Decentering the electronic underground – The fearlessly experimental sound of Nyege Nyege Tapes

by Luke Lawrence

In his excellent 2016 book “Uproot: Travels in twenty-first century digital culture”, Jace Clayton (AKA DJ/Rupture) laments the inauthenticity of “authentic” World Music™ that demands that non-Western musicians conform to a White person’s stereotype of what non-Western musicians look and sound like. Make no mistake, World Music™ is big business, as artists and groups are plucked from their oh-so-pitiable existences by European record executives and elevated to the world stage, based not on the quality or originality of their music, but the tragicness of their back story, or their willingness to don a thong and tribal face paint to perform in overpriced culture centres to chin-stroking middle class liberal elites who would have voted for Obama a third time if they could have. 

Amidst this sordid world of neoliberal, neo-colonialist exploitation disguised as feelgood liberal leisure activity, enter Nyege Nyege Tapes and their innovative side label Hakuna Kulala. Based in Kampala, Uganda’s fast-moving capital, Nyege Nyege Tapes started as a local music festival on the banks of the Nile and has evolved in a few short years into (for me at least) the most exciting and innovative record label on the planet. No heart-wrenching triumph against adversity bullshit narratives (although we do get occasional glimpses of some artists backgrounds in the Bandcamp notes, but the music is always put front and centre), no “authentic Africans” cosplay, just pure dedication to putting out the most diverse, cutting edge, experimental music currently bubbling out of the African underground…or anywhere else for that matter.

Read up on Nihiloxica, for example, and you’ll learn how they play traditional Bugandan drum music and that their track “Kadodi” is the rhythm that traditionally accompanies the Imbalu circumcision ritual in Uganda. Our preconceptions have been conditioned to visualize a circle of proud-looking village-elder types in traditional dress, straight out of a 1970s National Geographic photo diary. Do a quick Google Images search however and you’ll see four young black dudes in dreads and hoodies, with two skinny white guys hovering around at the back. Jump on their social media and you’ll see them beatboxing (badly), goofing around in the gym and well…doing what young people around the world do on social media every da… wait, did you say skinny white guys? What are they doing in the picture – they are ruining my authentic experience!

A group of people standing outside

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And why wouldn’t there be two skinny white guys hovering around at the back? Aren’t we all supposed to be Global Citizens now (I mean, I’m a white guy, buying records that were recorded in Uganda, pressed in America and sold in a Japanese record shop, writing about it in my Tokyo apartment and sending it off to a digital magazine set up by a friend in the US that I met through a UK-based online blog!) The label itself is run by immigrants to Uganda, Burundi-born and Belgium-raised Derek Debru and Greek-Armenian Arlen Dilsizian who started the festival/recording studio/record label as a way to give voice to the more experimental side of the East African music scene that was being ignored by the mainstream. And it seems to be working. The festival is now one of the biggest tourist draws of the year in Uganda, attracting thousands of people from the region and all over the world. 

It’s also attracting the unwelcome attention of the conservative Ugandan authorities, who tried to shut down the festival a couple of years ago, accusing Nyege Nyege of promoting homosexuality and recruiting young people into the LGBT movement. Inevitably, the pushback has only led to even more support and greater popularity and the music coming out of the label just seems to get better and better with each release. This is helped by their system of offering residency in their studio to a variety of artists and producers from all over the world. The result is a vast array of experimental collaborations and a truly transnational vibe. 

It may have taken a couple of immigrants to do it, but Nyege Nyege Tapes have done the unimaginable and inverted the pyramid. Under World Music 2.0, American and European executives swooped down and whisked the anointed few away to play in Europe and the US, carefully styling and marketing them along the way. But in the brave new world of Nyege Nyege, the tables have been turned – they have brought the world to Africa. If you want to attend the festival you’ve got to take yourself out of your glass-paneled wealthy-donor-funded Kulturhuset in Copenhagen and get down and dirty on the banks of the Nile with the locals. You want to be a part of the music? No problem, but you need get your arse to Kampala and do it on their terms! Saying that, I have a sneaking suspicion that your average Staff Benda Bilili or Mdou Moctar fan might run screaming for the hills at the sounds emanating from the Nyege Nyege basement. Heck, even those cats that followed Fela Kuti into his most far out head spaces might find Lord Spikeheart’s terrifying death growl a touch too much! 

So, to the music. It’s a dizzying array of experimental electronica, hip-hop, drums, noise, frantic dance and whatever else takes the artists’ fancy, all deeply rooted in and fused with local musical traditions and sensibilities, bent and warped into unrecognition. 

