Gqom: South African Music for the 21st century
By Katie Link
There’s too much to say about South Afrika. Where do you even start with a country as diverse as this? It’s like falling down a rabbit hole, which is what SA music feels like, and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s a collision of history, culture, beauty, pain, art, and experience, coming together in some of the most rewarding contemporary sounds out there.
My first experience with SA music was the 2008 hit Township Funk by DJ Mujava. I was DJing at the time when this track blew up everywhere. Catchy hook, solid bassline, slightly repetitive but with enough differentiation in the percussion to get you addicted. It was something fresh and like nothing else I’d ever had the opportunity to spin before.
Mujava, aka Elvis Maswanganyi, got his break when taxi drivers in his hometown of Pretoria heard his song on local radio stations and started spreading his track by selling and playing it in their cabs for passengers. Catching on like wildfire, it eventually got heard by DJ Fresh and made it on international DJ charts (even getting a remix done by Skream for the dubstep heads).
Apparently, this is a big way music gets passed along in South Afrika and is presently helping with the rise of Gqom over in Durban (pronounced like the French gomme but with a palatal click at the start). If you don’t know what Gqom is, don’t worry - it hasn’t officially made it over the pond yet (unless you’re Kode9). Think of it as a new music blueprint, heavily based on African beats, deep basses, dark synths and just raw raw raw!
A lot of the producers are young bucks who know nothing of dynamic levels and instead cram as much DB into their output as they possibly can, leading to digital distortion and low-end mp3s. But who cares, they make it sound good!
There’s an insane amount of Gqom out there, some terrible, some incredible – check out Gqom Oh! to help you navigate through the riff raff.
Gqom isn’t the only style getting recognition from this diverse country; its polar-opposite Kwaito House has been making huge waves internationally. Rising from Johannesburg in the 1990’s, it coincided with Nelson Mandela taking office and was traditionally a voice for songs of protest. The genre has evolved quite a bit over the years, becoming a new form of deep house known for injecting shifty afro-beats that push a bit more rhythm into your everyday 4/4, and beautiful over-produced Afrikan vocals. These days it’s cemented itself as an international house genre of its own, providing brilliant stars such as Culoe de Song, Black Coffee, DJ Kent and Aero Manyelo.
If over-production, 4/4s and repetitive dance structure aren’t your tune, look no further than the off-shoot artist Okmalumkoolkat, a rising star you can’t forget to mention when going through a hit list of SA’s music scene. His music is heavily infused with elements of UK Grime, incorporating Zulu-English lyrics overtop sub basses and glitchy beats. In 2015, he defined South African swag by coining the term Umswenko in his hit “Mswenkofontein”.
He’s already collaborated with LV (UK) and was previously signed to Hyperdub Records. Okmalumkoolkat just released his latest album Mlazi Milano, so expect a possible International tour soon (dates to be announced). This kid is making the jump, watch out for him.
This is a small glimpse into what South Afrika has to offer but hopefully it’s inspired you to delve a bit deeper. I’d love to be able to tell you there’s a local show with one of these performers just around the corner but I can’t, these artists need support. Jump in and start listening to what’s out there. Innovative DJs and Producers are taking note and incorporating these fresh new sounds into their own craft. This will be playing in a club near you in the future, guaranteed.