A nation defined by its innate love of house music, the Rainbow Nation is going through a renaissance which has helped spur GQOM OH! — a fresh Rome-based dance label exploring the sound of Durban — and a recent Boiler Room in Johannesburg involving Maya Jane Coles. We hopped on a long-haul flight to meet the makers, hear the sounds and get a little taste of the nightlife...
In the summer of 1988, musicians from around the world made their way to London to celebrate the 70th birthday of then still imprisoned anti-apartheid campaigner Nelson Mandela with a special concert at Wembley Stadium. Headlined by international acts such as Stevie Wonder, Sting and Dire Straights, it was the event’s South African contingent that ended up attracting the most attention (musically at least) with legendary artists Ladysmith BlackMambazo, Miriam Makeba and Lucky Dube delivering stand-out performances as they finally received the recognition their ample talents so richly deserved outside of their isolated homeland.
Few managed to follow in their footsteps for the next couple of decades with the South African music scene, whilst known for its variety, vibrancy and innovation remaining largely a product for domestic consumption. But now nearly 30 years on, the winds of change are once again blowing across South Africa as a determined set of young artists, having forged their musical identities in the cultural melting pot of the Rainbow Nation open up the emerging scenes to which they belong with wild abandon.
Exemplified by the arrival of Ballantine’s and Boiler Room in Johannesburg as part of their True Music Platform, the rest of the world is now looking to South Africa for inspiration and for good reason. Inviting London house heroine Maya Jane Coles to curate a special line-up showcasing local talent, the exploits of Culoe De Song, Black Motion and 2lani The Warrior will live long in the memory of all those fortunate enough to be in attendance or watching live online.
The movement came to a head last month with the first True Music EP, which features a slice of harmonic tech-house remix of Maya Jane Coles ('Won't Let You Down') from Culoe De Song. But why is now the right time for the sounds of South African house to go global?
Pretoria pairing Black Motion have a simple answer, they believe South Africa’s creative community simply weren’t willing to export their music until they’d reached a point wherein their respective sounds had truly established an authentic identity.
“The best artists here don’t want to make just make house music there are people already doing that all over the world, we want to make South African house music” says Thabo Smal, one half of the duo. “Where others have lost their way, we’ve retained our identity and give our own flavour to what we do. In our productions as Black Motion we do that in a number of ways. We use traditional tribal drums and other instruments that our ancestors would have enjoyed playing. We use our languages. South Africa has 11 official languages and we use those to make our sound identifiable. Zulu, Tsonga or any of the others. It has always been important for people to know who we are and where we are from.”
Whipping the crowd into a frenzy with their drum-led assault on the senses, Black Motion’s earnest approach to live performance — ‘Soshanguve style’ — is in many ways reflective of the country as a whole. Inspired by their past whilst looking to the future, they look every part a perfect synthesis of man and machine.
“There are also native instruments that accompany the cultures these languages belong to,” adds Thabo’s production partner Rob Murda. “Each language has its own distinct sense of musicality and it’s important to respect their heritage when using them. It’s all about matching and fusing different aspects of our culture with outside influences to make something fresh and new. We want to convey a raw sound that’s unmistakable without forgetting who we are.”
Witnessing the impact language can have on live performance first-hand — 2lani The Warrior’s use of tribal chanting within during his Boiler Room set coupled with an uncanny ability to generate passionate callbacks from his tuned in crowd being nothing short of mesmerizing — we’re inclined to agree.
Culoe De Song, one of the nation’s most recognisable international exports (who's dropped his excellent Watergate mix last November) sees it a little differently and whilst his country’s music makers — and listeners — have been busy having fun developing independently, free from the burden of trends, record company hype and genre, he believes that the key difference now is that the scale of ambition shown by South African musicians has changed.
“In years gone by the sum of an artist’s ambitions might be to be big here, to be celebrated at home, be on TV and radio in South Africa, date a celebrity. Any coverage abroad would be seen as a cherry on top. If RBMA or Boiler Room came through, then our artists would be interested but would never consider it a priority over a local project.”
It’s an attitude that becomes a lot easier to understand when walking the streets of Johannesburg with music and the free spirited dancing that so often accompanies it pervading every part of South African life. As clichéd as it sounds, music is everywhere, be it taxi drivers — and on one memorable occasion the metro police — playing kwaito at nearly 100db in their cars during daytime hours, Zulu speaking rappers laying down rhymes over conga drums outside art galleries or effortlessly stylish kids treating you to a slickly delivered dance routine at the traffic lights, you feel like you’re never too far away from the action no matter what you’re doing or where you are.
With so much on their doorstep, one can see why acclaim in foreign lands might not be as coveted as it in other countries. Still, with the globetrotting success of esteemed performers such as Culoe and superstar selector Black Coffee blazing a trail for the next generation of producers and DJs to follow, it’s something that appears to be changing with the internet and online platforms such as Boiler Room aiding those dreaming of playing overseas.
“The world is more connected than ever,” Culoe posits. “With everyone looking for fresh, new ideas it’s only natural that they’d look here. What was weird is that we didn’t always look to make the most of the opportunities available. Artists like me and Black Coffee playing so many shows in Europe and the US really showed people that there is an appetite for our sound beyond our borders, and the success that can come with broadening your horizons.”
