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Interview: Aymos Brings Soulful Vocals and Substance to Amapiano

South African vocalist Aymos aims to bridge the gap between Afro-pop and amapiano.

The lyrics that sum up how amapiano has taken over the South African nightlife go: "'Piano, 'piano, asisalali emakhaya ngenxa yakho" (which directly translates to: "'piano, 'piano, we no longer sleep at home because of you"). The line, sung by Aymos, personifies the genre and can be heard on the anthem by the super duo Scorpion Kings (DJ Maphorisa and Kabza De Small), "eMcimbini."

"At that time, I was still new to the amapiano scene," says Aymos over the phone, as he recalls what was on his mind when he recorded "eMcimbini". "I had just met DJ Maphorisa, and he had asked me to come to the studio. I wanted to prove to them (Scorpion Kings) that I was good for this, I wanna work. I didn't wanna mess up the opportunity because it was one of my biggest opportunities to be in the mainstream industry and I felt like I really needed to impress them."

He further details how the song was inspired by the current generation and "ama 2000" (people born in and/or after the year 2000), including his own sister who had sneaked out to go partying and did not sleep at his home the weekend the song was recorded.

Having started singing at church and in a school choir, Aymos hasn't always been a dance/house vocalist. In fact, his single "Zaka" was an Afro-pop song before getting remixed by Mas Musiq, Kabza De Small and DJ Maphorisa to become a 'piano hit that has amassed over two million views on YouTube.

Born Amos Babili Shili, in the Joburg township of Thembisa (formerly Tembisa), the 24-year-old musician has been trying to break into the music industry for years. After introducing music at his high school and achieving some success with the school's choir, he started being a sessionist and vocalist for local house deejays while releasing his own music, to not much acclaim. He was on the brink of giving up on music when Mas Musiq came to his house to ask for the "Zaka" vocals after discovering the song on YouTube.

eMcimbini (feat. Aymos, Samthing Soweto, Mas Musiq, Myztro) www.youtube.com

At first, he didn't like amapiano and the idea of his song getting remixed, but he quickly realised he had nothing to lose. "Within three hours after I had handed the vocals to him, the song was already all over Instagram. People were crazy about it," Aymos remembers. "But the thing is, I was so annoyed at that time and I thought these guys have ruined my song, I couldn't even follow my own lyrics because it was so fast."

After seeing the response from fans and how much they liked the amapiano version, Aymos figured that he could bring something different to the genre—he set out to "add the soul, bring meaningful lyrics with a message onto amapiano beats."

This sentiment is often evident and is echoed in his music, songs like "Bambelela", "Ub'Ukhona" and "Bathethelele", speak on perseverance, gratitude and forgiveness; with an underlying spirituality theme, which is uncommon ground in most amapiano songs. The timbre of Aymos' voice and his songwriting ability add a harmonious texture to dance music.

Read: Interview: Sha Sha Emerges From Featured Artist to Take Centre Stage

"I write the music the same way as I did with Afro-pop, it's just that now, what I've done is slightly different, it's just adding a gimmick and repetition here and there," he explains. However, he understands that the casual amapiano fan does not necessarily want conscious lyrics. "They just want to dance and have fun," he says.

Whether it's chant-like call-and-responses or melodic singing, vocalists have also played a part in the commercial success of amapiano. Before the incorporation of vocals, the genre was seen as "underground" and regional. It would take the addition of vocals for national radio and TV to pick up songs that later became national hits. When asked if he feels like vocalists are as recognised as amapiano producers, he says: "Honestly, producers and deejays are well recognised more than everyone; more than us vocalists and sessionists." He stresses how music is a collaborative effort and everyone involved contributes towards making it, but somehow the people that get recognised the most are producers and deejays, which he feels is not fair.

Mas Musiq & Aymos - Bambelela (Official Music Video) ft. DJ Maphorisa, Kabza De Small youtu.be

In April this year, Shili released a collaborative EP with his frequent collaborator deejay and producer Mas Musiq, titled Shonamalanga, as part of a series of drops which saw Maphorisa's label, Blaq Boy Music release six projects in 24 hours. The two Thembisa natives understand each other, are on the same wavelength musically and often perform together at gigs.

"I purely want quality. I want the music to make me happy and fulfil me first, because I understand that I will have to perform whatever I do in the studio," he proclaims. "Mas Musiq gives me time and allows me to write as long as it takes. Sometimes I will take hours until I feel like I'm wasting his time, and he always tells me not to worry. And the more time he gives me to write, the more creative I become, you know, because I don't feel pressured."

Aymos is one of the few artists that are building a bridge as amapiano travels and reaches some parts of the world —producers in different regions are adopting and incorporating the sound. At the top of the year, the Thembisa-born vocalist collaborated with Ghana-UK based producer Juls on "Tembisa", a song he regards as one of his favourite collaborations yet, along with "Potential" (with DJ C-Live and Gobi Beast) and "Ub'Ukhona" (with Mas Musiq and Sha Sha).

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"When Juls came here, he made it clear that he wanted me to be myself. That on its own gave me room to express myself the best way I know how. It gave me courage to keep on feeding people who I am as opposed to giving them what I think they would love to hear. It comes easy when you are being yourself," he proudly says.

Music runs in Shili's blood as he expresses on "Isegazini" with Moonchild Sanelly and Theology HD, a collaboration that came about as part of a challenge by Red Bull to get artists to collaborate virtually and create a song in 72 hours, during the lockdown in May. He initially prepared a variety of lyrics for the session, but ended up not using any of them, and had to write something new, resulting in him spending 12 hours in the studio recording the song.

As much as he is well-known for being an amapiano and house music vocalist, the singer-songwriter is finally ready to show people what else he has to offer musically with his forthcoming project titled Yimi Lo ("this is me").

"I am not subject to a certain genre of music, I can literally do anything that I feel comfortable doing. I will give and serve people with all I know, all I've been meaning to give them all these years. I have included Afro-pop and amapiano songs," he reveals.

Aymos has founded his own label, Vibe Content and is set to drop two singles "Matla" (with Zakes Bantwini) and "iParty Yam" (with Kabza De Small), leading up to Yimi Lo which will follow in early 2021.

Stream Aymos and Mas Music's collaborative EP Shonamalanga on Apple Music and Spotify.

Follow Aymos on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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