- Over the past few years there's been a surge of interest in scenes clustered within distinct geographic communities: footwork in Chicago, kuduro in Lisbon, Shangaan electro in the South African townships. They're all different, of course, but they share a certain appeal. They sound new, especially to foreign audiences, and offer local subtext to a world of electronic music that has become increasingly globalized.
The latest such genre to get an international spotlight is gqom. It comes from South Africa's second-largest city, the Southeastern port of Durban, and sounds like some long-lost strain of UK bass music: lithe broken beat with the ominous tint of early dubstep and grime. But it has a slinky, distinctively South African feel. It's made by kids opening up music software for the first time, inspired not by dance music popular around the world but by the legacy of local Durban sounds.
The first time I heard gqom was last summer, when UK grime label Goon Club Allstars plucked three tracks out of Durban for the Rudeboyz EP. It was an immediately addictive sound, with a swagger that felt almost dangerous. New label Gqom Oh! goes back further than that EP, to January of 2015, when Italian DJ Nan Kolé stumbled on a SoundCloud stream with the "#gqom" tag. He fell into a world of music that he, and practically everyone else outside Durban, didn't know existed. Employing his friend Lerato Phiri as a South African point of contact, Kolé dug deeper into the scene, aiming to shed light on the artists making gqom without exploiting them or appropriating their sound.
In that sense, the label's first compilation is a resounding success. Kolé and Phiri have no narrative to get across other than the sheer breadth and variety of gqom, which they accomplish over 12 productions. Gqom Oh! The Sound Of Durban is a marathon gauntlet of throbbing grooves and pounding drums, and it's rarely anything less than pure pleasure. These tunes approach gqom from a number of angles. There's the aggression of Dominowe's "Africa's Cry," a warlike battle anthem with early-'00s hip-hop sounds, and Emo Kid & DJ Bradolz's fearsomely quaking "IYona." But there are also funkier, more savvy moments, like Cruel Boyz' "Umeqo Emagqomini," where a woodblock hit hugs the contours of its broken beat. "Umeqo" has a playfulness and flamboyance that you won't find in the other songs.
The quality and vision of the compilation is staggering. It seems unbelievable that a sound this potent could have developed without anyone noticing, which comes to down to the circumstances of making and sharing music in these close-knit scenes. Gqom is distributed peer-to-peer via small networks beyond major international platforms, often shared in low bitrates and tagged improperly. It's a hard world to keep track of if you're not a devotee like Kolé. So The Sound Of Durban is a crucial introduction to a bustling scene that already counts hundreds of tracks and plenty of producers yet offers no easy way in.
01. Dominowe - Africa's Cry
02. Forgotten Souls feat. Formation Boyz - Hhaibo (Remix)
03. DJ Mabheko - Syagwaba (704 Gqomu)
04. Emo Kid feat. DJ Bradolz - IYona
05. Citizen Boy - Tribute To DSB
06. Cruel Boyz - Umeqo Emagqomini (Dub Mix)
07. Citizen Boy - Ghetto Mafia (Club Mix)
08. Formation Boyz - Zulu War
09. TLC Fam - June Bani Bani (Dbn Dance)
10. Julz Da DeeJay - Gunz & Soulz
11. Forgotten Souls - Sgubhu 6 (Gqom Edit)
12. Emo Kid - Table Funk
14. Gqom Outro