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Soundtrack of the Townships: Gqom

Some call it a hybrid of breakbeat and house, some call it «apocalyptic riot music». But for the producers from the townships of Durban, South Africa, Gqom is more than a clubmusic style.

Rudeboyz. Credit: Rudeboyz

It feels like being dragged into a black hole. A single low-pitched string sound is steadily, ominously and threatening hovering in the background. It is creating an eerie atmosphere, a thick and somewhat physical perceptible veil that is set swinging by stumbling kick drums and develops a strangely light and floating movement which at the same time is raw and fiercely pushing. This contradictory dynamic is characteristic and special about a yet young genre of electronic dance music evolving out of the townships of Durban which is also causing a stir in Europe: Gqom.

The Zulu word «Gqom», the combination of g and q articulated with a click made with the tongue (can be heard here) [1], means either «drum», «noise», «bucket» or «music». Sometimes the term is also explained as an onomatopoeic equivalence to the noise of a stone falling on a floor tile. This stands for the raw sound with its repetitive and hypnotizing drum rhythm in its centre. Gqom music is not about feel-good harmonies, it is about trance. Pioneering producers like 21-years-old DJ Lag or 26-years-old Sbucardo also describe Gqom as «3-Step». Though giving a four-to-the-floor-feeling, Gqom tracks don’t have bass drums on each of the beats. Instead, three kicks are pulsating in the straight construction. Hopping and shuffling at the same time, polyrhythms are creeping out of the speakers backed by shouts and other vocal samples as well as a wide range of percussion and eerie synthesizer sounds.

«Townships Are Party Nations»

Around 2012 the sound of Gqom had arisen in the coastal town Durban in the eastern part of South Africa. It took about two years until it got wider attention in Europe, especially in Great Britain. With its rhythmic structure between house music and breakbeat it goes well with the archive of UK Rave history from Techno to Jungle to Grime and UK Funky. So it’s little wonder that it was London-based label Goon Club All Stars which released an EP by Rudeboyz from Durban last year. The trio, Andile-T, Menchess and Masive Q, later proudly presented the first ever vinyl containing Gqom music on photos they shared via social media. It seems kind of ironic that in that way the music has been quasi-reimported from England to South Africa and shows one thing amongst others: Gqom is still not as recognized at the place where it is created as abroad.

Gqom is referred to as music from townships, the ghetto areas created by the Apartheid regime in South Africa in order to cement racist segregation. Most of the producers who are making Gqom today are male, how the words «boy» or «boyz», used in a lot of pseudonyms, show. A lot of them are living in townships around Durban, where the genre is thriving. According to Rudeboyz, who I contacted via e-mail as well as the other protagonists cited in this feature, this is due to the social atmosphere in those areas. They are writing that a lot of different people are coming together while music is always present and nobody is complaining about noise. «Townships come alive on weekends in party spirit. Having people’s houses turned into night clubs and taverns bars, which have been booming since the 2000s, make people stay in townships and not travel to the city. Townships are party nations.»

Running to Music to Change Lives

Still, also today the consequences of the racist politics take effect. «There are a lot of challenges as black youth», writes DJ Lag. «We all know that we have been through apartheid and it has been 21 years since the democracy of South Africa has been established and to be honest, a lot has not changed. The issues of poverty, unemployment and lack of funds to go to attend college or university are a problem in this country. And that influences me to run to music and Gqom.»

DJ Lag’s path to music seems exemplary considering a statement by Keorapetse Mefane alias Khura. He established the booking agency Boldpage Entertainment to create local infrastructures and help producers, alongside like-minded activists like DJ Lag or Cherish LaLa Mankai, a self-employed public relations consultant, events curator and artist personal manager. «Most of these guys come from very unfortunate backgrounds that are embroiled by crime, poverty and lack of proper education and when I say proper education, I mean going to college or university and study a proper course that will change their lives», Mefane writes.

«These boys run to music and these ones who managed to get laptops and start experimenting with music software are the lucky ones. These boys need to know that this craft has a potential to change their lives positively. And I believe through music we can make our communities better. If these boys can be guided and taken care of, they will be the role models of tomorrow and those who are coming after them, they will have a better paved path.» It is also about enabling to make a living doing music in the present.

Many Gqom tracks are spread via Whatsapp and uploaded to platforms like Data File Host or Kasimp3 [4] where they are freely available. Officially Kasimp3 gives uploaders a share of its advertising revenues. But, according to Mefane, these payments often fail and with them the opportunity for the producers to get something in return for their music. Their tracks might get spread and perhaps even popular, but in the end it does not change much in the lives of the DJs and producers at the moment.

From South Africa to Europe: Gqom Oh!

However, platforms like Kasimp3 played a big role in broadening the interest in Gqom and provided first access for diggers like Francesco Cucchi alias Nan Kolè, who started the label Gqom Oh! together with Lerato Phiri and runs it with label manager Craig Pugnetti in London. Earlier this year, the label has released «Gqom Oh! The Sound of Durban», the first extensive compilation of Gqom on a European label. The rough and raw sound, which is also a side-effect of the simplicity of the production methods, together with the powerful and gloomy atmosphere is what fascinates the DJ and label owner about Gqom. It is «apocalyptic riot music», music, which expresses the longings of the kids and young people from the townships for change. «It’s not a political movement or political music per se but it’s really just these teenagers trying to describe what they’re living through, which is quite hard for us to imagine», writes Cucchi. «But I feel that their music perfectly describes it.»

With help from Lerato Phiri, who lives in South Africa, Cucchi got in touch with the producers who contributed to the compilation «Gqom Oh! The Sound of Durban», The second release was a collaboration with Crudo Volta, a Rome-based collective which runs a community radio station and also produces videos about music and DJ culture. When Cucchi travelled to South Africa back in April to personally meet the producers who contributed to the compilation for the first time, they filmed some impressions and produced a short film called Woza Taxi, which means «Come Taxi».

It makes sense to refer to a Taxi in the title of something that documents the Gqom scene of Durban, if you think of the important role of the cars and drivers for the musical life in the city. «If a track is being played in a taxi, you should know that your track is a hit», explains DJ Lag. «Because taxis are a symbol of dancing mood, especially taxis that work in the heart of Durban. And taxis actually are the heart of Durban especially in promoting Gqom music.» The documentary Woza Taxi comes with the compilation «Gqom Oh! X Crudo Volta Mixtape – Gqom special stash out of the locations». Like the previous release it assembles music from various producers like Dominowe, Julz Da Deejay or Mafia Boyz and their takes on Gqom but also on related styles like Core Tribe and Sghubu which share the minimalistic approach and eerie atmosphere as well as the omnipresent floating and vibrating string sound.

This second release on Gqom Oh! as well as a forthcoming release by DJ Lag for Goon Club All Stars have the potential to raise even more interest for Gqom especially in Europe. But also if the music will get played at more parties, for the producers and their supporters in Durban it is about more. It should not be a fast-moving genre that disappears from the screens again after a short-lived hype. They want to establish Gqom as a culture that does not only create a stir in Europe but also gets recognized at home in South Africa. Also with regard to finances so that they can make a living producing music and are able to change some things in their lives – if they wish.

Various Artists: «Gqom Oh! The Sound Of Durban» (Gqom Oh!)
Various Artists: «Gqom Oh! X Crudo Volta Mixtape – Gqom special stash out of the locations» (Gqom Oh!) will be released with the film «Woza Taxi» on July 18.
DJ Lag: «DJ Lag EP» (Goon Club Allstars), forthcoming

A slightly different version of this text was published first in german in the newspaper taz and can be found here [6].