When the South African sound of gqom started reaching international ears last year, it was shrouded in mystery. The mystique matched its dark, electronic vibes, but it also created a disconnect between the artists making it, who hail from the townships surrounding the city of Durban, and the new crowds soaking it up in Europe. Gqom was taking over clubs in the U.K. with little understanding of the context it came from or any involvement with the black youth creating it, leading to accusations of exploitation. It didn’t help that much of the music available online had been uploaded with incomplete or inaccurate details, or that even South Africans from outside the Durban region were unfamiliar with it.
Woza Taxi, which is premiering on The FADER above, is named after Durban’s influential taxi drivers, who blast the music out along their routes while shuttling passengers to parties. Via cab rides through the city and surrounding townships, the documentary takes us to the homes and studios of gqom artists, including Dominowe and DJ Mabheko. We learn about the sound’s growth, beginning with its roots in house music, and are introduced to newer iterations like sgubhu, which incorporates some of the smoother traits of deep house, and core tribe, which is more frenetic and filled with triplets. There's also discussion about the use of drugs in the scene (which the music has gained something of a reputation for in the local press) and the bhenga dance that’s central to gqom, which, like the music, is a steady, slow boil with an emphasis on style.
To get the behind-the-scenes story, I interviewed Nan Kolè, head of Gqom Oh!, over email while he was in London. Below, he speaks on gqom's intense localization, what they’re doing to help support South African artists, and the mixtape his label has released today alongside the documentary.
How long did the documentary take to make?
First of all, I need to give my congratulations to the Crudo Volta team. They did such a great job in such a short space of time — and it’s only two people! [Additionally, Gqom Oh!'s South African label manager] Lerato Phiri and Masego "Mash" Moselane helped them with the zulu translation. It's still pretty unbelievable for me that it took just three months with lots of sleepless nights. I'm so proud of the people who surrounded me for this kind of creative work and production, as realistically you’d need 15 people to work on it. There were only five of us all together.
Is gqom gaining a foothold in other South African areas yet?
Actually, I don't think it has yet. There are some areas with gqom already, but the sounds are pretty different compared to those from Durban and the wider Kwazulunatal region. For example, our Gqom Oh! crew Cruel Boyz from Mdtsane, Eastern Cape, have quite a different sound to the other producers. You can notice the difference in their productions compared to producers from Durban.
What’s gqom’s relation to kwaito, the South African house music style?
It's strange because from the beginning a lot of blogs and journalists — mainly from Europe and the U.S. — were talking about the relationship with kwaito, but there really isn’t a lot of kwaito around the Durban townships. Kwaito is more popular in Johannesburg. I don’t think kwaito is the sound of the new generation. Their's is more of a hybrid between the music their parents listened to and the newer sounds coming from Durban. A lot of people also say that the origin of gqom came from experimenting with kwaito and sampling chopped voices and sounds, which were then pitched down with some reverb. The main thing though that separates gqom and kwaito is that there is the use of this kick that sounds like "gqom gqom gqom," which is meant to blow your speakers.
You've released the Woza Mixtape today to coincide with the documentary. How did you come up with the track selection?
The majority of these songs on the mixtape were the ones which we listened to in the houses of the producers in Durban on our trip out there. Some others I already had on my computer from a while ago, and while we listened to them out in the car, it just made perfect sense to fit them in, as they triggered some emotions for myself, Lerato Phiri, and the Crudo Volta team.
Could any of the tracks be labeled sgubhu?
On this release, the only sort of sgubhu track is “Blow My Mind” by Forgotten Souls, and in all honesty, it’s not really that much of a sgubhu track. We’re keeping all of the sgubhu for our next vinyl release, which we will be dropping in the coming months. For this release, we decided to push out more of the core tribe sound, which is based on triplets and is a bit faster and more radical. It’s sort of an extreme gqom.
Are any of the mixtape's tracks local hits?
Yes, there are quite a few. But the amount of producers in Durban is huge. The sheer amount of tracks is quite unbelievable, and the quantity of them going around the taxis is so high that the hits changes frequently.
What's defined as a hit in Durban gqom?
It all depends on the dancers' reactions. Also, taxis have an important role in the game. If the taxi drivers play your tunes, then that can become a hit very quickly, especially in their specific area. There are hits in every kasi or township.
Is the sound better in the taxis than at the parties?
Yes, in a way. It's more compressed in the taxi because they have powerful sound systems with huge subwoofers, especially the ones that go to South Beach. The main test for a track is through the taxi, and it’s also the promo tool. If you have a taxi driver friend out there, then it’s sort of a blessing for getting your music out.
How has Gqom Oh! been able to help gqom artists financially?
Firstly, we got all the artists signed with contracts, and then we brought them to register the songs at SAMRO [the South African copyrights association for music], so now they can get money from radio plays from all over the world. Also, as a record label, we can send money directly to them from our sales, as everybody knows that free downloads are the worst thing for the music business. And with the exposure that they are receiving they can get local gigs; we have had some good press for a couple of our artists.
And finally, what do gqom producers use to make their music?
I think it’s just Fruity Loops and DIY samples. Most of the time they don’t even have keyboards or controllers. It was really an amazing experience to see these guys in their home studio. To see how they produce gqom, and how they live, and the whole creative process. How this music brings them closer together with their friends and crews, not only just to create a track, but also to dance together.