Ecko Bazz’s 2018 track “Tuli Banyo” was a breakout one for the newly founded Hakuna Kulala, and helped put both the label and the Ugandan MC on the map. On his excellent 2022 full length album Mmaso his gruff, urgent voice is as powerful as ever as he displays his vocal acrobatics in a thick fog of industrial, grimey noise that’s impossible to pin down to any specific genre. Whether you understand the Luganda lyrics or not, the anger and emotion that Ecko Bazz feels about police violence, drug abuse, and poverty in his country come across in his frantic, impassioned delivery. With production by Nyege Nyege pillars Debmaster and Slikback as well as DJ Die Soon and DJ Scotch Rolex, Mmaso is a paradigmatic Nyege Nyege/Hakuna Kulala release.
Nyege Nyege Tapes
African musicians have a long tradition of experimenting with electronic sounds, ever since synths made their way to the continent — just look at musicians like Francis Bebey, Mamman Sani, or William Onyeabor. South Africa in particular has long been a hotbed for the development of new styles of dance music, from the first synthetic sounds of bubblegum to the deep bass lines of kwaito, all the way up to the world-conquering rhythms of amapiano. In recent years the growing availability of cheaper computers and production software has enabled people in all corners of the continent to make music in the bedrooms or DIY studios, resulting in a proliferation of small, localized music scenes rooted in tradition, as well as genre-defying electronic experimentations influenced by sounds from all over the globe.
For close to a decade Uganda-based Nyege Nyege has been shining a spotlight on these diverse currents of contemporary African music with scores of releases on their two labels, by fostering a local scene through residency programs, and of course the legendary music festival. Their sole commitment is to releasing “dope music,” without regard for geography or genre: their extensive catalog includes everything from breakcore to metal, royal Buganda music, electrified versions of traditional acholi from northern Uganda, South African Gqom, Kenyan rap, and politically charged vogue and techno.
While Arlen Dilsizian and Derek Debru founded Nyege Nyege Tapes in 2016, they’d been throwing parties and organizing residencies in Kampala since 2013. Their Boutiq Electroniq events both sowed the seed for Nyege Nyege and played a huge role in galvanizing Kampala’s budding electronic music scene with regulars like Hibotep and DJ Kampire. For Dilsizian and Debru the goal wasn’t simply to foster a scene for local artists, but also to increase opportunities for exchange that went beyond the traditional “Western artist samples local musician then leaves” dynamic.
They invited artists from Europe, the USA, and Africa to stay in the Nyege Nyege Villa, nurturing unions like that between UK producers Spooky J, sound engineer and synthesist pq, and Kampala’s Nilotika Drum Ensemble, which gave birth to the electro-percussion group Nihiloxica. In 2015 several artists from around the world, including Scotland’s Mungo’s Hi Fi, Berlin-based Chinese DJ Zhao, Fokn Bois from Ghana, and underground LA MC and producer Riddlore traveled to Kampala to take part in extended residencies with Ugandan and Kenyan artists. With both international and local artists on board the time felt right for the crew to take the next step and organize a multi-day event, so in October 2015 fewer than 1000 people gathered on the shores of the Nile for the inaugural Nyege Nyege Festival.
In many ways the festival was a disaster: heavy rains and flooding washed away tents and caused the latrines to overflow, and performances had to be postponed or canceled due to major technical issues. But a legend was born. Nyege Nyege offered a space like no other, where traditional music and cutting edge club sounds combined for a kaleidoscopic, chaotic, and endlessly joyful experience. The feeling of openness and diversity extended beyond the music, and away from the prying eyes of the Ugandan authorities people felt free to dress, dance, and express themselves how they wanted — queer folk included, a rare luxury in Uganda at the time.
