Music for Music’s Sake — GQOM OH! “The Sound Of Durban Vol. 1”

There seems to be a line drawn in the sand, in terms of today’s Electronic music culture. On one hand, there’s the huge-budget world of the summer festivals, with massive multi-million dollar events like Electric Carnival or Movement Detroit dragging in hundreds of thousands of the best, brightest, and most beautiful to listen to larger-than-life DJs, elevated 200-ft. above the crowd, hurling lightning bolts through gigantic subwoofer stacks.

Then there’s the sound of the underground – martial, militaristic beats echoing from down long concrete tunnels, resounding off of bunker walls, usually dished out on the fly from cryptic, cobbled-together machines.

GQOM OH album art
GQOM OH “The Sound of Durban” album art

There’s a back and forth, between the “underground” and “mainstream” Electronic music world, with the popular, populist beatmongers diving into the murky depths in search of fresh energy, enthusiasm, and inspiration.

Considering how much mainstream music ends up, either intentionally or subsequently, as advertisement for lifestyle branding, it’s no wonder that dance music fanatics feel the need to keep digging, in search of something real, in a sea of marketing mirages.

Africa has been an increasingly prevalent player on the global beat scene, in the new millennium, dropping a number of regional flavors and rhythms into the global gumbo, most notably Shangaan, out of Southern Egypt, and of course Die Antwoord’s Zef, out of South Africa.

South Africa is shaking up the global soundscape, yet again, in recent months, with a new style known as Gqom. Gqom translates roughly as “drum”, from Swahili, which is an apt descriptor for this stripped-down, minimalist “apocalyptic bass music”, as phrased by Gqom Oh!, the first label to emerge to document these nascent grooves.

Following hot on the heels of a 3-track EP that had beat diggers the world over drooling and losing their shit, Gqom Oh! have come out swinging, with the first comprehensive Gqom compilation, Gqom Oh! The Sound Of Durban Vol. 1.

Gqom Oh! is run by South Africa’s Lerato Phiri, along with Rome’s DJ Nan Kolè, in an effort to spread the word and the sounds, to help “invest in much-needed technology to help build a local creative infrastructure.”

This effort is much appreciated, as most of us, located outside of Durban, wouldn’t be likely to stumble over these percussive grooves by accident. Although Gqom is a healthy, vibrant scene, new songs are predominantly circulated through anonymous-looking Facebook groups, like FORGOTTEN SOULS links Gqom and Sgubhu, through questionably-encoded & tagged mp3s.

Like many of the other more experimental, stripped-down, beat-oriented music, like footwork and juke, Gqom is meant as a soundtrack for live dance events, most pertinently a South African dance known as Bhenga, which looks straight out of Rihanna’s “Work” video with Drake, indicating a beat and style whose time has come.

Gqom Oh! – The Sound Of Durban vol. 1 is more like a mixtape than a big budget album release, which is in keeping with the style. Gqom Oh! The Sound Of Durban is almost entirely devoid of melody, just layers and layers of slight, tight, nuanced percussion, to move your feet and help you lose your mind.

There are some standouts, however, like the haunting, nearly-militaristic “Africa’s Cry”, with its banshee wail over a bedrock of ominous, industrial-sounding shakers and low-slung kicks. “Tribute To DSB” by Citizen Boy is a personal favorite, with its quick, staccato rhythms beating your brain into a hypnotic lull.

This music is all about making more with less. It’s a role model for the future, in that regard, and for any producer or young creative coming up currently.

GQOM OH! “The Sound Of Durban” manifesto

Gqom is also an excellent sonic illustration of the yen for the real, for the non-manufactured, for the authentic. For something wild and free, as in without a price tag. Music for music’s sake, not to sell an automobile or a pair of trainers.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with advertising, but that should not be music’s only function. Musical gatherings are where we sweat and dance and dream. Where we blow off steam, and play out miniature psychodramas, whether sexual or combative.

As the gulf between the real and the spectacle continues to widen, swallowing the middle class in the process, these virulent, militant beats will become more and more mandatory.

Gqom may be another example of emerging global electronica from all over, but it is a particularly spectacular specimen, in and of itself. There’s something about the spartan beats, caked over with industrial grime and barely-there synth, that makes your hair stand on end, even if you’re not normally a fan of beat-driven music. There is an intensity, a velocity, a ferocity to the grooves, while still managing to sound like a good time.

Quite simply, this is one of the most thrilling emerging sounds from around the globe happening at the moment. True, diehard diggers, get on some of those Facebook groups or subscribe to GQOM subreddit and find out what life outside of Beatport sounds like.