The deep, dark pleasure of gqom

Sunday, December 1, 2019 - 3:58pm

DJ Lag

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South Africa (as I covered in a previous profile of House producer Black Coffee) has cemented its place as one of the world’s most innovative producers and exporters of dance music. By now, the particular brand of deep house championed by the aforementioned Black Coffee as well as producers such as Da Capo are mainstays at clubs pretty much everywhere. One of the newest and most exciting waves of music coming from the country, in particular the coastal metropolis of Durban, is a genre called gqom. 

Gqom, roughly pronounced “qwom” (although it involves a click sound present in the Zulu language), is one of those forms of brilliant dance music that harkens and celebrates an apocalypse or impending doom, a far cry from the sunny House of an Ibiza dancefloor. A typical gqom track builds around only a few elements, typically a single synth pattern or mangled sample as well as a powerful, decidedly atypical 4/4 drum pattern. The latter in particular creates a lack of stability that gives rise to a rather hypnotic and disorienting feeling, one unlike any other I’ve ever heard or experienced. While UK Garage is notable for its rhythmic “pushes,” even it has a very solid and noticeable rhythmic core. Gqom, on the other hand, features a similar type of “broken” beat but with a more intricate system of polyrhythms floating in and out and interacting with each other all at once. 

The sounds of gqom were discovered and developed by teenagers in these Durban townships (apparently often using cracked copies of FruityLoops production software) and spread in a labyrinthine network of music hosting sites, Facebook and WhatsApp groups. In some instances, tracks spread without the help of the internet by just being played by groups of people out and about or even in taxis. With regards to the latter, DJ Lag, one of the genre’s most successful practitioners, mentions that “If a track is being played in a taxi, you should know that your track is a hit,” since “taxis are a symbol of dancing mood, especially taxis that work in the heart of Durban. And taxis actually are the heart of Durban especially in promoting gqom music.” One of the most intriguing and appealing aspects of the genre is the fact it is, for all intents and purposes, completely organic and DIY, a rarity in a world of industry plants and mega-studios.  

Durban itself is the third largest city in South Africa after Johannesburg and Cape Town and the largest city in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Like many large South African cities, the horrors of apartheid still remain under the surface, and many of the “townships” surrounding the city remain on average, much poorer and less developed. However, they remain a source of much of the new music being produced in the countries and provide an invaluable audience and party scene for dance music producers. Many producers note that the inherent darkness of their music reflects the uneasy tension between the desire to celebrate and the poverty, violence and lack of opportunity that are widespread in the areas they grow up in.

Gqom’s spread outside of South Africa, on the other hand, was facilitated in largely by a Rome-based DJ named Nan Kolè, who helped start a label called Gqom Oh! that released a compilation of gqom music created in the Durban townships for audiences outside of South Africa that doesn’t involve navigating the genre’s complex, fast-changing online ecosystem. Its success has even spawned the birth of new fusions of disparate sounds elsewhere in the continent, and points to an exciting future in which more unconventional sounds are played in clubs around the world.