Phelimuncasi: Ama Gogela’s Album Review

Phelimuncasi wants to immerse his audience in a state of crazy and uninhibited dance. The South African trio of Makan Nana, Khera and Malathon make hard, propelling gqom, a vigorous strain of house music that sprung from the townships of Durban in the early 2010s. On their restless and vibrant second album, Ama Gogela– named after a menacing South African bee – Phelimuncasi draws on a glossary of local growers to shape their searing, urgent club cuts. Uninterested in the subtlety or slow combustion of accumulations, they prefer sensory overload: clicking, repetitive polyrhythms and rumbling voices of call and response.

Gqom is inherently democratic. Its exact point of origin is unknown, and the genre has spawned a kind of tinkering tradition: a guy using production software in his bedroom spawned a more robust and intense variant of kwaito, the cleaner and tradition of South African house music. It’s more likely that a handful of fledgling producers conducted this experiment simultaneously, tapping into the collective unconscious of Durban and its surrounding communities. Produced largely on FruityLoops, gqom’s early tracks were unmixed and unmastered, transmitted in massive group chats on WhatsApp, and offered for free download on genre-dedicated websites. Although the songs were often too poor in quality to be played on the radio, local taxis played the latest hits from their consoles to attract people coming out of the nightclubs.

Conservatives have targeted the genre, which has condemned its artists for encouraging delinquent behavior and drug use. Some titles have been banned from South African radio, while local theaters have suffered a wave of police raids. Phelimuncasi often alludes to this form of artistic oppression on Ama Gogela. On the creepy, drone-boosted “Maka Nana,” featuring South African rapper Bhejane, the MCs cite an approaching police van and subsequent arrests. “We’re just having fun,” they chant, bobbing back and forth in isiZulu over DJ Scoturn’s crisp hi-hats. “It’s dark entertainment.” Rather than smoothing over imperfections with sparkling pop melodies, Phelimuncasi embraces the grit with a barrage of guttural bass and sibilant percussion.

Phelimuncasi’s work is often self-referential, documenting the club scene in their local township of Mlaszi – the drinks and dance moves but also the mess. In this way, they shape their own narrative, one of challenge and camaraderie. Like so many censored schools of art – punk, dada, drill – Phelimuncasi’s work points to an entire community that is backing down. They are reinforced by the collective; their music, with its clattering, incessant beats, elicits a physical response, designed to be heard in public. On “Kdala Ngiwa Ngivuka”, Malathon admits to being “hardened” by history but strives to rejoice despite adversity. “Please stop hating,” he sings in his round, low register as robotic chirps echo in the background. “Just listen to my good music and dance like you have no future.”

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