Claire Sawers

Freelance Writer

Month: January 2017

Interview: DJ Lag

The Wire
January 2016

Gqom With Me

Gqom purveyor DJ Lag is helping to take the caffeinated rush of Durban’s dance style worldwide

Partyheads in Durban, South Africa have been not so quietly losing their minds over gqom music for the past few years. It’s pretty hard to stay in a relaxed state faced with gqom’s rush of uppers, the drama of its relentless kicks, its balls-out urgency to go higher and get hyper.

“GQOM music makes you think of fun, nothing else but fun,” says DJ Lag, real name Lwazi Asanda Gwala, a key player in the gqom scene, currently doing his bit to spread the brutal, bubbling dance sound around the world.

He’s just finished a tour of Asia and Europe, with stops in Berlin’s Panorama bar, Krakow’s Unsound festival and London’s Stour Space in Tower Hamlets. The Gqom Oh! Showcase tour came about after London imprint Goon Club Allstars released his self-titled four-track EP in November, a big, rushy, unapologetic, caps-lock permanently on, caffeine slap of beats.

“We were introduced to Kasimp3, the site that a lot of Durban artist upload their tunes to, about three and a half years ago,” says Ed from Goon Club Allstars, “and were just listening to loads of tracks on there. We were all drawn to Lag’s productions and so reached out to him via Facebook.

Lag’s tunes stood out because of the atmosphere he creates. His tracks are fierce. The reaction [to the EP] has been great. Lag’s tracks crossover a whole range of dancefloors so we’ve had positive reactions from lots of different scenes.”

Like a lot of gqom, Lag’s EP was made with a lo-fi set-up using FruityLoops software at his house.

“Ghost on the Loose” is a driving, pummeling opener to set the pace, “16th Step” introduces more colour and bounce to the cold, raw beats and “Umlila” features a metallic clang, building into a more forceful industrial battering, chaotically unravelling in various directions of chirping birdsong and chanted vocals.

The word ‘gqom’ is pronounced with a click consonant and comes from the Zulu word for ‘hit’ or ‘drum’ – something there is never a shortage of in gqom sets.

The word is taken from drama used in our traditional music,” explains Lag, who lives in a rural township of Durban called Clermont. Getting in contact with him isn’t easy – patchy wifi snags several attempts at a WhatsApp call, then he has to go offline while he’s round visiting his mum who has no internet, then he loses his phone charger and runs out of data allowance, so we chat mostly over texts, spaced out over a week.

Gqom first got played a lot on mobile phones in Durban as the microscene grew, and taxi drivers cashed in, blasting gqom DJs out their car windows to pick up people on their way to and from parties. The Wire reviewed the first big compilation of the genre, Gqom Oh! The Sound of Durban Vol 1 back in January featuring other gqom big hitters like Emo Kid and Citizen Boy, and by July the documentary Woza Taxi was screened on The Fader’s website. The short film, directed by Tommaso Cassinis, homed in on the link between gqom and ecstasy, as the two often go hand in hand. Is gqom better enjoyed on pills?

“No, in my view I wouldn’t say that, because when it comes to dancing and fun you don’t really need a certain boost. Gqom is vibey, fun, dance music. The best reaction from a crowd is non stop dance.”

Gqom’s association with illegal drugs, including a powerful upper called mkwini, and other amphetamine cocktails also popular in Europe, with names like Superman, La Costa and Mercedes, are why some people reckon the music isn’t as popular in its native South Africa as it might be. Big name, better paid and promoted DJs often rip off the township music and pass it off as their own, but class prejudices mean the original producers won’t always get airplay.

Lag says he first got into DJing as a way of getting his music played out. “It was a motive coming from production as I kept on asking other DJs to please play my music. DJs who believed did agree, of which there were few. Most did not believe in this kind of music I was bringing to them so I decided to learn how to play because I had so much belief in myself and this kind of music, and I could see the vision.”

The international club scene has embraced it pretty quickly though, reacting to the infectious, percussion-heavy excitement of gqom, which steamrolls over grime, afro-house, hard electro and hip hop styles with uncompromising screams, yells and drumrolls.

The EP is currently going down well, and Lag is riding the high. Just after his overseas tour finished, he went straight back out to play dates in Durban and Johannesburg clubs. “I just had my new best memory in a Durban club, whereby on my comeback event I had a crowd of 3000 and I gave them my best set. I would like for [the EP] to be enjoyed and played worldwide.”

