Later this week, when Ultra Music Festival kicks off its annual three-day extravaganza in Miami for an estimated 150,000 people, the 2015 festival season will have officially begun. But Miami isn't the first Ultra festival of the year. That honor went to South Africa, which held two back-to-back weekends in February; one in Cape Town and one in Johannesburg. With more than ten festivals around the world, Ultra is very much a well-oiled machine, but that doesn't mean staging an event in the southernmost country in Africa is without its challenges.
"Geographically it's quite challenging for us," says Shaun Duvet, Ultra South Africa's managing director. "We're pretty far from the rest of the world. Our currency isn't fantastic, so when we put on a big show like this, the energy of the country has to get behind it."
Indeed there has never been a better time for electronic music in South Africa. In the late 80s and 90s, South Africa (like the rest of the world) was getting hooked on the raw sounds first coming out of Chicago and then in cities across America. Towards the end of Apartheid in 1994, as South Africans were getting more access to international music and culture, house became an instant favorite, matched only by American hip-hop in its popularity. The best-known varietal of South African house music is probably kwaito, a distinctive electronic style that draw influence from traditional South African rhythms as much as it does Frankie Knuckles.
Two decades after apartheid, even as very few artists have yet to emerge from the country onto the global stage, the scenes at home have thrived. Cape Town, Jo'burg, and Durban have developed their own sounds with their own star artists, with each city known for certain things: Cape Town has a thriving psy-trance community, Jo'burg's techno scene is growing fast, and only in Durban can you find kwaito offshoot known as qgom.
"The beauty of South Africa itself is that we have a very rich and deep understanding of house music and always have," Duvet explains. "The majority of South Africa is black and house music here is an urban sound. In particular deep house music has deep roots in South Africa. It's very much the undercurrent for anybody who's into electronic music and has been for many years."
Just as South African hip-hop draws inspiration from both American and local sources, dance music too has hybridized its sound, creating something original in the process. "We've embraced it in our own way and in our own understanding," says Duvet. "It's hard not to take notice of acts like Axwell and Ingrosso and Hardwell. They've got this massive global reach and so much happening around them, but at the same time we take our own influence and put our own spin on it."
Duvet cites a recent remix of Avicii's "Lay Me Down" by Black Coffee, one of the country's original house DJs and performer at the Johannesburg festival. Two decades into his career, Black Coffee has paved the way for a new generation of South African artists to represent their country's vibrant music scene abroad. Cape Town-based Goldfish, who played both weekends of Ultra South Africa, played a SXSW showcase last week and will appear at Ultra's flagship in Miami this coming weekend. They're rumored to be in talks for US management as well. After five albums at home, Goldfish's newly expanding international success is undoubtedly attributable to the platform Ultra has provided them.
"We take influences from the rest of the world; as a promoter, it's one of the things that has always interested me the most in bringing Ultra to South Africa," says Duvet. "But it's also an opportunity to take South Africa to the rest of the world."
With 11 official languages in South Africa, its homegrown hip-hop might not have high exportability. As a sound far less reliant on lyrics, the country's many styles of dance music have a chance to really break through. It doesn't hurt that the current appetite for deep house in North America and Europe happens to align with South Africa's deep house proclivities.
"South Africa is the biggest purchaser of deep house music per capita in the world. The record sales are massive here," Duvet explains. "Dance music culture and EDM culture has gotten so big over the last six years when America really adopted it properly and blew it up. Having this understanding of house music culture here and watching what was going on around the world led everybody to develop the scene here."
Thanks to the internet, of course, access to music is radically different in 2015 than it was in 1994. Still, a live performance or DJ set can have an impact that downloading a mix or a playlist simply can't. With festivals on five continents, Ultra has positioned itself as a conduit for musical exchange programs across its many markets. In paying attention to its local artists and positioning them alongside global stars like Armin van Buuren and Martin Garrix, the festival is giving a substantial boost to dance music scenes ready to capitalize on added exposure. Duvet says his country is ready for the attention.
"Take a listen," he says. "We've got a voice. We're doing everything we can to be heard. We're proud of who we are and we want to collaborate with the world."