Get To Know Gqom, South Africa’s Slow-Burning Club Music
The Durban-born electronic music style incubated on MP3 sites, file hosting platforms, and Facebook groups.
Last month's System Focus column on emerging African and Afrodiasporic networks featured Angel-Ho, an artist bringing ballroom and other U.S. club flavors of black and gay origin into new and disorienting dimensions. Ho is based in Cape Town on the south-west coast of South Africa, an extremely diverse country with eleven official languages, although many more are spoken by locals. This diversity is deeply bound up with the area's complex and violent history of colonialism and segregation; while the apartheid system ended in the 1990s, it left a legacy of inequality that continues today. As Angel-Ho put it, apartheid “still echoes today in the form of gentrification. Removing bodies from public space has become more psychological than physical.” Yet South African popular music, in its myriad forms—from choral folk group Ladysmith Black Mambazo to madcap rappers Die Antwoord—has played a huge role on the world stage for decades, and today this richly musical country boasts an ecosystem of electronic dance and club sounds that changes, spreads, and develops with an energy that can rival that of just about anywhere else you care to name.
Perhaps the most famous style to have sprung from South African clubs in recent memory is kwaito, a take on house that emerged in the 1990s incorporating a range of more local elements such as folk-inflected singing styles and funky rhythms. But there’s much more going on that that. Back in May, the depth and breadth of the country's dance music cultures was captured in a documentary by filmmaker Lebogang Rasethaba and Johannesburg's multi-genre electronic producer and performer Spoek Mathambo. Titled The Future Sound of Mzansi (byline: “Welcome to the apartheid afterparty”), it was recently uploaded to YouTube by music website Thump in three parts (watch the first below, and other two here.) “Mzansi” is a colloquial name for South Africa deriving from a word in the local Xhosa language (of which Nelson Mandela was one of the most famous speakers), and the film travels through numerous cities and townships to take in “deep house to glitch hop, kwaito-house, township tech, sghubu sapitori; durban qhum, daintily melodic electronica to dubstep; super fast khawuleza and shangaan electro.”
Today, South Africa's electronic multiscene is increasingly shaped by the internet. Since the country's radio stations are often conservative and therefore reluctant to engage with underground sounds, much of the music's dissemination both inside and outside of the country has relied on online platforms. The fast-paced, synth-marimba-embellished Shangaan Electro style from in and around South Africa's northeast province of Limpopo, spearheaded by producer Nozinja and his band the Tshetsha Boys, came to the attention of the global underground around 2010 through YouTube videos depicting the impressive yet playful dance that accompanies that music. A compilation focused around the sound, Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music From South Africa, also appeared in 2010 on London label Honest Jon's, which followed it up with a remix album, Shangaan Shake, in 2012. This year, Nozinja has released his debut solo album, Nozinja Lodge, for none other than Warp Records—as he told The FADER, “without the internet I wouldn't be where I am now.”
Meanwhile, the southeastern coastal city of Durban in the KwaZuluNatal province of South Africa has been incubating a style called gqom for a few years now. It featured in The Future Sound of Mzansi, in which Durban crew Nakedboys were credited with pioneering the genre. It would be difficult to imagine a kind of music more different from Shangaan Electro than gqom is—it’s a slow-burning, minimal and ominous style that’s frequently described as “raw.” Gqom fan Thandolwethu BlaqueMusiq Mseleni—who runs a group on Facebook called Sgubhu and Gqom Lovers out of King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape province—told me that qqom is “house music with broken beats, sliced vocals or chants, high tempo and mostly with no bassline.” The word “gqom,” sometimes expressed as “qgom,” “igqom,” “gqomu” or variants thereof, derives from an onomatopoeic Zulu word signifying a drum, and involves a click of sorts as you simultaneously articulate the g and the q simultaneously (there’s a handy pronunciation guide here). Gqom tracks are very long and harmonically static, often built on single-note or octave string drones, and the rhythmic interest comes in the form of off-beats that are so commanding they often trick your ear into thinking they're on-beats, an effect that imparts a feeling of weightlessness. Despite—or perhaps because of—the static nature of gqom tracks, the build-up as more and more elements are layered on is uniquely exhilarating.
“Gqom is house music with broken beats, sliced vocals or chants, high tempo and mostly with no bassline.”—Thandolwethu BlaqueMusiq Mseleni
IGqomu is the most popular Facebook group dedicated to the genre, and is run by music promoter and blogger VeezyDaGawd and house producer Xtralarge, both based in Durban. “We grew up on it,” Veezy tells me about gqom. “You know, taxis in town or everywhere in and around Durban blasting these songs that had really catchy and funny verses as well as banging hooks. Most people just hear loud bangs but, if you take time to really listen to it, you realize it's more than a created pattern—it's rhythm that syncs with fun. I like it cause it's a really huge crowd favorite in lounges and clubs to get turnt with or get the party sounded.” The pair started IGqomu with the intention of “saluting the house DJs that brought us memory-filled songs but couldn't really get recognized cause the song had been shared so much that by the time you get it it's titled ‘Track 07.’”
