We investigate the rise of gqom sounds in Nigerian pop songs from Patoranking, D'banj, Niniola and others.
South Africa's buzzing sound, 'gqom,' is taking over Nigerian pop. A subgenre of house, gqom originates from the Zulu dominated neighbourhoods of Durban, the country's second largest city, and is characterised by its starkness and skeletal framework, believed to reflect the social and living conditions of the townships. Big name proponents include Babes Wodumo, Distruction Boyz,DJ Maphorisa, and DJ Lag, the self-named "Gqom King."
Ever ready to hop on a big wave, an increasing number of Nigerian pop artists are adopting gqom productions, the most prominent examples being "Available" by Patoranking, "Issa Banger" by D'banj and "Leg Work" by Niniola. Others have been "Jacurb Dance" by MC Galaxy and "Craze" by Sololo, Orezi and Mystro.
Common to all is the grafting of Nigerian songwriting sensibilities to the sturdy framework of gqom: a blend potent enough to dictate the bulk of music released in a year, as was the case with "Pon Pon"—the import from Ghana which defined the Nigerian pop soundscape in 2017.
Gqom in Zulu translates loosely to "drum," or the actual sound it makes. It is typically defined by pounding kick drums which makes for a hollow percussive framework filled, variously, with vocal samples, myriad instruments, reverb and synths.
The gqom take over of Nigerian pop may have been clearly signaled when Patoranking released "Available" in November 2017, but an earlier precedent was set by Small Doctor when his breakout hit "Penalty" was released in December 2016.
His singing and songwriting may be drawn from the pool of juju-influenced Nigerian pop, but the beat arrangement has a striking resemblance to "Sgubhu 6 (Gqom Edit)" by Forgotten Souls taken from the compilation album Gqom Oh! The Sound of Durban. Curated by Nan Kole, a London-based DJ of Italian origins, the aim of the project is to filter from the wide pool of gqom productions, a selection of songs that is representative of the boundless creativity in what is still a nascent genre.
The heavy drumming on "Penalty" also recalls the era of heavy-rhythm Nigerian pop before the rise of Pon Pon, and this, combined with Small Doctor's own deployment of juju and pidgin, may have masked the bed of gqom on which it lays. D'banj does not go to such lengths on "Issa Banger" but has simply chosen to copy and paste the same phrasing, talk-as-rap, and repetitive chants coupled to catchy phrases found in gqom. This combination has re-energised D'banj on song and has renewed this listener's own interest in his music project which, until the release of King Don Come (2017), was out of new music ideas.
For her part, Niniola has done a good job of establishing house music in the Nigerian pop consciousness with a handful of releases—"Maradona," "Ibadi" and "Jigi Jigi"—which culminated in her debut album "This Is Me" (2017). On "Leg Work," her own take on gqom, she astutely cross-pollinates the heavy polyrhythms of gqom with Yoruba and Nigerian-isms like "leg work"—a football parlance that also alludes to the shapeliness of women when dancing. A close example is "Pana" by Tekno and producer Kriss Beatz who together reimagined the mellow beat arrangements from Ghana with indigenous colloquialisms.
Asked why gqom is gradually being absorbed into Nigerian pop, Niniola's answer is simple: "In Nigeria we like to dance and party, so anything that puts us in that mood is very much welcomed."
Dancing and specifically dance waves are integral to the propagation of gqom in South Africa and in Nigeria, where the novelty and excitement in new moves feeds into the music and vice-versa. Even more interesting is how, in practice, the bhenga dance fits snugly on the typical Nigerian pop songs, in the same way the shaku shaku, Nigeria's new fad, goes well with gqom.
Does Niniola believe gqom will dominate the country's pop music output this year, as Pon Pon did in 2017? "Honestly I really can't say, but you know what keeps a sound going in Nigeria is if we have a lot of people doing it—and doing it WELL. Then it stays for a while."