Word about this unique new festival spread to neighboring countries and beyond, and over the next few years Nyege Nyege continued to grow, embracing its pan-African goals. At the 2016 festival keyboard maestro Mamman Sani played his first ever concert outside of Niger, and artists from South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Morocco joined musicians from the East African underground scene at the lush, slightly dilapidated, mind-bending Nile Discovery Beach venue.
Founded that same year, the new Nyege Nyege Tapes label captured the Nyege Nyege ethos. Two of their first releases were the result of past residencies, with Riddlore reworking a series of field recordings on Afromutations and Kenyan hip-hop legend turned producer Disco Vumbi aka Alai K teaming up with Nilotica Drum Ensemble and Ugandan instrumentalist Martin Juicy Fonkodi on Electro Boutiq (named after the residency).
The third release resulted from one of the many hyper-local, DIY electronic scenes popping up even in the most remote areas of the continent. In Northern Uganda a handful of self-taught producers had been digitally recreating the sounds of Acholi music since the mid 2000s, in a bid to meet demand in the face of eroding tradition and the rarity of skilled musicians. Rather than being niche or underground though, electro-acholi has become the popular sound for weddings and celebrations in the region, largely taking the place of traditional live bands. Otim Alpha — a former bare-knuckle boxer, now one of the most “senior” and emblematic Nyege Nyege artists — and producer Leo Palayeng are two of the electro-acholi scene’s biggest artists, and Gulu City Anthems was the first release to compile their music and present it to an international audience.
Like electro-acholi, there are other styles emerging in different parts of Africa that have one foot in tradition and another in contemporary electronic music, and that have become rather mainstream in their cities or towns. Nyege Nyege has helped introduce the rest of the world to the breakneck rhythms of singeli, a frenetic, 300bpm dance style that was born in the working class neighborhoods of Dar es Salaam, as well as the looping, chopped up balafon samples and hectic rhythms of balani from Bamako’s raucous street parties.
While Nyege Nyege continue to highlight this mix of regional styles and electronics, their releases reflect the sheer diversity of music that’s being made on the continent, including that with stronger ties to global experimental or clubbing music than any specific local sound. Producers Slikback and Authentically Plastic for example draw on footwork, grime, techno, and gqom, while Kenya’s Duma build upon Nairobi’s early 2000s hardcore metal and punk scene with elements of grindcore, industrial techno, and even gabber.
In 2018, a pivotal year which saw the festival explode in size and several artists embark on European tours, Dilsizian and Debru founded sister label Hakuna Kulala to provide a platform for these more club-oriented, experimental sounds. Despite some growing pains, Nyege Nyege is now considered one of the world’s best electronic music festivals, their residencies continue to foster collaborations between groundbreaking artists from all over the world, and both labels continue churning out mind-blowing, surprising music from around the continent and beyond.
Otim Alpha and Leo Palayeng’s eletro-acholi compilation Gulu City Anthems was the first time many people heard about both Nyege Nyege and this fast paced poly-rhythmic music. Electro Acholi Kaboom from Northern Uganda gives a broader look into this scene with 15 tracks recorded between 2003 and 2015 by pioneers such as Leo Palayeng, Opiyo Twongweno, Producer Ronnie and Producer Lumix from the region’s several recording studios. Acholi music is always celebratory and upbeat, mostly based on Larakaraka folk songs traditionally performed at weddings and other important occasions, so the vibe on here is consistently joyful and the songs, with their digi-drum rhythms, hypnotic loops and call and response vocals are relentlessly catchy.
Alai K (aka Disco Vumbi) started out as a member of legendary group Ukoo Flani, but his musical interests extend far beyond hip-hop, having most recently combined techno and Kenyan polyrhythms on 2022’s Kila Mara. Alai honed his production skills at Nyege Nyege’s residency space and it was here that he teamed up with Nilotika Drum Ensemble and Ugandan multi instrumentalist Martin Juicy Fonkodi on his Boutiq Electronic EP, which brings together the sounds of the Kenyan coast — most clear here in the looping benga of “Disco Boutiq” — with his electronic chops and Ugandan traditional instrumentation, like the rhythmic force of Nilotika’s Bugandan drums or Fokodi’s rigi rigi.