Indeed, gqom thrives in labrynthine online networks and treasure troves of mp3s, at the heart of which is the addictive website kasimp3.co.za, meaning “township mp3,” South Africa's teeming equivalent of Bandcamp and Soundcloud. Divided into a number of genres and mostly focusing on club and hip-hop, producers upload mp3s to the site that then enter the site's charts of "Favorites," both on the home page and by genre. Countless more tracks are uploaded to the free file hosting platform Data File Host and linked on social media from popular Facebook groups such as IGqomu, as well as Gqomu Music, Gqom Nation, and the aforementioned Sgubhu and Gqom Lovers. The latter’s Mseleni also has a special WhatsApp group where artists share their music and from which he draws for his Facebook group. All of this makes gqom a discographer's nightmare: not only do files come bundled with confusing and incomplete metadata (artist, title, album, etc), with some of this information potentially doubled in the filename, but kasimp3's own, separate metadata differentiates between “star” and “composer”—begging the question, which one's the producer? And, of course, gqom artists and crews collaborate, feature on and remix each other’s tracks, and acquire new aliases with a vigour that makes European techno look like an awkward Sunday afternoon tea party. Needless to say, although there are dozens of artist pages on kasimp3 and Facebook, you're unlikely to find a nice fat biography or press release for clarification. Nope, South Africa's online underground is chaotic, vast, and not at all for analogue pedestrians.
“We grew up on it. You know, taxis in town or everywhere in and around Durban blasting these songs that had really catchy and funny verses as well as banging hooks.”—VeezyDaGawd
However, like all musics with a local and distinctive flavor that get uploaded to the web, gqom has also attracted the attention of fans outside of South Africa. Recently a Bandcamp label dedicated to gqom, Townshiptech, was set up by a fan called Robbie Noble, who describes himself as being based “somewhere between Cambridge and London.” (He also runs the Shangaanbang label for new Shangaan Electro artists, which has put out works by Da Multi Snake and DJ Mahinya-mahinya, both from Limpopo.) Noble tells me he carries out “social media sleuthing” to find gqom artists to release: “My jumping off-point is always either a Facebook group or page. From there I link hop from profile to profile in search of datafilehost links, connecting with the producers that I'm into.” His search is made harder by “the gqom community's relentless output—untangling who produced an untagged mp3 file, or who has the track stems for a 5-artist collaboration is made even more difficult by the geographical and cultural distance.” Nonetheless, Townshiptech's two EPs to date—DJ Dino's Udino Loh and U-ZET's Soul Groovers, both Durban-grown—are fine examples of the genre. Intakatho Yama Phelimuncasi by Durban trio Phelimuncasi is set to be released next month and takes gqom into the album format, as well as showcasing rap-like vocals. “We wanted to poison the gqom scene,” says Malation from Phelimuncasi on the album’s Bandcamp blurb, before explaining that his crew’s name means “mixing drinks and sipping them until they are finished.”
Lured by what they’ve heard online, other European labels have also taken up the task of sifting through the gqom scene. In June the London-based record-label Goon Club Allstars, also responsible for EPs by the city's production notables Missingno and Moleskin, released a self-titled EP by Durban's Rudeboyz, which includes “Mitsubishi Song,” described by the label as “one of the biggest gqom tracks of 2013” and as having an “unease switching between cascading toms and jolting, stuttering rhythms, cowbells and bird tweets.” The Gqom Oh label is the result of Rome-based DJ and musician Francesco aka Kolè teaming up with South Africa-based Lerato Phiri. “Thanks to her work,” Kolè says of Phiri, “the artists I was interested in had greater trust in a stranger who contacted them from Italy to promote a kind of music that even South African promoters don't want to promote or to enter the club.” Kolè's mix for Insert (below) is a great introduction to the gqom sound. “Gqom is pure fire,” he says. “I define it as the apocalyptic sound of electronic music. Gqom is creepy; it's riot music, it's deep and also very angry.” Gqom Oh has a double LP is on the horizon, but for now there's a sampler featuring three remixes by Durban's Citizen Boy and affiliated crews, featuring reworks of A$AP Ferg, Busta Rhymes, and even Adele, whose voice is unexpectedly turned into a dancefloor dynamo as her words round my hometown turn into rama, ba, ba, ra rama, ba, ba.
“Gqom is pure fire. I define it as the apocalyptic sound of electronic music.”—Kolè
Citizen Boy is one of gqom's most creative producers. Plunge headlong into his kasimp3 uploads (here and here), featuring him and his affiliates, and you'll encounter dozens of weird and wonderful twists on the genre's template. Try the hectic “Spit Fire (Remix),” the ultra-minimal “VH HIT” with its deadpan cuíca hook, the downright evil “Natural Mafias,” the alien skirmish of “Thekwini War (Mafiamix)” or the unholy croaks of “Point Magnet (Dope mix).” There there's “Deep Gqomu," a masterpiece that builds up majestically, its ethereal scales climbing ever skyward. Citizen Boy has labelled the genre of his recent tracks (such as this one) as “Sgubhu” (meaning, simply, “sound”), which is akin to gqom but is more house-like and features busier textures, typically with syncopated snares. Mseleni describes it as a kind of afro house, and points out that it's also known as “iSjokojoko”—there's a great Sgubhu mix by DJ Asinatar on Data File Host here.
Perhaps the best way to engage with South Africa's underground electronic sounds—even if you live there—is to tunnel through the digital thicket yourself, armed only with a taste for crazy hooks and dizzying offbeats. This article can't pretend to have even scratched the surface of it, so now it's up to you. But, as has always been the way with prolific underground sounds, there are those both inside and outside of the scene with passion enough to seek out the juiciest fruit, and these networked elements—be they labels, group admins, bloggers, or simply fans sharing—are just as important as the tunes.