Head of the Gqom Oh! label, Nan Kolè has been undertaking a massive project over the past few months. Allying with Rome-based radio station Crudo Volta, Kolè has been travelling around South Africa, and Durban in particular, to investigate the various shades of Gqom that are gradually emerging. For many of these artists, the resultant Woza mixtape and the accompanying documentary are their first chance at exposure outside of the country. It's also an opportunity to contextualise Gqom and educate the rest of the world about the culture as a whole. Crafting a balance of the biggest hitters in the scene, the biggest tracks and those most representative of the sound and its scene must have been a difficult tightrope to walk. One of our favourites—and it really was tough to pick just one—was "Cruel Drumz", a dubby example of the gritty, minimal, bass-heavy sound of Gqom by Cruel Boyz (whose "Touch It" we premiered last year). We caught up with Kolè to talk about Gqom, Gqom Oh! and of course the mixtape.
How did the documentary come about?
I was originally heading over to meet with the families of my artists anyway. A lot of our communication had been via telephone and it was long overdue. The initial idea for the documentary was born out of the interest of Crudo volta—a young Rome-based collective—to follow me as Italian DJ playing music from Africa as well as producing some music influenced by sounds from the continent. The concept of Crudo Volta was to document the influence of African music around the world in a way that contextualised the music and showed human faces as opposed to an 'exported commodity'. There is always imagery to accompany music and this documented imagery in its purest, realest form. The first two Gqom Oh! releases showcased the music but there wasn't accompanying visual imagery.
It was really important for me, personally, to see sound meeting visual. I felt like the early interest from artists and blogs in Europe lacked a human aspect i.e. who were these guys? What did they look like? Who and what were their influences? Where did they come from? What was their social and cultural context? The documentary thus gives the listener a fuller picture and experience—which included socio-cultural imagery—and forms an interesting connection and ‘meeting point’ between artist and listener—especially across different geographies. It also really revealed the power of what we called 'bedroom culture' especially that of the new generation—creating in your own bedroom somewhere and how it connected with and affected so many other people across the world with such disparate realities.
A computer connected the Gqom Oh! guys in Durban township in South Africa to rooms in Europe. What we went on to discover though were nuanced similarities across both contexts—more than we imagined. The socio-cultural context of course is different but it really showed the realities of teenagers (and young people) and their experiences, their hopes and dreams, specific codes, slang, language, cultural isms and attitudes, what they do in their free time or when unemployed, whether facing harsh or not so harsh economic issues and how they reacted creatively and personally to what was going on around them. Couple that with the complex political and social realities of South Africa—especially in the Durban townships—and you find in-depth insight into the Gqom music scene.
How did you and Crudo Volta come to work together?
Actually, we personally know each other. Mike Calandra Achode, founder of Crudo Volta, and I grew up in Rome and have known each other for many years. We also both moved to London at different times. We reconnected and started sharing creative ideas again when I came to London in December 2015.
Tell us a bit more about the "taxi scene" and why it's so important.
It's fundamental. I learnt that "taxi approval" is very important for the artists. Gqom beats become hits after taxi drivers decide to play it when going around the township and city. Its a distinctive space where artists and people can listen to different songs loud and on good sounds systems with sub woofers. They also use taxis for parties at the taxi rank in the city centre and in the townships. It sort of reminded me of raves in the '90s in the UK when people met in rural areas with open spaces with car, vans and soundsystems.
What do you think Gqom needs for it to ensure longevity?
Gqom is in the hands of Durban's artists—it was born there and can only evolve locally—whether in terms of variety, evolving into another sound or new forms. Longevity or sheer continuity is all dependent on the scene itself. You will actually find now that it is already evolving and changing—with most of the Gqom artists going on to produce "Sgubhu" and Gqom itself is evolving into new forms such as "Core tribe". In any case, I am pretty sure that gqom will forever be a genre of the teenager and perhaps as they grow older, they decide for themselves to move on to other styles.
Stormzy went out there with Muzi last year and got really into Gqom. Can you foresee any grime/gqom crossovers?
Music is a universal language so hey, why not. It is always interesting to see different cultures and styles of music meeting—without superimposing on one another. From my point of view, the most important thing is to keep the styles pure. Sharing is done with respect for both styles. It'd be great to see what a collaboration looks like and actually, currently, as a label we are working on sharing files and remixes between European and Durban's producers.
Just as Britain is leaving the EU which is becoming more fractured anyway, Africa looks closer to becoming more unified with the All-African Passport. What sort of benefits will this have for musicians in African countries?
Interestingly and somewhat related, Western Africa formed ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) in 1975—creating a single trading bloc. I do not have all the relevant information of course but one clear advantage is the signifiant effect on DJs and musicians when it comes to tours and gigs. The ability to move around mean savings can be made logistically on travel and specific locations will not be discounted due to cost. This inevitably means that more musicians have the option—and opportunity of their work being accessed. Music consumers can also listen to more variety particularly via live events or shows.
There is an argument for music sharing but in the information age, it is not easy to quantify this. However, it may see more doors being opened for it—which could in turn encourage more collaboration. This is not to say that collaborations are not already taking place across borders though. Sony music in South Africa and its producers have done a lot of work with Nigerian artists. Listening, it is clear that the artists have maintained their distinctive, individual and cultural styles but produced a sound that is relatable and enjoyable across both cultural contexts. One might attribute this to Nigerian music becoming more mainstream and Sony being based in South Africa. Nonetheless, we could see more opportunity for sharing.
The (earlier mentioned) ECOWAS commission pledged to strengthen partnerships with organisers of the Festival Des Musiques Urbaines d'Anoumba—a festival held in Abidjan—as a way of "deepening integration of the region using culture and music". It is clear from the line up that the richness of music across the continent can be explored and enjoyed. So far, it does not look like a bad thing. Furthermore, the festival attracts a growing number of young artists who are (as cliché as it sounds) the future of music. This could be another benefit in that there is new opportunity for a new set of voices to be heard further away from 'home' and its surroundings.
The other possibility could be that ideas can be shared in terms of how different types of music and sounds are made and the methods used to do so. There is both sharing and an appreciation of individuality, culture, innovation and history. As Kadré Désiré Ouedraogo [President of ECOWAS] said, music is (and always has been) an instrument of integration and communion—without language, religious, racial or geographical barriers.
What are your plans for the future?
As a DJ, I am working on a tour with DJ Lag for the winter season—spreading the Gqom sound through Europe. We will start the tour at the Unsound festival. As a producer, I am working on my own new productions—some of which are in collaboration with some of the Gqom Oh! artists. As a label, we plan to release two 12" inch vinyls between October and January 2017 and finally release (after a second trip to Durban in December) The Sound Of Durban Vol. 2 in a double LP compilation