Electronic music is booming in East Africa, and a small collective based in Kampala is at the heart of it all. Aaron Coultate travelled to Uganda to hear their story.
By this point, in 2013, Tilapia was already one of Kampala's best late-night spots, attracting a Pan-African crowd. Plastered on its red walls were Soviet political posters, souvenirs collected by the original owner's sister during her stint as a Times correspondent in Moscow. The party Elmi walked into that night was called Boutiq Electroniq, and her experience was profound. "As soon as I walked in, I could see the potential everywhere," she recalled. "There were people from different parts of Kampala, or different parts of Africa, or anywhere really, and the thing that brought us together is that we didn't know where else to go."
This outsider spirit applied to both Boutiq Electroniq's crowd and its music. While many Kampala club nights are soundtracked by commercial dancehall, reggae or hip-hop, at Boutiq Electroniq you'd hear music from across Africa that didn't get much airtime in clubs—kuduro, tarraxinha, balani, coupé-décalé, soukous—plus Western electronic music like house, techno and grime. Word spread, and the parties began to attract inquisitive music heads. Elmi said Boutiq Electroniq's inclusive atmosphere encouraged her to start DJing, and she now plays under the name Hibotep. (She also DJs back-to-back with her sister.) "There's a sense of freedom at Boutiq that you don't get elsewhere," she said.
These parties drew together DJs and producers that now form the core of Nyege Nyege, a collective whose recording studio, record label and annual festival is providing a crucial platform for East Africa's ripening electronic music scene, and fostering a cultural dialogue with the rest of the world.
The two people who started Boutiq Electroniq and Nyege Nyege are Arlen Dilsizian, a Greek-Armenian academic who has lived in Kampala for seven years, and Derek Debru, a wiry Belgian with a scruffy beard who arrived in Uganda after roaming across India, the US, Japan and Southeast Asia. After meeting each other, Dilsizian and Debru connected with a Ugandan percussion troupe called Nilotica Drum Ensemble. The early Boutiq Electroniq parties brought together DJs, percussionists and MCs from all over Kampala. Dilsizian would DJ, dipping into his vast collection of African music, with the ensemble playing live and Debru, as he puts it, "passing around waragi, hyping everyone up."
Since 2013, Nyege Nyege has grown rapidly. In 2015 they opened a recording studio in Kampala called Boutiq Studio, a place for local, regional and international collaborations. That same year they held the first edition of their annual festival in an abandoned resort in Jinja, by the source of the Nile. And in late 2016 they started Nyege Nyege Tapes, a label that is releasing thrilling, mostly East African music, ranging from northern Ugandan electro acholi to singeli from the streets of Dar Es Salaam.
Nyege Nyege is named after a Luganda word that means "the feeling of a sudden uncontrollable urge to move, shake or dance." (It also translates to "Horny, Horny" in Swahili.) Its home turf is Bunga, a neighbourhood whose main artery, Ggaba Road, arrows diagonally from downtown Kampala towards the edge of Lake Victoria, Africa's largest lake. It's a part of the city where many African nationalities mingle, creating a lively, cosmopolitan atmosphere. Bunga and the surrounding area has no shortage of party spots: there's Capital Pub, which Dilsizian calls Kampala's "oldest and grimiest nightclub," where heaving crowds writhe to dancehall and pop. A couple of doors down from Capital is Vision Congo, a small, cheery Congolese bar with DJs playing regional sounds like soukous, lingala and ndombolo. Another Congolese venue, La Reference, has live bands playing soukous (loudly) on weekends. Also in this neck of the woods is Deuces, an afterhours spot that, like any good afterhours spot, gets increasingly sloppy as closing time nears.
After Tilapia's second owner, an eccentric Englishman, was deported from Uganda, it became a collectively run space, loosely overseen by a group of musicians and part-time promoters. The vibe was loose but safe. There were no bouncers on the door. Sex workers from the nearby Kabalagala district would come to hang out off-duty without getting hassled. People could help themselves to drinks from the bar and leave money in a basket as payment, a system that sometimes worked, and sometimes didn't.
In this setting, Boutiq Electroniq thrived. As its following grew, the parties began taking place in non-traditional club spaces around Kampala: abandoned factories, suburban bars, vacant blocks. There was a roadside spot next to Tilapia, called Bar 2-7, where Boutiq block parties would run until sunrise. "They were always free," Dilsizian said. "Free in terms of cost, but also in terms of ambiance. You could do whatever you wanted. People would turn a blind eye if you were high or that kind of thing."
This freedom extended to sexual preference. From early on, the party attracted a LGBTQ following, making it a welcome addition to the cultural landscape in a country where homosexuality remains illegal under colonial-era laws. A failed attempt in 2014 to pass an extreme anti-homosexuality bill provoked international outrage, and, as recently as August, Uganda's government thwarted Pride celebrations for the second year running.