Slikback’s debut 2018 album was the one that launched Nyege Nyege Tapes’ sister label Hakuna Kulala, and over the last few years he has become one of their biggest breakout stars. Encapsulating Hakuna Kulala departure points from Nyege Nyege, Lasakaneku isn’t rooted in any specific regional style, but rather pulls from a wide range of global contemporary clubbing sounds like drum’n’bass, singeli, gqom, grime, footwork, and trap, sometimes in subtle and deconstructed ways. Slikback is famously prolific and his music has become more layered and complex with each release, but Lasakeneku is one for the Nyege Nyege history books.
The summer of 2022 there was one name that seemed to be everywhere on the European festival circuit. The Ugandan/Kenyan MC Yallah emerged over the past few years as one of the most powerful voices in the East African underground thanks to her irreverent, hard style and uncompromising lyrics in Kiswahili, Luganda, English, or Luo. On Kubali she teams up with French producer Debmaster, whose gloomy but playful atmospheres provide the perfect launching pad for her rapidfire yet controlled rapping.
Nyege Nyege and Hakuna Kulala obviously have a strong African identity, but from very early on founders Dilsizian and Debru made it clear that they wouldn’t be limited by genre or geography; as filmmakers they are both particularly interested in film scores, and one of their early releases was “a soundtrack to an imaginary film.” In 2022 they released a soundtrack to an actual film: O Som Do Labirinto OST by São Paulo’s experimental club collective TORMENTA was born out of a 2019 collaboration with Nyege Nyege, and with its ominous synths and ghostly ambience atmospheres soundtracks a short film, described as a “terrifying and psychedelic audiovisual experience that’s centered around the a journalist attempting to examine a series of mysterious gatherings.” A chilling listen.
Several of Nyege Nyege’s releases are the result of heavily collaborative processes during or following residencies. Saccades is one such record, and is a testament to what can happen when two completely disparate musical words meet on an equal footing. Ugandan rigi rigi player Ocen James had already featured on some of the label’s electro-acholi releases, but the meeting with British producer Rian Treanor takes them both on an entirely different journey, one that maintains an organic core despite its complex electronic framework. Treanor created an instrument that would simulate the sounds and scales of other traditional Ugandan instruments, and he and James improvised over a bed of electronic and acoustic soundscapes. While keeping a foot in their own respective worlds, Treanor and James explore the unfamiliar together. In “Rigi Rigi” or “Agoya,” both killer club tracks, you can clearly hear traditional Acholi music, while things get a little more experimental elsewhere. An interesting listen from start to finish.
The music of the Acholi people from Northern Uganda used to be the central feature at weddings, but when Christian missionaries all but banned it, musicians became so rare that paying a full band for a wedding became prohibitively expensive. In the early 2000s local producer Leo Palayeng and folk singer Otim Alpha began fusing traditional Acholi instrumentation with electronic elements, and recreated the dizzying, polyrhythmic beats and repetitive, call-and-response vocals of traditional music. Thanks to their music - compiled in Gulu City Anthems - the electro Acholi scene is now flourishing, and music is again part of everyday life.
This record is remarkable for many reasons: Ugandan artist Bamanya Brian, aka Afrorack, built Africa’s first modular synth, the Afrorack, from scratch, trawling through local electronic and spare part shops. But this isn’t a novelty record, and even without the interesting origin story the music is a revelation. Using his modular synth, Afrorack weaves surprisingly melodic jams that sound completely fresh, but are still imbued with the region’s traditional sounds.
