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.