The History of the Durban Township Sound: Gqom


The history of the Durban township sound: Gqom

Gqom /ᶢǃʱòm/ (Igqomu) according to Emo Kid is said to be a “big bang which leaves you happy after it hits you”; an unfiltered mutation of South African kwaito that has evolved in the Zulu-dominated neighbourhoods surrounding Durban’s city centre has sent the entire music-loving African continent on a grooving frenzy.

Gqom could be the most outlandish of all the recent unfolding exciting forms of House music. Instead of the regular House beat and the refined production techniques of commercial South African kwaito, the gqom is a raw dance music blueprint that comes out of the townships with a polyrhythmic bustle – part broken beats, part chrome-plated synth menace. Skeletal, robotic, made on basic home computers, sliced vocal samples, echo, and heavy percussive beats. The result is a dark, gritty and minimalist sound with similarities to dubstep, techno and Chicago juke, unsettling and irresistible. It sounds somewhat influenced by UK sounds like grime and funky, but has nothing to do with them, says gqom producer Citizen Boy, part of the Mafia Boyz collective.

Citizen Boy, who released one of the gqom tracks to gain international attention, a 2015 rework of Adele’s Hometown Glory, describes to Guardian, the intense atmosphere in any room the music plays. “It is heavy because no one is shy,” says Citizen Boy. “It’s like they become a new version of themselves; and even those who claim they can’t dance, possess the courage to dance.”

Over the last five years, overseas interest in gqom has increased especially in London, and its dance moves were adopted by famous musicians in the United States. Gqom music is associated with a number of distinctive dance moves, like the ‘bhenga’, ‘vosho’ or the ‘gwara gwara’. Rihanna performed the ‘gwara gwara‘ at the 2018 Grammy awards while Childish Gambino performs it in his video for ‘This is America’. Gqom tracks produced in Durban’s townships is being played by international DJs including the owner of the Hyperdub, label, Kode9, who has described the sound to “being suspended over the gravitational field of a black hole, and loving it.”

Music cognoscenti who adopted the new sound included the likes of South African rapper Okmalumkoolkat, Italian record label Gqom Oh owner, Malumz Kole, Afrotainment record label owner DJ Tira, as well as Babes wodumo (whose rave music wololo became a global hit) with the music taste-maker and personal public relations liaison, Cherish LaLa Mankai. Other household artists who has contributed to propagating this budding genre and taking it to the world are DJ Lag, DJ Bongz, Lord The Dj, MasterT, Dj Noffoh, Dj Nkaa, Rudeboyz, Distruction Boyz & AudioBoyz.

Nobody can actually pinpoint the origin of Gqom but brilliantly named producer Emo Kid thinks the style was invented when some unknown guy from elokishini, the ghetto, got hold of production software and began experimenting and making something he could dance to, and gqom was born, but some reckon that it mutated from other previously existing styles. Gqom shares some semblances with the local house sound, despite its non-4/4 pattern, and it’s often blended at house parties by DJs playing a mix of gqom, sgubhu and hip-hop. “Gqom music is simiar to house music but it is also slightly different from house music, it is very tribal and the kick drum has an unfamiliar pattern,” says Emo Kid. “It is very easy to identify a gqom sound because of its rare quality.”

Amongst those with the argument that Gqom mutated from other previously existing styles is Citizen Boy who believes the style comes from “an old genre called Sgxumseni, which means ‘make us jump’.” “I think I first heard about gqom music in 2012,” says Citizen Boy, He adds: “DJ Clock and DJ Gukwa used to produce it, then after a while Naked Boyz arose and they took the spot like it’s the genre gqom. It’s almost the same as gqom, but the difference is that Sgxumseni is a four-step and gqom is a broken beat — it can be a three-step or two-step beat.”

Gqom music is a collection of loud tribal sounds creating a pattern unlike any other. It definitely leaves you happy.


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