as an obstacle, but it is actually more of an opportunity in my opinion. At least you can do something new; you can add something that isn’t already there. You just have to be prepared to compromise in the beginning. Obviously we all want to invite our favourite DJ to come and play, but chances are that not a lot of people know the name.
Sometimes you need to go out of your way to book slightly more ‘popular’ artists that you might not prefer for the sake of gaining the trust of your audience so you can book your underground favourites in the future. This is basically what we did. We always booked quality house and techno artists, but many of them weren’t personal favourites. However, nowadays we are like kids in a candy store! We can book DJ Nobu and the place is sold out!
People often think that the grass is greener on the other side, particularly in South Africa where many talented local artists aim to eventually move to Europe. Do you think this is justified, or do you see more value in trying to build your own scene?
It really depends on your perspective. Looking at what’s good for the local scene, there is definitely more value in a good artist staying around to help push things to the next level in the community. However, on a personal level I think everybody deserves to reach his or her potential. So people tend to go where the opportunities are. A rocket scientist will move to Florida, a fashion designer will move to Paris, a web developer will move to Silicon Valley and a DJ will move to Berlin. It’s a bit corny, but nevertheless true.
Listen to Bas’s remix for Marco V’s ‘Simulated’ below: