Cult Music: Gqom

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Leland Music's new feature series Cult Music focuses on obscure sub-genres its team members have become obsessed with, starting with gqom from Durban, SA
Cult Music: Gqom

There’s something special about stumbling upon a track you love which is a bit different from anything you’ve heard, then finding out it’s part of an obscure sub-genre with a seemingly inexplicable name from a very specific part of the world. The mission then, is to delve deeper into the geography, history and etymology of that sub-genre to sate our thirst for context.

Our new ‘Cult Music’ feature will focus on these mini-musical movements – musical scenes that one or other of our team has spent probably too much time listening to at some point in their lives. And the first instalment comes from Max Beattie.

 

I’m focusing on a dance sub-genre out of Durban, South Africa called ‘gqom’. Yep, you didn’t hear it right. Western spelling doesn’t really do justice to the way it is pronounced, which is a low click for the ‘gq’, followed by a guttural ‘om’. Derived from the local Zulu language, the colloquialism means ‘drums’ and literally translates rather onomatopoeically as ‘noise’ or ‘bang’.


What does gqom sound like? I was drawn to its extremely raw DIY sound and aggressive broken beat percussion. One can draw similarities to certain club sub-genres from the UK and US such as instrumental grime (Mumdance and Logos), UK funky (Roska) and Jersey club/ballroom (MikeQ), all of which I was slightly obsessed with at the time. These Western genres have all crossed over at some point or influenced each other, while interestingly gqom claims to have forged its own evolutionary path and that it is only by chance these genres have converged in style. Of course gqom possesses simple elements that set it apart, the most prevalent being its low synth drone, which creates a unique brooding hypnotic atmosphere. Breathy vocal stabs and the aforementioned off-kilter beat are also important characteristics associated with the genre, and topped off with the unmistakable sound of Africa it makes for a truly unique and gripping listen.

 
Where did gqom come from? There are rumours that it started bubbling up in 2012, possibly evolving from an old genre called Sgxumseni (which means ‘make us jump’). Others say it was born as early as 2005 through DJ Kaybee. What we can be sure of is that it came from the townships of Durban where the technical skills and equipment required to make populist Kwaito House were absent, so instead the DIY primal gqom was born with the help of digital audio workstations like Fruity Loops.

South African radio stations are highly commercial, so the chance of an underground artist making it onto a station, thus spreading the sound, is almost impossible without connections. This is where the Woza Taxi comes in. Where cab companies were competing for customers, especially in the party hours, an arms race to kit out the minibuses with the best speakers ensued. The kids were into gqom, so a culture of blasting it out of taxis’ excessive speakers help spread the sound over Durban and into the clubs. Watch this great mini-documentary on the phenomenon and learn how to pronounce the word itself!

 

How did gqom get here? Luckily, word eventually got out about this Durban-cultivated swirling self-perpetuating environment. A culture of uploading tracks to file sharing sites like Kasimp3 created a burgeoning mass of mixed quality Gqom and untapped source of fresh authentic club music. Enter label imprint, Gqom OH!, set up by Italian DJ/producer Nan Kole and South African Lerato Phiri. One of their A&R techniques is to mine these types of sites to garner gqom bangers for their periodical compilations (example below).


And the knock on effect continues thanks to usual suspect, the Internet. UK underground club music guru and head of legendary record label Hyperdub, Kode9, started showcasing gqom in his sets, no doubt in part down to the legitimising distribution of Gqom OH!. British producer Mumdance, a personal favourite, naturally incorporated it into his sets also, declaring “It puts a very specific mood in a room when you play it. I feel gqom is resonating with a UK audience as it harnesses a similar feeling to grime, while coming from an entirely different and completely independent angle.” Bizarrely, despite the genre making it all the way to London clubs, the sound is yet to make an impression in the rest of South Africa, likely due to the highly commercialised nature of radio there.

Nonly did gqom make it into London clubs, it made it onto London record label releases. Goon Club Allstars, most well known within the underground for the hugely hyped MssingNo release back in 2013, signed gqom production collective Rudeboyz for a single EP release. Felix from the label describes his compulsion to release gqom like so: “I haven't really put much thought into it, in the same way I didn't really think that much about the MssingNo EP. This is just that good shit, and I wanted to put the world up on to it. A part of me didn't want to see these tracks become lost classics - they really deserve to be on vinyl.” Goon Club Allstars have since followed up with another Rudeboyz EP and two more EPs from the 'King of Gqom', DJ Lag.      

So has gqom maintained its trajectory into the hearts and minds of young Londoners today? This was demonstrated to me personally when on an unassuming Tuesday night last week I aimlessly wandered into my local bar/club for a quick drink and there he was, the boy king himself, DJ Lag, playing to a packed room of enthusiastic punters through live-streamed Boiler Room-esque night Keep Hush. It was at that moment that the story and sound of gqom, for me, went from a purely digital and almost mythical space to something very physical and visceral.


Max Beattie is a Music Researcher at Leland Music.

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Leland Music, 1 year ago