Gqom Oh! – The Sounds of Durban

There’s a new sound emanating out of South Africa that has found favour with European audiences and we have to be seriously careful how we approach it. It could easily fall through the cracks in the way of forgotten trends like Electro Chaabi and Shangaan if we don’t handel it with care. It’s the “sound of a rock hitting the tiles” say its creators, an accurate description of the sound of the music, but the ideas that inform it are far more delicate than that and if we merely appreciate it for it’s kitsch exoticism it can easily be forgotten in the waves of other kitsch European trends that get paged over everyday in the British media. It’s called Gqom and Gqom Oh! – The sound of Durban is a new compilation, which intends to celebrate this new music, but might have inadvertently doomed it in the process. Right from the onset, the creators of the compilation connect the music with its origins before you even get to the music. In the gatefold LP a somewhat hyperbolic explanation of the new genre greets you immediately before you even get to the ululating vocal sample that acts like the introduction to the compilation on Africa’s Cry by Dominowe. The write-up attempts to attach a political significance where one might not exist and if we do approach the music with this subjective opinion in mind, the music might last no longer than the time it takes to get through the first song. Because for the most part this music speaks a universal language informed by club music and those small references to the culture its tied to, like Cruel Boyz’ lo-fi marimba in Umeqo Emacqomini, should be appreciated like the two-step beat in Garage. Gqom is an independent music that, although informed by its environment like any other genre, is in no way a particularly cultural music. It is in fact rather more like Grime.

But Gqom, which has been around since 2012 as far as I can tell is no way related to the British musical culture and like UK Funky and the Kwaito-influenced House of Township Funk, the two genres exist independently of each other, with few Gqom artists ever coming across Grime until very recently. Gqom shares similarities with the London-based genre in the way it’s constructed around a minimalist sonic landscape with irregular dance percussion patterns crashing over heavy bass modulations that lie in the darker corners of dance music’s temperament. But unlike Grime it relies more on progressive musical forms than the immediacy of quick successive phrases like its UK counterpart. House music and Kwaito inform Gqom rather than Grime’s bass origins and where Grime stomps, Gqom saunters adamantly.

The Formation Boys remix of Forgotten Soul’s Hhaibo is a shining example of this in practise. Through it, Gqom appears to take elements of Kwaito and transpose them to extended House progressions, relying on repetitive loops that stay the course, stubbornly with very little change affecting the sum of their parts. It’s music very much born from the dance floor with its roots firmly ingrained in the party scene that bore the genre and the dance trend that accompanied it, Bhenga. As such very little gets in the way of the percussive beat and when a melody appears, its fleeting and unimpressive, a mere brief distraction for those that might be fatigued by the ever-pounding sporadic rhythms that form the core of each track. There’s minimalist foundation to it all and very little clouds the focus on the percussive rhythms, with the only harmonic movement coming from the over-reaching sustained drones of crude metallic synthesisers pushed all the way to the back, where they loiter around the empty space between the beats. It’s in the percussive rhythms that Gqom OH! is at it’s most impressive. These producers find new and striking methods of musical expression through little more than a kick drum and pitched toms and would leave most Trap producers wanting. You’d have to go no further than the third track in and Emo Kid’s IYona to get a taste of this element of Gqom at its best. The artists on Gqom Oh! have an intrinsic knowledge of the percussive rhythm in which its practical application is transformed into an artistic device and alongside the sinister nature of the accompanying elements, they often appear menacing in nature, something label owner and compiler Nan Kolé describes as “the troubled history of South Africa” and “riot music”, which is a bit of a problem.

It feels like a bit of a stretch of the imagination to relate this music to South Africa’s political present, never mind its past, since it’s music born out of something of a hedonistic clubbing scene, but one can’t deny the mysterious air that clouds the music. Although it may give rise to a broader political discussion in an academic rhetoric about the social conditions in which this music arose, the music’s practical applications are much stronger than that and it should be appreciated as such. Gqom is underground dance music with only that one purpose in mind. It will function well in the UK’s inner Grime circles, much like Electro Chaabi did before it, but to appreciate it as such, Europeans must refrain from their predisposition of their exotic language and appreciate it for it’s practical applications, otherwise, like Electro Chaabi, Shangaan Electro and Kwaito house before it, it will not outlive its initial impression and like those genres, it could be resigned to the where-are-they-now list if we’re not careful. But unlike those genres, Gqom stands a real chance, because there’s very little to imply any cultural exoticism other than the name, and although this compilation might put a little too much emphasis on that culturally kitsch values of the music, the artist that appear on the release certainly have more of an universal quality in their music, than somebody like DJ Mujava or Nozinja might have had. Artists like Citizen Boy and Emo Kid’s appeal could have more of a lasting effect, similar to that of an artist like Spoek Mathambo or Black Coffee, if they are not only seen as South African artists, but artists giving something unique to the world through music. For Gqom to survive and the artists to be propelled to the heights of their European counterparts working in Grime, it can’t simply be known as the “sound of Durban”, because much more than that Gqom is the sound of a new innovation in dance music, one that should be acknowledged for that fact more than anything else.