In Durban, Taxi Drivers Help Turn Local Tunes Into International Hits
When the South African music known as gqom — pronounced by pushing your tongue to the roof of your mouth and then letting go, followed by the sound “om” — started reaching international audiences in 2015, its dark, electronic vibes were misunderstood, says Mike Steyels, writing for The Fader.
The artists creating gqom live in the townships around the city of Durban. The new crowds soaking up their sounds are in Europe. The music is associated with dancing, and with drugs, which perpetuate the mystery surrounding it. Gqom’s growing popularity in Europe is thanks in part to Durban’s taxi drivers, who blast the music while driving customers to parties.
Gqom was taking over U.K. clubs but club patrons didn’t understand the context or have any involvement with the black youth creating it, which led to accusations of exploitation, according to The Fader.
A New York City-based website, The Fader describes itself as the unofficial guide to what’s next in music — the voice of emerging music and the lifestyle that surrounds it.
Much of the gqom music available online was uploaded with incomplete or inaccurate details, according to Steyels. Even South Africans from outside the Durban region were unfamiliar with it.
To help the world understand the music, Gqom Oh!, an Italian label dedicated to gqom culture, and Rome-based radio station Crudo Volta went to Durban to make a documentary about gqom.
Their documentary, “Woza Taxi,” lifts the veil on South Africa’s Gqom scene
and the Durban artists behind “the Internet’s most exciting electronic beats,” according to The Fader:
The documentary makers visited homes and studios of gqom artists, including Dominowe and DJ Mabheko.
The sound has its roots in house music, and newer iterations like sgubhu, which incorporates some of the smoother traits of deep house, and core tribe, which is more frenetic and filled with triplets. There’s also discussion about the use of drugs — the music has gained something of a reputation for drugs in the local press. Bhenga dance is central to gqom, which, like the music, is a steady, slow boil with an emphasis on style.
In an interview with The Fader, Nan Kolè, head of Gqom Oh!, described gqom as intensely local. So why is it getting international attention?
Here is an excerpt from the interview by The Fader:
Is gqom gaining a foothold in other South African areas yet?
Nan Kolè: I don’t think it has yet. There are some areas with gqom already, but the sounds are pretty different compared to those from Durban and the wider KwaZulu-Natal region. For example, Cruel Boyz from Mdtsane, Eastern Cape, have quite a different sound to the other producers. You can notice the difference in their productions compared to producers from Durban.
What’s gqom’s relation to kwaito, the South African house music style?
Nan Kolè: A lot of blogs and journalists — mainly from Europe and the U.S. — were talking about the relationship with kwaito, but there really isn’t a lot of kwaito around the Durban townships. Kwaito is more popular in Johannesburg. I don’t think kwaito is the sound of the new generation. Theirs is more of a hybrid between the music their parents listened to and the newer sounds coming from Durban. A lot of people also say that the origin of gqom came from experimenting with kwaito and sampling chopped voices and sounds, which were then pitched down with some reverb. The main thing though that separates gqom and kwaito is that there is the use of this kick that sounds like “gqom gqom gqom,” which is meant to blow your speakers.
You’ve released the Woza Mixtape to coincide with the documentary. Are any of the mixtape’s tracks local hits?
Yes, there are quite a few. But the amount of producers in Durban is huge. The sheer amount of tracks is quite unbelievable, and the quantity of them going around the taxis is so high that the hits change frequently.
What’s defined as a hit in Durban gqom?
Taxis have an important role in the game. If the taxi drivers play your tunes, then that can become a hit very quickly, especially in their specific area. There are hits in every kasi or township.
Is the sound better in the taxis than at the parties?
Yes, in a way. It’s more compressed in the taxi because they have powerful sound systems with huge subwoofers, especially the ones that go to South Beach. The main test for a track is through the taxi, and it’s also the promo tool. If you have a taxi driver friend out there, then it’s sort of a blessing for getting your music out.
How has Gqom Oh! been able to help gqom artists financially?
We got all the artists signed with contracts, and then we brought them to register the songs at SAMRO (the South African copyrights association for music), so now they can get money from radio plays from all over the world. Also, as a record label, we can send money directly to them from our sales, as everybody knows that free downloads are the worst thing for the music business. And with the exposure that they are receiving they can get local gigs; we have had some good press for a couple of our artists.
What do gqom producers use to make their music?
I think it’s just Fruity Loops and DIY samples. Most of the time they don’t even have keyboards or controllers. It was really an amazing experience to see these guys in their home studio. To see how they produce gqom, and how they live, and the whole creative process. How this music brings them closer together with their friends and crews, not only just to create a track, but also to dance together.
Read more at The Fader.