Nyege Nyege’s first singeli compilation was one of those seminal releases that shone a new light on East African contemporary music, and helped launch the raw, incredibly fast and punkish Tanzanian music on the world stage. Influenced by bongo flava, Zanzibari taarab, Congolese soukous and South African house, singeli emerged around 2005 in the working class neighborhoods of Dar es Salaam, eventually spreading from the streets — where scores of independent studios like Sisso and Pamoja flourished — to the East African mainstream. DJ Travella is part of yet another singeli generation, or “singeli new wave” as Nyege Nyege put it, foregoing vocals in favor of a more experimental approach. Though largely following the classic singeli structure and trademark hyper-sped up rhythms, he pulls from a wider away of sounds, weaving in deconstructed and barely recognizable samples.
There’s an unmistakable political edge to Nyege Nyege and sister label Hakuna Kulala, from the leftist gqom of Phelimuncasi, to the environmental activism of Fulu Miziki and the feminist and queer work of DJ Catu Diosis and South Sudanese DJ and producer Turkana. Dubbed the “demon of the Nile” by local politicians, Ugandan activist, DJ, and producer Authentically Plastic embed their politics into their abrasive, jagged electronics, exploring themes of power, gender binaries, and colonial violence in Hakuna Kulala debut Raw Space. They’ve been central to the development of the queer and underground music scene in Kampala, co-founding the event series ANTI-MASS with Nnasi and Turkana, and their experience of the East African music scene and the power dynamics inherent to it feed into Raw Space like field research into an academic thesis. The first impression is one of chaos and almost overwhelming intensity, but precise polyrhythms and repetitive, ritualistic themes are quick to emerge from the noise.
DJ Diaki’s unrelenting rhythms hit you like a brick wall. It might all feel a bit overwhelming, but as soon as you’ve managed to take a breath and hear the order within the chaos it’s hard to escape Balani Fou’s magnetism. DJ Diaki is an early Balani pioneer, the sound that animates Bamako’s hectic street parties since the late 90s, and with his intricate polyrhythmic percussive layers and a arpeggiated synths he conjures the same ecstatic, feverish energy of an original Balani party.
The Durban-based trio — Khera, Makan Nana, and Malathon — draw on the powerful sounds of the Toyi Toyi protests, during which music was used as a weapon to intimidate security forces, to create their brand of frenzied, gritty gqom. Capturing the anger and intensity of Phelimuncasi’s activist work, Ama Gogela brings together local producers to create propulsive, irresistible club tracks, laying call and response vocals over incessant bass and repetitive polyrhythms. It’s a dark and sometimes overwhelming sound, but it’s hard not to get swept up in it.
Darkness and echoes of anxiety permeate “Na Zala Zala”, but the overall effect is one of catharsis, offering a glimpse of a better future. Growing up in Congo Rey Sapienz used music as a way to process and escape the trauma of the bloody conflict going on around him, and on “Na Zala Zala” he channels those feelings with the help of vocalist and dancer Papalas Palata and rapper Fresh Doggis. Together they weave techno, dancehall, soukous and traditional rhythms with raw Lingala lyrics that pull no punches in capturing the harsh realities the three artists have experienced.
Sam Karugu and vocalist Martin Khanja grew up immersed in Nairobi’s hardcore punk and metal scene, but were just as influenced by international acts like Pig Destroyer, Repulsion, and Napalm Death. They each played in reasonably successful metal bands — Khanja in Lust of a Dying Breed, and Karukugu in Seeds of Datura — but it was coming together as a duo that pushed their sound to the boundary-defying, unrelenting intensity they concoct as Duma. Their Nyege Nyege debut is an arresting listen to say the least, almost bowling you over with its wall of industrial noise, blood-curdling vocals, pummeling electronic rhythms and pitch-black atmospheres. Musically only a few subtle elements hint to Duma’s Kenyan background — the percussion on opener “Angels and Abysses” or the Swahili vocals on spoken vocals of “Pembe 666” for example. But Duma’s music is, in part, a result of their Nairobi upbringing and the frustrations they felt towards its stifling social and religious norms, and it’s in the deluge of noise that they find the greatest freedom.