Aside from the aforementioned Nihiloxica (traditional Ugandan drumming with cutting edge electronic synth swirls) here are a few personal favourites from my rapidly growing Nyege Nyege Tapes and Hakuna Kulala record collection:

Nyege Nyege Tapes

Meaning “an uncontrollable urge to dance” in Lugandan, the label started in 2016 as a means to showcase the festival, and as the name implies it was initially a cassette-based enterprise. Nowadays, as well as every single release getting an online, digital version (just go to their Bandcamp page), they are releasing more and more on vinyl (which is how I came to the label and why I was late to the party). 

The Sound of Sisso – This is the first record I bought on Nyege Nyege Tapes. It’s a compilation of Tanzanian singeli artists that showcases insanely frenetic hardcore dance music with Tanzanian MCs and singers rapping and singing over the beats. To my ears it is the sound of pulling up to an illegal rave off the M25 in the early-90s in your Ford Escort, while Giles Peterson’s Radio 1 show is still playing on the car radio. It got me hooked! 

Metal Preyers – Metal Preyers

This is a transnational collaboration between a UK producer, a US visual artist and a host of Ugandan musicians that is a dark, twisted, fucked-up cauldron of industrial beats, uncomfortable experimental noise and other uncategorisable stuff. Be afraid! 

Duma – Duma

For me, the jewel in the crown (to re-appropriate a colonial phrase) of the Nyege Nyege discography. Duma are a duo from Nairobi in Kenya that make an astonishing mix of techno, industrial, grindcore, glitch and godknowswhat. All thrown together to create an entirely original, chaotic sonic vocabulary to induce fear and admiration in equal measure.

Raja Kirik – Rampokan

The latest addition to my collection and Nyege Nyege’s first foray completely out of the African continent. Raja Kirik are Indonesians Yennu Ariendra and J. Mo’ong Santoso Pribadi that apparently create music rooted in 11th Century shamanic trance dances as a struggle against colonial oppression. To me they sound like the most spectacular amalgam of industrial, digital noise, metal and Indonesian gamelan, and what could be better than that?!     

Hakuna Kulala

Hakuna Kulala is a side label that is run by DRC rapper Ray Sapienz (who also has a recently released and totally amazing record out on Nyege Nyege Tapes) and was set up as an outlet for emerging talent that might not be fully formed just yet, but whose music is so good that it just needs to be chucked out there as soon as possible. Early releases were all digital (again, Bandcamp is the place to go), followed by some cassette albums and now, finally, the more recent stuff has got the vinyl treatment (hooray!) and in the last couple of months they’ve even started to throw out white labels of the rawest talent out there. I’ve come to like the Hakuna Kulala output even more than Nyege Nyege Tapes, but there’s not really any separating the two. Here are some favourites:  

MC Yallah X Debmaster – Kubali

MC Yallah is Yallah Gaudencia Mbidde, who was born in Kenya, grew up in Uganda, and raps in four languages. She has performed at every Nyege Nyege festival so far and on this amazing album (cassette and digital only), she teams up with Berlin producer Debmaster to deliver a masterclass in socially-conscious rapid-fire underground hip-hop. Incredible stuff!

Don Zilla – Ekizikiza Mubwengula

Afro-industrial anyone? Yes please! Don Zilla somehow manages to meld peripatetic East African rhythms to squelchy and dark industrial electronics to make a completely new sound all of his own. 

Scotch Rolex – Tewari

Scotch Rolex is Japanese 8-bit producer Shigeru Ishihara (AKA DJ Scotch Egg), who changed his moniker in tribute to the ubiquitous Ugandan street food, rolex (a beautiful bastardisation of the standard English ‘rolled eggs’). Scotch Rolex used his residency at Nyege Nyege studios to team up with the best and brightest of the NN/HK roster (MC Yallah, Lord Spikeheart of Duma, rapper Swordman Kitala to name a few) to produce a punky, Nyege party of an album that sums up perfectly everything I have come to love about the two labels and the whole scene. A breathtakingly eclectic mix of cutting-edge transnational electronic music fused with the idiosyncrasies of the most fearlessly experimental sounds the East African underground has to offer. 

As interest in the label grows, Nyege Nyege Tapes appear to have almost singlehandedly (although shout out to other labels like Sahel Sounds and Awesome Tapes from Africa who are also putting out great, if not particularly innovative, stuff from the continent) changed the perception of what African music is and can be, and decentered and decolonised the underground in the process. It’s difficult to tell which way it’s going to go, and it’s only a matter of time before the money men swoop in, but for now, the most innovative and forward-looking music in the world right now is only a mouse click and a couple of continents away. Don’t miss out!  

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