Gqom – a dark and hypnotic club sound from Durban, South Africa – is the latest sensation in the lineage dedicated to the drum and the dancefloor; its palette of stripped-back rhythms, demanding tom rolls, driving Zulu chants and spooky strings and pads standing in stark contrast to the sunny melodies and soulful vibes that one often associates with South African house. The name gqom itself means something like “bang” or “ricochet” – pronounced with a Zulu tongue click at the beginning followed by a throaty “om,” the word itself mimics the sound of a kick drum hitting.
Similar to how grime was birthed from UK garage and footwork derived from ghetto house in Chicago, gqom is an evolution of homegrown South African deep house and the local hip-hop/house fusion known as kwaito. “Tribal house was creating a lot of change in South Africa around 2011,” recalls DJ Lag, a gqom producer from Durban’s Clermont township. “Guys like Culoe De Song, Nakedboys and Blaq Soul were doing a really great job mixing more traditional music with house. [Their music had] a lot of drumming and some ghost trance and Zulu vocals that they recorded from the villages. I just wanted to join the type of genre that they were doing but we ended up doing something else with guys like Rudeboyz and Distruction Boyz. It was broken beats. Nobody knew what we were doing but it eventually became gqom.”
At the moment, the signature gqom sound – like that of “Mitsubishi Song” by Rudeboyz’s Menchess – is a haunted groove built out of drawn-out synth drones, cascading tom and snare rolls and elements like chants or whistles. It often sounds like a continuous build-up with the menace of a drop that never comes, combining the trance-inducing, repetitive feel of the darkest tech-house with a spaciousness and tension akin to grime and early dubstep – Kode9 likened it to “being suspended over the gravitational field of a black hole.” (Like grime, most gqom is made on cracked copies of FruityLoops software). “[It] feels like it implies a 4/4 that it doesn’t actually contain, or that was there but has been rubbed out largely,” writes Simon Reynolds on his Energy Flash blog, likening the sound to “the most mechanistic posthuman clanking-grinding sort of tribal house tunes Danny Tenaglia might have played in the mid-’90s around about 3 AM.”
The reference to Miami’s favorite house DJ Danny Tenaglia seems oddly fitting since Durban is a bit like the Miami of South Africa. A beach town with similar weather to South Florida, it also has a South Beach and a North Beach strip, both lined with parties that go into the next day and morning raves known as “morning bhengs.” With an all-night party culture comes drugs, and ecstasy-like pills – which go by names like qoh, Mitsubishi, Mercedes, data and music – are popular, influencing gqom track titles, its homegrown bhenga dance (the moves of which sometimes resemble Jersey Club dances) and, some say, the music itself. (Durban, like South Florida, is also having a zombie drug epidemic; theirs is around “whoonga,” a smoked street drug made from some various combinations of heroin, rat poison, powdered detergent and antiretroviral HIV drugs.) As Miami bass or crunk rap is to South Florida, gqom is the sound of Durban’s parties and, quite literally, its streets – due to the South African phenomenon of giving the latest tunes to taxi drivers as a means of promotion. (Watch Woza Taxi, an awesome documentary from Rome’s Gqom Oh! label and Crudo Volta Radio, to find out more.)
Still, as Ashoo Rampersad, the owner of Durban’s gqom epicenter Club 101, told Mixmag, the music of township parties is often not welcomed in the city clubs. “The music has certain associations and brings with it certain behaviors,” he says. “Other club owners feel like gqom music doesn’t fit in with the culture of their club. It comes from poor townships, and is played on public transport used by the poor. It’s associated with drugs and violence. It is not associated with wealth or glamour.”
The music is at an interesting place right now, with more pop-oriented gqom hits – such as Target & Ndile’s “Umthwalo Wami” and “first lady of gqom” Babes Wodumo’s infectious summer anthem “Wololo” (nominated for Song of the Year 2016 by MTV Africa) – finally starting to heat up the South African charts, while moodier, more underground strains of gqom are thrilling DJs in the UK, Europe and North America.
It’s impossible to talk about the genre’s rapid evolution without talking about the influence of the internet. WhatsApp groups have helped gqom producers link and share music, while popular African file-sharing sites like Kasimp3 and DataFileHost have enabled fans, including those overseas, to keep up with the latest gqom tracks and DJ mixes. “I could do entire sets with tunes that have a phone number or BBM pin as the song name and artist!,” wrote Cape Town DJ Jumping Back Slash on the Stamp the Wax blog in 2014. “Most of the tracks are low-bitrate mp3s that are overly compressed and slightly distorted at times but all of this adds to the charm. In so many ways, it’s one of the truest and purest youth music movements to come from the country as it does not take influence from anything outside SA. It takes the existing vibes of kwaito and house in all its forms in SA (Durban, Bacardi etc.) and moves it forward.” YouTube gives a window into the culture as well, allowing the world to see amateur bhenga dance videos and access new sounds through curated channels like Drum Movement SA and Bring Back Our Gqom.
The internet also paved the way for DJs and label owners outside of Africa to help spread the gqom sound. In Rome, Afrodisia L’Afrique resident Francesco “Nan Kolè” Cucchi became so obsessed with gqom’s “apocalyptic riot sound” that he set up the Gqom Oh! label with South African friend Lerato Phiri to bring the music of young Durban producers to those who might not spend their spare time trawling African download sites. Meanwhile, London-based, South African-born Hyperdub artist Okzharp was putting fellow UK bass DJs like Blackdown and Moleskin on to the sound. The latter – one of the co-founders of Goon Club Allstars – was so taken with the style that he signed DJ Lag and Rudeboyz to the label. (South Africa’s slow internet speeds and bad connectivity slowed down the process, but Goon Club prevailed.) Since the release of Gqom Oh! The Sound of Durban Vol. 1 and the DJ Lag and Rudeboyz EPs, bass-obsessed DJs like Kode9, Mumdance and Addison Groove have been playing gqom while magazines like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and The Fader have praised the sound.
This overseas popularity – and the press and festival bookings that come with it – is giving artists from the townships newfound credibility within their own music scene. “There was a lot of discrimination about gqom before,” explains DJ Lag. “They were saying that we were destroying the music industry, that gqom is not supposed to be played on radio because it’s raw music, it’s too underground. When we started getting calls and emails from people outside South Africa talking about gqom, that’s when people from South Africa started getting into it. A lot of big artists who are doing really good in South Africa, like Cassper Nyovest, Babes Wodumo, Big Nuz and Okmalumkoolkat, started rapping and doing kwaito on gqom beats. That’s where it got more popular, because all that music was being playing on radio a lot.”
Moving at the speed of the internet, gqom is evolving faster than one can say. SiyaThakatha (“We Witching”), the latest release from Dominowe on Gqom Oh!, contains a sgubhu track, a gqom derivative gaining popularity with its more melodic sounds and accessible Afro-house textures. As the music travels outside of Durban, fusions with other underground sounds from Lagos to Leeds are imminent. And right now in Umlazi or Inanda, a producer is probably uploading their music with a new genre tag you’ve never heard of before – all of which makes the beat of this drum seem more exciting than ever.
Listen to Vivian Host’s two-hour gqom special on RBMA Radio, premiering Wednesday, February 22 at 1 PM NYC / 6 PM UK / 8PM SA