Having established that the sky’s the limit in regards to international expansion, what defines South African dance music in 2017? Put simply, the people. Either through reshaping outside influences into something totally different or creating entirely new genres from the ground up, the strength of South African dance music lay in the ingenuity of its artists and the commitment of its listeners — gqom being the latest movement to come off the country’s creative conveyor belt.
Gqom, like punk, techno or grime was never meant to get ‘big’. Having started out in Durban’s notorious townships as a local sound for local people, the stripped back, lo-fi house/breakbeat/techno hybrid has never enjoyed the support and infrastructure of television, radio or record labels and yet its popularity continues to grow. Its success can be almost entirely attributed to the DIY nature of the youngsters making it despite the lack of financial reward.
Raw, energetic and uncompromising, gqom’s rise from the depths of the South African underground to the playlists of Europe’s foremost tastemakers is all the more remarkable for being able to retain its identity whilst appealing to new audiences.
It’s this desire to stay true to its roots that has inspired so many people outside of its traditional heartlands. “No we never thought it would get this big” says Que T as one half of Durban duo the Distruction Boyz. “We thought we were doing something small in South Africa for ourselves but it just keeps on growing, getting bigger and bigger.
“We feel a lot of responsibility to represent the scene in an genuine way to foreign audiences. The music has to reflect what is really happening in Durban. We’re proud to be South African and happy that the world is embracing us for being us, we’ve created an image and a sound we can all be proud of. It is important to show our country in a positive light. That us, as kids from the townships have become ambassadors for our nation to the world with our music is really amazing.”
A humble scene, somewhat egalitarian in nature, the vast majority of gqom tracks are still given away online for free, shared between friends to play at clubs and parties. This community spirit is key to the movement’s continued development explains Que T’s other production half, Goldmax.
“Gqom is organic. It’s not something that was designed to be sold. This is important as it gave it time to properly form its own identity and become what it is today without any pressure to make money. It was started by us for us on the equipment or software we could afford or had access to.
“It’s difficult to describe but easy to feel. Once the music gets to you it gets to you. There is an understanding between the listener and the producer straight away as the people dancing to gqom are often also making it themselves! The mentality is distinct from any other scene, there may be some similarities to hip-hop or grime or house but it’s always clearly gqom. We live it.”
And how do the pairing feel about other parts of the world — in particular the UK — waking up to the sound? “We love it,” Que T beams. “We’re happy that people are being influenced by us. We’re not worried about them taking over as we know they can’t do it like we do! It’s hardcore here, sometimes after making a gqom track, I’ve gone in so hard I feel like I need to soak my feet in hot water afterwards to relax and recover!”
So why do these niche strands of South African dance music strike such a chord with European listeners? With the sound's greatest strength arguably laying within the boundless energy of its acts' live performances, the more adventurous music lover’s perpetual search for exciting new sounds finds fertile ground within South Africa’s sonic landscape, allowing us to find affinity with certain electronic touch points while traversing a whole new world entirely.
Finding a home within the diverse tastes of sets put together by the likes of boundary-teasing selectors like Benji B and Kode9, it's no surprise gqom tracks have been slotting seamlessly alongside UK funky, grime and the sparser, more skeletal ends of dubstep and drum & bass to make up one technicoloured dancefloor tapestry.
It’s this juxtaposition that GQOM OH! boss Nan Kolè believes to be at the heart of much of the South African underground’s appeal abroad.
"Every so often you need something to shake up the order, something that bursts onto the scene for itself whilst reinvigorating the older genres,” he explains. “In many ways we haven’t had a new scene make a serious impact since dubstep which revitalized electronic, inspiring a whole host of developments. For me gqom has the potential to do the same, this is why lots of people are being inspired by its revolutionary potential and spreading the word."
And it’s not just producers from the bassier end of the spectrum taking notes from gqom, with Boiler Room Johannesburg headliner Maya Jane Coles feeling that lots of producers in the UK would do well to adopt the start-to-finish attitude of their African counterparts.
“I didn’t realise I was unusual in doing everything myself!” Maya says modestly. “There are so many artists that I really looked up to that I later on found out hadn’t created the material I associated with them — at least not in the way I thought they did — with them perhaps sitting in on one of the three sessions that a track was made.
“I just wouldn’t feel right handing the engineering of my tracks over to someone else,” she continues echoing the sentiments shared with us by many local producers during our time in Jo’burg. “I’ve always been very hands on with my work and pretty much always wanted to do everything myself. It wouldn’t feel like my work otherwise. It’s great to see people take a real sense of ownership of what they’re doing and I’m really pleased that a number of producers are taking a similar approach. With production so much more accessible now, the ability to share your vision exactly as you intended is an easier process than ever before and that’s allowing upcoming producers to offer up unadulterated versions of their music.”
With a 16-track compilation about drop on M.A.N.D.Y's Berlin label Get Physical called 'African Gets Physical', there is a sense that this resurgence of tribal, Afro-flavoured techno is only just beginning. Connecting the dots between the balmy, primal and percussive elements of South African house and the techier, deeper and more electronic elements of Europian dancefloors by importing talent such as Aero Manyelo, Ryan Murgatroyd and Thor Rixon (to name only a few), Get Physical make stake their own claim and make a very compelling case.
For all the external interpretations and explorations of South African house and techno, though, the key to its burgeoning international success very much lies at home. The current spotlight is revealing a zeitgeist defined ultimately by its roots; a scene deliberately dedicated to underpinning a sense of authenticity within each and every track. And with a wealth of still stuff unchecked and more to come, our eyes and ears are eager for more — and then some.