Okmalumkoolkat: gqom, ‘H0ly 0xygen’ & speaking through dance.

Okmalumkoolkat is a dancer, rapper and DJ who is sought after locally and internationally as an ambassador of “gqom”, the home-brewed blend of deep house and Zulu influences. He headlined all four nights of the Durban July parties; next are shows in Cape Town, Austria and Holland, and  an album due for release in Vienna. Best you learn more about this multi-morphing son of the digital village.

This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” on 2014-07-08.


Okmalumkoolkat also goes by DJ Zharp Zharp, and is part of the Boyzn Buck$ posse and the Dirty Paraffin duo. When he’s doing a kind of slow-drunk body-pop to legacy Kraftwerk tunes, he goes by OK Robotnik, and if you scratch deep enough, you’ll find works by him as King Gqom, Future Mfana, Sjambok, The Zulu Compurar and also DJ Partytime. Many skills, many faces and many names. Born Smisi Zwane in Umlazi outside Durban, Okmalumkoolkat (say it “Okay-ma-lum-cool-cat”) got an early first taste of dancing. At the house of a cousin, who was in a pantsula dance crew, he would mimic and join in dances.

“I’ve always been in dance groups,” he says between arrangements to finalise a new mix-tape for BoyznBuck$ and the release of “H0ly 0xygen”, a four-track EP as Okmalumkoolkat to be released on Viennese label Affine Records. “They say I started dancing in 1995. In actual fact I started when I was four or five. You’re young – and everything is a sponge. Throughout my life I’ve been in dance groups. Musicians that can’t dance usually need to collaborate with dancers on their stage to add more visuals; more depth for the show. It’s just like how two people collaborate when they are doing a tango or a cha-cha-cha, you know? Communication. I respect dancing; I put it on a par with rapping or singing or anything verbal. I haven’t really been enlightened about exactly what the messages are that my body is saying, but it’s communication – body language, and people talk with it.”

‘Gqom is kinda like the stepchild of house. Are their other parents?  I’m talking traditional Zulu drums. So the world and the roots are the father of the stepchild that is gqom.”

   – Okmalumkoolkat on gqom

Zwane rose to the attention of Durban and Johannesburg audiences through dance and to Cape Town electronic dance music fans as DJ Zharp Zharp, but his international break was as a vocalist, adding his voice to the track “Boomslang”, which was released by London producer trio LV in 2010.

Okmalumkoolkat by Jeff Rikhotso

Okmalumkoolkat by Jeff Rikhotso

“That international hook-up…” recalls Okmalumkoolkat, “LV were the first guys who hit me up with something. I had been getting emails from people from all over the world, but I never though they’d be serious. It happened through Steve (Goodman aka Kode9, founder of the influential UK dubstep, grime and UK hardcore  record label Hyperdub – and, incidentally, holder of a Ph.D in philosophy with his thesis later expanded into a book on sonic warfare and the “ecology of fear”). (South African musician, producer and director) Spoek Mathambo (three time nominee for Best African Act in the international MOBO Awards) had played Steve some of my stuff. Gerv (Gordon), from LV, who has family in South Africa, was going to come down and play shows in Joburg. We had two hours at my house between his shows, and ‘Boomslang’ came out of that. Since that, it’s been like gravy. Sometimes people overseas send me stuff to work on; sometimes they fly me over to record or gig there.”

In fact, the two hours with Gerv Gordon led to Okmalumkoolkat being featured on eight of the ten songs on LV’s album “Sebenza”, and many features on mix-tapes and live sets through Gordon’s side-project, Okzharp. An important thread in the development of global electronic dance music over the past half-decade, especially in the UK and Europe, has been how producers there have lapped up the Afro-house twist that Mzansi producers and performers add to the wider genre of deep house. It’s sound that had a various genesis points, but was definitively appropriated and perfected in the heady, sweaty dance floors and “bumble raves”, small parties started by dance fans without the means or inclination to travel to Durban city clubs, and have subsequently become popular enough that city kids head out the them. The latest incarnation of these, in our tale of musical family-trees, is what’s been dubbed the gqom sound, which itself owes a debt to the “Bacardi House” style popularised out of Pretoria by DJ Spoko (both in Tzaneen as Marvin Ramelepe).

“The Durban sound is a very important part of what’s happening now,” Okmalumkoolkat says. “For a guy like me, growing up in Durban in the ‘90s, we were kind of the guys who put it on, who appreciated house music. At some point, I don’t know where or how it happened, the Bacardi House’ sound was big in the taxis. That’s house from Pretoria, but Durban has always loved house, like this ‘dum dum du-du du-du’ Black Box vibe from way back, and sharing that vibe until now. Gqom is kinda like the stepchild of house. Are their other parents? There’s a kwaito mentality and a bit of a techno sensibility, but the main thing with i-gqom that makes it interesting – for people here in South Africa and people abroad: the Zulu drumming is there, and when I say Zulu I don’t mean from maskandi, I’m talking traditional Zulu drums. So the world and the roots are the father of the stepchild that is gqom. Man, a lot of stuff from other parts of the world, the melodies might lead, or the song arrangement tells you where it is all going. If you’ve been listening to that all your life, with a house beat that just four/four to the floor – it’s a nice change!”

“I respect dancing; I put it on a par with rapping or singing or anything verbal… It’s communication – body language, and people talk with it.”

   – Okmalumkoolkat talking booty

Okmalumkoolkat plays the Durban July parties, then heads to Swaziland for gigs and to record videos for “H0ly 0xygen” and heading to Austria and, with Dirty Paraffin, to the Appelsap festival in the Netherlands. There’s also interest, apparently, in Boyzn Buck$ playing the annual Swazi reed dance, and another UK collar with Okzharp.

“It’s just rolling with no stops and no direction, but lots of bookings,” says Okmalumkoolkat. “But I’ll say this: you’re in Cape Town and it is the World Design Capital, and I think that’s quite a big deal. If you can draw, or illustrate, or design or whatever, do it! There are no gatekeepers online – just do it and get it out there.”

This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus “Good Weekend” on 2014-07-08.

Okmalumkoolkat plays the annual Cape Town World Music Festival alongside Vieux Farka Touré (Mali), Mynabirds solo (USA), Thandiswa Mazwai, Jam You (China), Los Tacos (Colombia / S.A.), Madala Kunene (Durban), The Brother Moves On (Johannesburg), Guy Buttery, Derek Gripper, DJ Clock ft. Beatenberg, The Tulips Cape Malay Band and Choir, and more (18 and 19 July, Cape Town City Hall, tickets R280 from Computicket.com; details CapeTownWorldMusicFestival.com). More Okmalumkoolkat on Facebook, Twitter and Soundcloud, or start here: OkMalume.tumblr.com and OkMalume.blogspot.com.

Evan Milton interviews Okmalumkoolkat, Weekend Argus "Good Weekend", 2014-07-06

Evan Milton interviews Okmalumkoolkat, Weekend Argus “Good Weekend”, 2014-07-06


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