Broken beat in the Durban underground

The Gqom sound runs the gamut of township flavor until it teases Afro-house and eThekwini (Durban) groove without fully admitting to its Kwaito influence.

Photo: T'seliso Monaheng.

On the Saturday morning that the Durban July was happening, we were busy setting up appointments with local superstars. I played attentive student while the master drilled his way into the bedrooms, living rooms, dancefloors and front porches — everywhere that Gqom had a footprint. We’d snuck our way into eThekwini at dusk on a Tuesday before with the aim of documenting the rapidly-rising, and changing, scene.

Nowadays, deejays such as Lag and 031, the former from Clermont while the latter is from Inanda, and artists like Bhejane and Madanone — from Umlazi and Inanda respectively, are redefining a brave world, wild with discontent and intent of partying it away. Armed with desktop computers, invariably-pirated versions of FL studio and Cubase 5, plug-ins, and entry-level condenser mics, audio interfaces, studio monitors, producers such as Sbucardo and Xtralarge are forging a sound and identity which has  forced the major artists who inspired them initially to slowly re-think their approach; to ‘switch it up’ in a sense. Think of these dudes as Julius Malema’s  Economic Freedom Front on pills, ready and willing to disrupt the state of affairs with their fuck-you attitude, their on-line footprint, rampant output, and incredible grassroots support.

The Gqom sound runs the gamut of township flavor — s’ghubu and its abundant variations — until it teases Afro-house and eThekwini groove without fully admitting to its Kwaito influence. Heavy drums. No bassline. Down-pitched and clipped vocal samples. A carnival of whistles. A dancefloor of percussive instruments. A lone synth running throughout the song. And the all-important hook. Mutant shit if you think about it. But to some, Gqom is the shoddily-dressed, talentless cousin to more refined hallmarks of isghubu, like House music.

Most artists we held court with stated that none of the publications in Durban had given them page-space. Of the few whom features were written about were Umlazi producer DJ Bonnie, whose write-up was concerned with an ecstatic member of the audience asking him to marry her right after an impressive set at a local festival.

Like any underground scene, Gqom has its own shortcomings. Some artists are clueless about how to go about registering their music with a music rights organization like the South African Music Rights Organization (SAMRO). In the same breadth, there are artists who have a clear vision on how to go about achieving their goals, but have no infrastructure to operate within. They are the building blocks.

It’s hard to tell whether Gqom will implode or make its way onto the mainstream in much the same way Durban house did 10 years before. Aided by the fresh-faced duo of Sox and Tira, the four-beat sneaked its way from the coastline and held clubs in a throttle.

Who knows how things might turn out in the next six months? Qoh, a variant of ecstasy reported to fetch for as little as 20 Dibas (Rands), has gained a bad reputation due to the infiltration of fake product. There’s also bad press generated by drug-related deaths in clubs around Durban. Drug culture, especially ecstasy, is big around those parts, but its association with Gqom has lend a further blow to the scene’s image, and is potentially why radio stations like Ukhozi FM and newspapers such  as Isolezwe haven’t bothered to touch it.

The pretty-boy image for which the mainstream advocates is exactly what Gqom is against. All it’s going to take is one artist to cause a revolution. Who will it be, and how will they do it? What will become of Gqom once it decides to lose its regional affiliations and infiltrate more than the underground scenes in the East and Western Cape, and as far in-land as the Limpopo province?

Further Reading

To create or to perish

The last film of underappreciated Senegalese director, Khady Sylla dealt with mental health. It is worth revisiting it now for its groundbreaking portrayal of depression suffered by two women friends.