This interview appeared in the January issue of The Wire.

Listen to an exclusive mix from South African DJ Lwazi Asanda Gwala for The Wire here.



Album review: Demdike Stare – Wonderland

The Wire
January 2017

Demdike Stare
(Modern Love)

Manchester electronic duo Sean Canty and Miles Whittaker return four years after their last album Elemental with Wonderland, a skittish, angsty record of their trademark ADHD IDM. In between times, they’ve been keeping up the momentum for their mutant crossbreeds of dance music through their Testpressing series, two-track releases they’ve been bringing out since 2013 on Modern Love, the label home of Vatican Shadow, Andy Stott and others.

Demdike Stare’s approach to the dancefloor is always a complex one, made up of cerebral, tightly knotted references to Detroit techno, British industrial, ravey jungle, jittery dancehall, weirdo noise and malevolent horror soundtracks, with uphill climbs into more gratifying kicks and doomy, but danceable drops.

The ten-minute long “Hardnoise” is probably the standout, beginning with innocuous sounding steps, like footsteps crunching into snow, then short circuiting into splutters of static and beat-driven bursts of anxiety. Tropical birdsong chirps through the tapping rhythms, sounding increasingly panicked before a payoff arrives for those itching by this point for a hook to dance or nod along to. A minute or so later the beats have been replaced by a Heatsick-esque synth melody-line, simple and repetitive, and rounding off the track with some gleaming, glowing house.

“Curzon” is the claustrophobic album opener, speeding up into something that might be about to go fullblown Giallo horror with its ominous churchy synths before it collapses abruptly into a garbled computer-generated voice; “Animal Style” is a seizure of drum and bass, pocked with creepy whispered bits and mutated vocals in the distance; and Fridge Challenge is a squeaky, bright muckabout with bleeps and recordings of an airport tannoy.

Dense, frustrating, perplex and fun on record, having seen them live several times, their sound works best when it bleeds osmotically into strange visuals. Their longterm obsession with crate digging is still audible on Wonderland, but a symbiosis of their love of both weird sounds and visions hammers their unsettling dance music home with greater impact.


Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty of Demdike Stare

Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty of Demdike Stare


Album review: Brian Eno – Reflection

The Wire
January 2017

Brian Eno

In a blurb about his upcoming ambient album, Brian Eno says: ‘Reflection is so called because I find it makes me think back. It makes me think things over. It seems to create a psychological space that encourages internal conversation.’

Who knows just what internal conversations Reflection will encourage, and that’s kind of the point. Maybe the listener’s mind will wander back to guiding Ecco the Dolphin past coral reefs and crystal glyphs on a Sega Megadrive. Or watching in stoned fascination as a lump of glowing neon prepares to slide into the cosmic liquid in a lava lamp, or witnessing a glacier calving in a nature documentary, gracefully crumbling in silence, because it’s filmed far enough away to cut out the thunder as it breaks.

Reflection is Eno’s return to the kind of headphone music he made a name for himself with in the early seventies. It’s minimal, incrementally changing, state-altering ambient music, this time made from underwatery textures and calm phrases. Soft bells, low chimes, muffled extraterrestrial wooshes and wooden glockenspiel are layered up in slow motion, then given micro-adjustments through a set of rules programmed in by Eno. “One rule might say ‘raise 1 out of every 100 notes by 5 semitones’ and another might say ‘raise one out of every 50 notes by 7 semitones’,” Eno explains, in full ambient-boffin mode, reminding us of his apparently undying love of nerdy experimentations, which first made him a pioneer in the field.

Reflection is one continuous piece, just over 50 minutes long, and a return to Eno’s unstructured, non song-based music, with no vocals, unlike his recent album, The Ship. He might have lost credibility for many when he jumped on the payroll of Nick Clegg, Apple, Coldplay and U2, but Eno’s striving nature, and his ability to morph sounds, alter moods and conduct psychoacoustic experiments still yields weird and enjoyable fruits here.

Eno once said that ambient music should be “as ignorable as it is interesting”, and Reflection glows understatedly around that sweet spot of background noise; neither bilge or beige. It’s far more meditative and infinitely less trippy than something like “Swastika Girls” from the early Fripp-Eno days, but the suck downwards into the soothing murk of what he calls ‘the internal conversation’ is strong.

