In front of a shebeen crowd, not far from his mother’s house, Bhejane, in jeans and a black bubble jacket, jerks his hips in the opposite direction to his flailing arms. His energy is manic, but his movements match the staccato beat that, with his vocals mixed in, echoes through the hilly township.
The teenagers in the front row take cellphone videos while mouthing along to a fairytale-like song about an ecstasy trip gone bad. The adults at the back watch incredulously, unsure what to make of this post-kwaito scene. Out of the limelight, Bhejane is a lanky and soft-spoken figure, his boyish looks contrasting with the image his booming baritone evokes. On record he comes across as larger than life, menacing society with some memorable, rhetorical questions. “Ubani… islima… pahkathi… kwestraighti… nomakhwapheni? (Who is the fool between your real woman and your mistress?)” he chants in Zulu on Makhwapheni, a tongue-in-cheek song about infidelity.
Just 21 years old, Bhejane is one of the leading lights of a rap style that has evolved specifically over gqom beats rather than kwaito tunes. He first came across gqom seven years ago, on unmarked mixtapes that were being put out by a DJ from Pretoria named Bin Laden. “It was popular, but it was never on radio,” he remembers.
Taking its name from the hollow sound a drum makes, gqom is a mostly Durban-based music movement that has evolved out of the stagnant kwaito scene and Pretoria’s Bacardi house rhythms. Imagine a sound that strips kwaito of its sheen and flat vocals and rewires it as unruly, offbeat dance techno.
Gqom is the soundtrack of a generation still trapped in the ghetto, unable to get their hands on a piece of the new South African pie. It is a sound steeped in township atmospherics – its successive waves of drugs, emerging dance styles and fast-changing tastes in fashion and slang.
It is the sound of youth who, thanks to smartphones and the internet, have assimilated global culture, while kwaito, basking in the mainstream, gradually lost its edge. In contrast to kwaito’s dependence on the studios and distribution channels of the formal music industry, gqom inhabits a gritty musical underworld. Tracks are produced in humble bedroom studios, and spread through taxi routes or as downloadable files on artist Facebook pages before making their way to cavernous inner-city clubs, RDP house parties or youth-oriented shebeens.
Many of the genre’s bedroom producers have had to find their own way around cheap audio software like FL Studio, and the vocalists have a knack for socio-political humour and an economy of words. For the most part, these practitioners eke out a living criss-crossing KwaZulu-Natal playing gigs which hardly pay, if they pay at all.
Like all fresh genres, gqom is still evolving, but it has already attracted international interest. London DJ OKZHARP and Cape Town-based producer Jumping Back Slash have trafficked the sound to dancefloors overseas, largely drawing from sources such as Durban-born vocalist-producer Okmalumkoolkat and innovative local music portal kasimp3.com, where tracks can be up- and downloaded quickly, at the click of a mouse.
At the core of the scene, however, is one of gqom’s most prolific innovators: the reclusive Sbucardo da DJ. To track him down, you have to travel into a hidden, densely populated valley called Maoti, about 20km north-west of Durban. The sprawling shacklands in these hills have been replaced with basic, government-built houses and in a yard of one-roomed rental units, Sbucardo’s ‘studio’ can be found. His single room is bare, save for a queen-size bed, and the only hint that it doubles as a studio is an unadorned mic stand with its circular filter affixed. Here, Sbucardo uses FL Studio and a beat-up PC to construct minimalist works of genius.
Sbucardo’s pieces have become indispensable for the new generation of gqom vocalists. Short and skinny, the 25-year-old recalls proto-gqom tracks being laid down as early as 2008 in the nearby township of KwaMashu. “Back then it wasn’t offbeat, though,” he says. “I came up with the offbeat from watching people dance – they would react even more to something a little offbeat, so I pursued that.”
His first offbeat hit was Haibo Hey in 2011. “I put it out on KasiMp3 and then it just took off. It had my phone number on it and I used to get bookings from as far away as Richard’s Bay and Port Shepstone, just off that one song. The first place to book me was in the Eastern Cape, of all places.”
Sbucardo says the idea of splicing one-note samples came a bit later, when he discovered the tonal richness a talented vocalist can offer. But all the vocalists Sbucardo now records are first-timers – his productions have galvanised a wave of would-be rhymers who can turn township ills into sharp, entertaining verse.
