Drums Crossing Borders

It’s a fair argument to say that Africa is leading the conversation in dance music these days. It’s certainly making an impact in Japan, where South African gqom has become a rallying point for underground electronic artists. The genre’s trance-inducing chants, militant drums, and heady atmosphere have enticed a whole swath of Japanese artists, particularly those who had already been inspired by Chicago footwork and the locally-brewed gorge music. Tokyo’s KΣITO is among those ranks, and he’s become a pivotal figure there, producing some of the most interesting music, organizing parties, and running a record label dedicated to the sound.

His most recent EP, called Jakuzure Butoh and released on Taiwan’s Sea Cucumber, utilizes the language of gqom and gorge to express a deeply personal vision. It’s a high-pressure, cinematic project using massive drums and pristine production to full effect. It’s sturdy and unwavering, resting on hypnotic repetition but full of surprising flourishes, subtle layers, and nimble switch-ups. Steely cymbals and muscular kicks drive the project incessantly forward, trampling over any opposition that gets in its way. Breathy static, guttural subs, and brushed drum work fill in the gaps between the crisply separated frequencies. On “lara,” nerve-wracking arpeggios flutter in high registers over molten-core bass lines. Slim, clattering woodblocks and glittering triangle chimes dart in between gigantic o-daiko drums on “Simo Uma.” And “Makimura” overflows with swing, syncopation, and polyrhythms while vibrating synths peer deep into the recesses of your soul.

KΣITO has been DJing since he was a youngin, getting an early start at 14 with his older brother. He got his first MPC when he was 17 and was making boom bap inspired by classic producers like RZA and DJ Premier but also more experimental artists like Flying Lotus. He was drawn to footwork because it was a similar production style based on drum machine programming and samples but with more complex rhythms. Like most of us outside of Chicago, he was exposed to it on the Bangs & Works compilations by British label Planet Mu.

Only a year later gorge appeared in his backyard, a purposefully loose style that asks only that participants include big tom drums and call themselves bootists instead of artists. Footwork and gorge have been intertwined in Japan since the beginning. Footwork OG Traxman was booked at a party in 2012 alongside Hanali, who’s ostensibly the mastermind of gorge. KΣITO was there in the building and many of the footwork parties he went to after that also featured gorge.

Gqom was started in the late-2000s by Black boys in the segregated townships of Durban in South Africa. But it was basically unknown to the outside world until 2016 when it started getting picked up in the UK and the global underground. By the late 2010s it was featured in popular music across Africa and the world. Its techy, off-kilter rhythms make it attractive for many of the same reasons as footwork, but the difference in BPM and beat patterns make them difficult to blend. “They don’t overlap much,” KΣITO complains. “I struggled for years to play both in the same set!”

KΣITO was there for gqom immediately, incorporating it into his music months after hearing it for the first time on his Hatagaya EP. “I’d never heard grooves like that and I loved the dark atmosphere,” he gushes. His fascination only grew over time and he’s more captivated by gqom these days than anything, although he blends it with his other inspirations and combines it with cinematic gorge explicitly on the new EP. He’s dropped gorge/gqom combos before too, with tracks appearing on GORGE.IN complications alongside Indus Bonze, another Japanese boostist similarly known for pairing the styles.

To spread the gospel, KΣITO started throwing a gqom club night called TYO GQOM alongside other artists with the same goals. The party revolves around gqom but they play a lot of African music like amapiano, afrohouse, and singeli along with sounds from around the world. Although they’ve yet to book any artists from South Africa, TYO GQOM runs a record label called USI KUVO and has released records from Durban artists like Loktion Boyz. KΣITO hopes to visit the genre’s birthplace as well but the closest he’s gotten so far was this year’s Nyege Nyege Festival in Uganda, which was his first time in Africa ever.

Sea Cucumber boss Tzusing says he’s been listening to KΣITO for years and that when he finally visited Taipei, he was blown away by his live MPC set: “It was hypnotic,” he says. Tzusing has been repeatedly playing KΣITO’s unreleased gqom tracks in most of his sets, and those are what made it to the EP they released together. They’re clearly dancefloor tested and approved.