Review: Arika Episode 8

The Wire
January 2017

Boychild at the Art School, Glasgow, part of Arika's Episode 8

Boychild at the Art School, Glasgow PHOTO: Alex Woodward

21-23 October 2016
Tramway & the Art School, Glasgow

Just over a fortnight before the doomy confirmation of President Trump, Seattle activist and lawyer Dean Spade is on stage at Tramway, talking on a panel about his feelings of “cumulative grief” and a shared “loss of optimism”. The antidote to such bleak times, he suggests, must be getting organised in a joyful way. Connecting with friends, fleeing prisons of race, class and gender on a daily basis, constantly learning, practising healing – and he points out he’s not talking in the “rich white yoga lady” sense of the word either – are necessary resistance tactics. It’s a theme central to Arika’s Episode 8, three days of performances, screenings and discussions under the banner, Refuse Powers’ Grasp.

Audre Lorde’s 1980s notion of self-care as an act of political warfare still reverberates – from defiant life advice dished out by the mischievous and militant Miss Major, a Stonewall activist and trans icon now in her 70s, to discussions of sex workers’ safety with Anastacia Ryan from Scottish charity, SCOT-PEP. Edinburgh-based arts pioneers, Arika have gone to plenty trouble to embed radical care deep in their right-on programme – events are BSL-interpreted and captioned, toilets are gender-neutral and wheelchair accessible, and in keeping with their pragmatic, warm take on revolution, bus fares home and drinks tokens are supplied for anyone in the asylum system who is strapped for cash.

Miss Major in conversation with Eric A Stanley PHOTO: Alex Woodward

Miss Major in conversation with Eric A Stanley PHOTO: Alex Woodward

The weekend is bookended by a Friday club night at Glasgow School of Art and a Sunday multimedia performance – both overlorded by the queer New York DJ, artist and face of Kenzo x H&M, Juliana Huxtable. Her trappy, R&B set chops up Livin’ Joy and Britney Spears with jerking bangers from the likes of Gangsta Boo and La Chat over live drums. A histrionic, mesmerising blast of Japanese butoh from performance artist boychild beforehand sees her writhing and lip-syncing to distorted Beyoncé and Kelela tracks, covered in gold bodypaint, teeth clamped tensely around a strobe light.

Video artist Sondra Perry PHOTO: Alex Woodward

PHOTO: Alex Woodward

A Saturday highlight comes from the whipsmart New Jersey video artist, Sondra Perry (pictured above), whose site-specific piece Resident Evil draws out colonial themes from her beloved Alien films and wraps it sinisterly around US news footage and karaoke versions of Steely Dan’s ‘Peg’ and Nina Simone’s ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’. As disturbing as it is sweetly affecting, even when Perry loses the link on her live Periscope feed, it seems to segue in weirdly well with her themes of surveillance and technology.

Over a dense and intense three days, problem topics of biological essentialism, carceral feminism, prison abolition and state-supported pinkwashing are unpacked and cross-examined through workshops and round-table chats, but the organisers haven’t forgotten to counterbalance the political theory with lighter moments, including a screening of the excellent Criminal Queers, San Francisco filmmaker Eric Stanley’s camp, lo-fi, lo-budget, John Waters-y take on the radical trans struggle against the prison industrial complex.  

Enjoyably heavy on the American performers and speakers, Episode 8’s programme also included local activists and campaigners, with money made at the club night going to Glasgow migrant support group, We Will Rise, and New Orleans community group, Gallery of the Streets collaborating with Glasgow Open Dance School for a black queer retelling of Marge Piercy’s feminist utopian novel, Woman on the Edge of Time.

Arika have been doing an excellent job of staging nourishing and entertaining Episodes for years, but there’s something about the current creep and not so subtle rise of bigotry and barriers that makes this most recent update seem all the more vital.

'[b]reach: the fugitive chronicles - an open rehearsal' by Gallery of the Streets and Glasgow Open Dance School PHOTO: Alex Woodward

An open rehearsal by Gallery of the Streets and Glasgow Open Dance School PHOTO: Alex Woodward

This review appeared in the January issue of The Wire.


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