Every so often there is a region in the world that creates music so unique that its geography defines its sound—Detroit and techno, Chicago and footwork, South London and dubstep. Now add Durban to the list with South Africa’s brooding house variant, gqom.

Though the definition of gqom (pronounced gome) means “hit” or “drum” in Zulu, to truly define gqom is quite difficult. There’s nothing that sounds quite like gqom in the mainstream dance community, and though it may borrow aspects from others, it’s far from a mashup of genres. The tunes are a blend of earthy and organic African tribal drums mixed in with 808 toms, Zulu chants, and deep moody synths. Though minimal in nature, gqom is also characterized by a complexity that demands attention from its listeners.

Despite mostly having roots in Durban, the largest city in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, the reach of this bold sound is starting to cross over. Gqom Oh!, a London based label started by producer and DJ Nan Kolè, is one outfit getting the sound recognized outside of South Africa.

FREQ: How did you decide to create the label Gqom Oh!?

NAN KOLÉ: [..] Right from the start I was feeling this gqom sound so much, and I was finding gqom so unique and such an original style of music. I found it so interesting—all the scenes and the cultural context when I first started to chat with the guys. I was really fascinated, and I just thought that this music was deserving [of] an international audience. I was genuinely thinking gqom had the potential to play an important role in the international electronic music scene. It was still such a local sound when I first heard it, as it was only in Durbans township [among] mostly teenaged DJs/producers.

What is happening in Durban for such a powerful sound like gqom to have emerged?

I dont know, I mean now many things have changed and in such a short time. Gqom is evolving in new forms and some mainstream South African artists started to use the word gqom, or in a way are making gqom more approachable for the mainstream. They’ve made it lighter by adding melodies and pop synthesizers, so the scene and the general approach is changing compared to just one year ago when I went to shoot the documentary with Crudo Volta.

I saw the mini doc you’re talking about, Woza Taxi, which features music from Gqom Oh! Can you explain the use of taxis to promote gqom?

Yes, its a really interesting aspect of gqom culture. Taxis are like a promo tool for local music, proudly playing the music coming from their people, [rather than] what was happening on the radio. Taxis in Durban have loud, powerful and heavy sound systems with huge subwoofers, and most of the time they travel from the township to Durban city center, making the sounds travel as well. For Durbans gqom producers, having tracks played in taxis is just fundamental. Its the best way to be recognized all over the city, so they also always put voiceovers on the tracks to brand them. Taxis are the most important tools to spread their music, get hype and acknowledgment from all over the city and their own township.

I read that gqom is really big in Durban but has little traction in the rest of South Africa, yet has found its way to some forward thinking DJs from the UK such as Addison Groove, Kode9 and of course yourself. Why do you think that is?

It was like this at the beginning, but now its changing as I told you. Gqom is evolving and changing into new forms, and all [of] South Africa now know and recognize the sound very well.

I dont know why a few years ago it was different, but to be honest I dont think it was about not having traction in the rest of South Africa… it was an outcast music genre, probably because [it] was mostly from and for teenagers. Either way, I think that the most important thing is that now everything is changing.

The biggest dream for most [gqom producers] is becoming popular in South Africa—more than being famous in the underground electronic music scene overseas.

What do you want people to understand about gqom?

Gqom was born from teenagers and young producers who were looking for something new and different from South African house and hip-hop. People need to understand that gqom is music for dancing. People need to understand that gqom is unique and its incomparable.

Gqom is gqom, and its a culture. They need to understand that gqom was born in [the] Zulu culture of Durban/KwazuluNatal and if it doesn’t have a broken beat and heavy/loud kick, [it] is not pure and original gqom.

Check out the driving sounds from Durban on label Gqom Oh! at https://gqomoh.bandcamp.com/music

*The transcript of this interview has been edited for clarity.

By: Vinh Hoang

 

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