While some gqom tracks are rough-edged, unmixed and unmastered, it’s the overall atmosphere of the music that commands attention. When it’s in the hands of more ambitious sonic experimenters like Lusiman or DJ Lag, the result often leans towards a psychedelic mash-up of electronic styles. Lusiman’s Wamnand’ uQoh (in which a woman recounts her first experience of ecstasy) was licensed by well-known kwaito DJ Cndo and went on to win her a 2014 Metro FM award for best female artist. It’s an achievement which bodes well for the bankability of gqom, or at least for a sonically shimmery version of it.
But broach the subject of broken beats with Lusiman, a 24-year-old land surveyor who lives with his mother, and he also claims it. “I never uploaded the songs,” he says. “I kept them. I never knew it was broken beat. I was like ‘Wow, they’re doing this now, and I’ve been doing it already.’” DJ Lag, who has mastered a hard-edged and bouncy gqom aesthetic, also counts himself as the first to break kwaito’s staid beat. “I was just trying to create something that sounded like hip-hop, but on a house tempo,” says the talented 18-year-old, whose polished output belies his age.
While gqom producers duke for bragging rights, there is only one king of the genre’s vocal tradition. At his family’s home in a middle-class section of eMlazi, Durban’s largest township, the 21-year-old Madanon is a lively bundle of post-pubescent ego. What sets him apart is a seemingly endless trove of catchy, chant-like sing-alongs, referred to as gimmicks.
“When we’d go out to clubs – back then I used to be a dancer – I’d always be saying gimmicks on the dancefloor,” he recalls. “People would hear them and start copying them. My producer cousins told me about a beat (the late) DJ Njiva had made. I recorded it the first time I heard it. I filled it up with gimmicks and it just came together.”
That track became the song Imsebenz’ Ikhona, an ode to drug-taking and a reference to a libertine party philosophy. Recorded in June 2012, it is a seven-minute, 30-second piece of free-wheeling, wanton abandon: a van careering down the hill of moral sanctity with no brakes. That song and his second, Opopayi, now stand as the founding anthems of gqom rap.
Although ecstasy is still essential to the scene, the craze over ecstasy-laced lyrics seems to have peaked. “The genre is new and evolving so people write about the travails of life in general, like cheating and that kind of thing,” says songwriter 031, from the bedroom studio he shares with Sbucardo. For all the excitement a vocal tradition has brought to gqom, live performances are not always the slickest. At an event in eMlazi, on a chilly night outdoors, the crowd laps up Bhejane’s spastic, impossible energy as he contorts, spins and points the mic at the crowd. There is no dismay in noticing that he is lip-syncing to his own recorded vocals.
At Sbucardo and 031’s eNanda party, Madanon’s gimmicks, usually tightly sequenced, are spat out free associatively on stage, as if he is sound-checking. In the open concrete courtyard of a local shebeen, his set looks loose and unplanned, although he never seems uncertain while delivering it. Similarly, the oBen 10 crew have the rugged, stop-start charm of a dancehall show, but it’s by default because their DJ, Xtra Large, has yet to turn up.
The youths lounging around probably notice, but don’t care. Some are too busy tripping; jaws clenched to the point of shivering, pupils hidden behind dark glasses.In a makeshift kitchen, away from the madding crowd, Nkwenkwe, a virtually unknown gqom vocalist, reflects on the genre’s future in the face of growing mainstream interest.
“When Cndo took Lusiman’s song, it got a lot of hype. But since she licensed it, you hear nothing about Lusiman – it’s like he’s oppressed. Same thing with the Fearless Boyz’ Sgubh’ Ungakanani. Bhar (the kwaito star who licensed it) didn’t add or edit anything, but that song now belongs to him. In life, before you succeed, you must get robbed.”Lusiman – who says he got 30 per cent of the royalties for Wamnand’ uQoh – has reason to be more optimistic.
“From the feedback we’re getting as producers, a lot of people are feeling it. Somebody from Australia hit me up wanting to buy my three-beat stuff. He also hit up Lag and said he was willing to pay for the tracks. That’s when I saw that this music is going places. Even in Nigeria, they know it and love it. On Channel O, they are calling it by its name now: Durban dance music, gqom.”