Gqom and the World Unknown: The South African Sound That's Taking Over

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Gqom and the World Unknown: The South African Sound That's Taking Over

Straight out of of Durban.
November 19, 2015, 4:03pm

Let's think for a second about the idea of the unknown. The unknown, surely, is inherently paradoxical. To know that something is unknown is to make it, well, known. I know, I know, Donald Rumsfeld did this bit a few years back when he banged on about his known knowns and known unknowns and unknown knowns and unknown unknown unknowns or whatever it was, but the point still bears repeating: in 2015 can anything really, truly be unknown? Well, no. Well, kind of. Well, maybe. Maybe we should think about the contextually unknown, or the relatively unknowns. Let's talk about musical unknowns.

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Culture still has the power to keep the unknown unknown because culture is self-contained. Not all cultural artefacts are equal and as such not all cultural artefacts make their way into the wide world. Most culture is consumed only by it's creators and their immediate acolytes. Most culture appears and vanishes, receding into memory. Even now, even in an a period when virtually anything and everything is nearly immediately available, most books or scripts of sculptures or records enter and leave this world without fanfare. That doesn't mean, however, that they don't exist.

Every so often something burbles up from the depths of the forgotten, breaking through the crust of widespread ignorance and indifference. There it sits, basking in a glow it never thought it'd see. This is how we end up being experts in everything from Polish psyche to Portuguese funk, Surinamese ambient to Dutch death metal. This is why we all love —and are suddenly experts on— an obscure form of South African dance music known as gqom.

For the uninitiated —which is possibly most of you— qqom (pronounced with a kind of glottal, near-silent, clicky 'g' and named after the Zulu word that signifies the drum) originated in South Africa's second largest city, Durban. Like pretty much anyone with an interest in the sound —and who lives outside of Durban —I was first introduced to gqom by London based label and collective Goon Club Allstars. In June of this year, they dropped a record that turned a microscene into a global concern. That record was the Rudeboyz EP by, yep, Rudeboyz. Every so often a release arrives and alters everything around it— a kind of cultural ground zero. This was one of those.

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Let's step back a bit, and think, just for a moment, about musical migration and the importance of origins. Gqom, put simply, sounds like kwaito records falling down the stairs, or like house tracks falling up the stairs. It's hard-edged and taut, club music custom built for the kind of clubs that eschew VIP. It is, in a way, both completely unique and geotagged, and representative of the panglobal approach to "club music" that sees producers from Iceland try their hand at Bmore, that sees 17 year olds from Michigan churning out shangaan electro. And that's what makes it so exciting. That's what makes music exciting, right?

After meeting this summer at Nando's Music Exchange in London, MOBO award winner Stormzy travelled to South Africa to check out the local music scene with producer Muzi. Noisey were there to document the trip as the two artists discovered their similarities, and Stormzy learnt about gqom music and Zulu culture. As part of that he met with Rudeboyz. You can watch the result in full below:

Yes. The fact that a regional scene can bubble up and find a global audience is an undoubted cause for celebration. Sure there's the possibility that cross-cultural, pan-global magpie approach to music — taking a pinch from here and a dash from there — can dilute things rather than strengthen them, but, largely, anything that helps us escape from monotonous monoculture and the homogeneity of day to day life is worthy of praise.

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That music is defiantly DIY and, for want of a better word, raw, as the gqom sounds produced by Rudeboyz or Julz Da Deejay or Emo Kid or Citizen Boy can find a home in clubs in Europe or America or Asia is nothing short of miraculous and a monumental testament to the power of the club — as both a literal, real, physical space that exists as one of the few places on earth designed purely for pleasure, and as an idea that represents the possibilities of transcendence and escape — and the power of club music. The internet means everything travels faster and further than ever before and culture is at the forefront of that — nothing is truly local anymore. Or not for long at least.

Given South Africa's socio-political position within the context of the continent, perhaps it isn't surprising that this unique take on music that originated as a process of cross-pollination and migration between Europe and North America has made it over to, yep. Europe and North America. Though the importance of import can't be overlooked — so thank you, profusely, sincerely, Goon Club Allstars — it can't and doesn't exist with individual originality — so thank you, Rudeboyz, for giving us the gift of gqom.

Sometimes that's all it takes. With one EP, a world unknown becomes something real, something there, something within reach, something known. A known known as well. Not one of those silly unknown knowns.

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