Words: Michael Lawson
Nan Kolè is responsible for shining a light on a fascinating new strand of electronic music brewed up in the bustling townships of Durban, South Africa. Gqom is the by-product of talented youngsters discovering music software and applying elements of their culture to the production process. Deriving from Zulu communities and characterised by broken beats, Kolè has spent the last three years uncovering gqom in all shapes and forms.
Through his record label, Gqom Oh!, the Italian DJ and musical activist has succeeded in showcasing this apocalyptic, highly-infectious style to a wider audience. ‘The Sound of Durban Vol. 1’, a compilation released on Gqom Oh! last year, was met with almost unanimous praise, putting both the label and the genre firmly on the map.
Catching up with him via Skype, it becomes clear from the offset that the project is driven by his fascination and passion for the Durban scene, rather than any kind of commercial ambition. The excitement in his voice when discussing promising, up-and-coming Gqom artists is testament to this.
He stresses how he wants his label to act ‘as a bridge’ connecting the sounds of Durban with the wider world, but confesses the fantastic reception given to Gqom Oh!’s maiden releases by European-based DJs and critics has taken him by surprise. ‘It’s music made by teenagers to get people dancing at school or at parties, so it (the recognition) was very unexpected in a way.’
The fact that Kolè runs the label from London is emblematic of the increasingly globalised world of electronic music, where obscure, far-flung sounds have become just as accessible as those generated by local scenes.
Listen to Kolè in the mix for Boiler Room below and read our full interview in which we talk about the origins of Gqom, the artists to look out for and what the future holds for Gqom Oh!:
SG: First of all, for those who are unaware, what is gqom music? And what are its defining characteristics?
Nan Kolè: Gqom is a kind of electronic music that’s characterised by broken beats. Its origins are in the Zulu culture of Durban, South Africa, but now the sound is spreading all over the world. It’s very hypnotic and very repetitive, with a gradual crescendo.
SG: Gqom must have really resonated with you, to the extent that you decided to form a record label around it. Can you talk us through the formation of your label, Gqom Oh!:
NK: I first heard gqom at the start of 2013, and by the start of 2014 I started to plan my label. From the beginning, the aim was to promote the sound and act as a bridge from South Africa to Europe. I especially wanted to show the cultural context, because I feel at times there was confusion – like some people knew a little bit about gqom but nobody knew about the artists. So I decided to do a compilation because each artist has their own unique style.
SG: Gqom first caught my attention when Pearson Sound dropped a track from ‘The Sound of Durban Vol. 1’ at the 2016 edition of Dekmantel (‘Cruel Dance’ by Cruel Boyz). The compilation has been incredibly well-received, with other well-known DJs such as Gilles Peterson and Toddla T giving it air time on their radio shows. It must be very rewarding seeing fellow music lovers showing appreciation for the Durban sound?
NK: It’s been amazing for sure. My aim was to get recognition for gqom, but I’ve been taken-aback by the support that’s been shown by big names from all over the world. It’s really strange for the producers because gqom is very underground – it’s music made by teenagers to get people dancing at school or at parties – so yeah it was very unexpected in a way.
SG: Out of the current batch of gqom artists, who do you think has what it takes to make it on the world stage?
NK: To be honest, I can give you a list of names! I think the big potential is in DJ Lag, Distruction Boyz, Dominowe, Emo Kid and also Citizen Boy. Citizen Boy is this young guy from the Avoca Hills township and is the founder of the Mafia Boyz crew. Benji B is a massive supporter of their music – not only on his radio show but also in his DJ sets. He talked of how the energy on the dancefloor is electric when he drops their tracks. These guys all have serious potential.
SG: And looking to the future, what does Gqom Oh! have lined-up for the forthcoming year?
NK: As an Italian, I’m a notoriously bad organiser! Our next planned release is from TLC Fam – a trio of bad, crazy guys from the Newlands West township. They have a hardcore interpretation of gqom and I want to showcase this to a European audience. After that we’re going to be focusing on sghubu – the new style in Durban. It couples the 4x4 kick of house music with dark gqom vibes. It’s important that my label presents the sound of Durban, and now this sound is sghubu.
SG: Finally, what are your current impressions of Glasgow and its music scene? Will this be your first time in the city?
NK: This will be my first time in Glasgow and Scotland. I don’t know a lot of specifics about the city, but I’ve heard there’s a very attentive approach to different styles of music. Also, a lot of artists that I really respect are from Glasgow, such as Kode9.
Nan Kolè plays 6 Music Festival at SWG3 this Saturday night (25th) alongside the likes of Optimo, Nightwave, Simian Mobile Disco, Dusky and Lindstrom. Kolè's 'Malumz EP' is available on April 14th via Black Acre (stream 'Bayefal' from the EP above).