/ 8 December 2017

Surfing the Gqom Wave to oblivion

Man with the Midas touch: Maphorisa's talents aren't restricted to gqom
Man with the Midas touch: Maphorisa's talents aren't restricted to gqom

To call it a wave or anything similarly short-lived is to undermine it. Watching the Gqom Wave documentary, a seeming accompaniment to DJ Maphorisa’s Gqom Wave compilation, one can’t help but notice the faddish excitement that seems to accompany the inevitable crossover journey that gqom must take as it moves from a CNN of the RDP townships to a global dance phenomenon.

In the South African mainstream, it is nothing short of a biblical moment. A moment of mass, ecstatic conversion that welcomes all newcomers to its church, newcomers that are embarrassingly late, like when the BLK JKS had to recruit Americans and Europeans first for you to believe that their gospel offered any redemption.

Forgotten in such instances are the movement’s lay preachers. Its pioneers, toiling far away from the new, “wavy” church building and its shiny-shoed converts. Sure, anything “new” eventually generates excitement and frenzy to even a doubting Thomas. But history, at some point, must carve its own agenda; an agenda sympathetic to those who were there to witness it not as mere bystanders but as its principal masons.

Of course, Maphorisa is above the parochialisms of genre, being an international star producer in his own right, collaborating with the likes of Noah “40” Shebib and Nineteen85 to create Drake’s Afrobeats song One Dance. In South Africa, he has an illustrious history as a go-to guy for latter-stage Kalawa Jazmee hits. His view of music is panoramic, spanning the gamut of dance culture. What’s more, the man is blessed with something of a Midas touch.

I doubt the direction of the documentary is much of his own doing. Hell, the guy almost plays second fiddle in a doccie paralleling his own album. It’s just that, watching it again and again, something is amiss and it smells like record industry politricks. While Tira appears to have no contractual relationship with Sony, Maphorisa is signed to Sony as an artist with his company Blaqboy Music, associated with Sony through an empowerment deal.

As a cultural artefact, Gqom Wave is closer to cold-hearted erasure than a case of a few missing chapters in a revised bible. How else does one explain that the only two groups in the documentary initially interested in surfing any sort of “wave” are the Distruction Boyz and the Rudeboyz, with the rest being dabblers or survivalist style adopters.

When DJ Vumar tells you that everybody hated it, believe him because that’s as close to confessional as the documentary gets. As we know and appreciate, confession is good for the soul, and yet Gqom Wave doesn’t explicitly tell you why hateration was the status quo.

Besides its unique sense of rhythm, born from the fact that it was actual dancers who were turning to Fruity Loops and the like as a way of sonically decoding their own dance moves, gqom had other elements that seemed to cast it as a music of the downtrodden. It was usually unmastered and knew no respect for the social hypocrisy that would have us believe that youth do not take drugs.

The subject matter, a byproduct of the music’s insistence on documenting its surroundings in real time, was often the excuse used by commercial radio jocks as a reason for snubbing it. This is what makes Tira’s use of the word “vulgar” in reference to DJ Lusiman’s Wamnandi uQoh (licenced to DJ Cndo through Afrotainment) interesting. Once upon a time not long ago, gqom was a veritable swear word, not for the topics covered in the music as such, but the idea itself. Whether intentional or not, it came to be the very antithesis of a sound represented, to this very day, by the figure of DJ Tira: Durban kwaito.

For Tira to be positioned by Refiloe Ramogase (director at Sony Music Entertainment Africa) as “kind of at the centre of making this evolution from kwaito into gqom” is revelatory of the game being played here. More than an EPK for Maphorisa’s project, the film is a sales pitch about who the supposed kingpins or innovators of the genre are. That is all well and good. Those with resources and power will invariably rise and fight to stay at the top of the food chain.

Tira himself was once a “rudeboy” in Durban’s cultural landscape, daring to tread where no one else would. But whereas Tira self-consciously acknowledges his distance from gqom’s source (“We kept on hearing this raw sound that was coming from the townships”), Ramogase is intent on placing him at the centre. What this does is remove several key contributors from the record, especially those who evolved a parallel vocal tradition within gqom.

When Ramogase says a “recent evolution in gqom which has excited me was that … now you’re beginning to see song structure sitting on top of these really, really hypnotic beats,” one wonders how “recent” recent is. He could be giving a young shout-out to 2012, a historic year in gqom, in the sense that Madanon rode a DJ Njiva beat to create the classic QoQoQo.

But the visuals that accompany Ramogase’s statement all feature Tira, as captured in videos, or artists associated with Tira such as vocalist Tipcee. The blind spots in the narrative ignore the fact that the likes of vocal groups like oBen10, often rapped as the actual life source of the party rather than documenting it as an entity separate to themselves. It was a rough-edged, vital science cultivated from gqom lived as life as opposed to being seen as the newest style.

Forget song structure, what the likes of Bhejane, oBen10 and Bhizer did back then, unhindered by the brevity of radio edits (radio never touched them then, remember), was to tell actual narratives of youngsters wilding out; spending their parents’ grocery money on booze or inviting their friends over for low-key parties of liver and Cooee (a cheap brand of soft drinks). In some cases, as in the DJ Luvas-produced track iDimoni, Bhejane, oBen10 and Bobo played on the social hysteria generated by gqom, willfully taking on the role of “gqom demons” or those possessed by it. This was gqom as kwaito’s errant, teenaged child, dodging responsibilities but having to return home to face the music.

Today, mainstream gqom vocals pale in comparison. A good, quick example of that is the borrowing (some say outright theft) of the Pluto lyric “Ganda ganda matiyo/ iynsimbi zika Luvas/ zibangichaos” to “Ganda ganda matiyo, iynsimbi zabelungu”. The first iteration is in the tradition of a vocalist bigging up their producer. The second, a Babes Wodumo borrowing that led to a highly publicised scandal in August, is merely a kiddies chant that is just a, well … a kiddies chant.

And as for the Gqom Wave documentary, it is a hyperventilation party that is a year or two late for its own party. It is an admittance by the industry that a new sound has emerged as the national lingua franca.

But more than anything, Gqom Wave is a retelling of the same old story: of the underground making it and the industry chopping it. When they start speaking of standardised patterns, it’s usually the cue to change the dial, to turn the TV off or, better yet, to take a sho’t left in search of that new beat.