The movement towards gender equality has also been fraught, with Uganda ranking 163 out of 179 countries in United Nations' 2016 Gender Inequality Index. "Large parts of Ugandan society are extremely socially conservative, even regressive," said Kampire Bahana, a core Nyege Nyege artist who DJs under the name Kampire. "I got into clubbing and DJing for the music, but I have been groped in my fair share of clubs. And Ugandan police raiding a Pride party last year and terrorising and arresting members of my community put a fine point on how rare and necessary safe spaces are." Bahana is planning to launch a Ugandan version of Johannesburg's Pussy Parties, which have female DJs and bouncers. "The way people here react to the name 'Pussy Party' tells you how needed these kind of events are," she said.
Nyege Nyege mostly operates away from the glare of the authorities. "In Uganda, music is a way to create change without being seen as overtly political," Bahana said. The Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, has maintained his grip on power for 31 years, and the 73-year-old has no plans to relinquish it—politicians in his ruling party are pushing to scrap a clause in the country's constitution that prohibits people over the age of 75 running for the presidency. Attempts by Museveni's allies to initiate this constitutional change in September led to a farcical brawl in parliament.
But Nyege Nyege has found itself in the crosshairs of Uganda's religious right, a group that has been instrumental in cultivating hostility towards the country's LGBTQ community. (Homophobia has long been peddled by American religious missionaries in Uganda.) A pamphlet distributed after last year's edition of Nyege Nyege Festival criticised the event for being "highly ritualistic," claiming its second day descended into a "sex orgy." "Let's not deny the fact that the event was organised and highly funded by the international gay community," the pamphlet said.
Uganda is a country of young people. It has the world's second-youngest population, with an average age of 15.9. (Only Niger is younger.) It's a diverse country too, attracting people from across East Africa. It has one of the most compassionate refugee policies on the planet, giving migrants rights to land, education, healthcare and work. (That policy is under strain, with more than one million people fleeing violence in South Sudan to live in Uganda, triggering what the United Nations refugee agency is calling "one of Africa's biggest humanitarian crises.")
Within this youthful nation is a new generation of artists, who, in Kampala especially, are embracing technologies—smartphones, internet, laptops—that are now within reach, though internet coverage remains both expensive and slow. (Kenya, Uganda's bigger, wealthier neighbour, boasts one of the fastest mobile internet speeds in the world.) "The amount of growth that we've seen in three years is astonishing," Bahana said. "Everyone is more connected, and there is more access to information, software and modes of distribution."
Wabwire Joseph Ian, who runs an organisation called Youth-Connect Uganda, said the county has a "developing creative artists ecosystem," fuelled by access to new technologies, in which young artists working across different disciplines are connecting for the first time with audiences outside their home town or city. "We need spaces where creative artists can have ideas, create, test, learn and unlearn," he said. "Such environments are still rare in Uganda."
Like most DJs in East Africa, Bahana is self-taught, using a controller and a laptop with Virtual DJ. She has become one of the region's best up-and-coming DJs, travelling outside Uganda to play festivals in Burkina Faso and Democratic Republic Of Congo. She first connected with Nyege Nyege when their Boutiq Electroniq parties moved from Tilapia to Hollywood, a dive bar and hotel run by Rasta Binyam, an Eritrean promoter and war veteran with six bullet wounds in his leg. The parties at Hollywood, where Binyam would give partygoers free reign over the hotel and its rooms, maintained the anything-goes vibe of Tilapia. Bahana's sets of bass-heavy African music—inspired by her upbringing in a mining town along Zambia's copper belt, where she listened to Congolese music and lots of "great African pop"—immediately went down well.
"There's this idea in the Ugandan mainstream, it's almost in our national attitude, that you can't do things that are different from the norm," Bahana said. "So it's nice to introduce new kinds of music and new kinds of artists to people. I think that, really, Ugandans can be very open-minded. We love to dance."
The current wave of artistry in Uganda doesn't just apply to music: the low-budget movies coming out of Wakaliwood, a film studio based in the Wakaliga slum, have also put the spotlight on Kampala's creative community. Irreverent, gore-filled productions like Who Killed Captain Alex? and BAD BLACK have entertained Ugandans and captured international attention. Wakaliwood has become a tourist attraction, and visitors who stop by on filming days can make cameos in movies, usually by being theatrically slain.
For Elmi, the success of DIY enterprises like Wakaliwood and Nyege Nyege is something to savour. "When you have a lack of resource, and then you create something, it becomes very inspiring," she said. "When you're creative, anything's possible. You can make something out of nothing."
In a country (and continent) that has a knotty relationship with Western-led cultural initiatives, it's clear Dilsizian and Debru are in it for the long haul. The pair choose their words carefully when discussing cultural exchanges between the West and Africa. "There's this idea that nothing happens by itself in Africa, but actually, a lot of things do happen," said Dilsizian. "Look at kuduro, a sound that emerged at the end of a very brutal civil war in Angola. Look at the music made in the ghettos of Dar Es Salaam, or balani music in Mali—this is all stuff that happened with people doing things for themselves."
One of Nyege Nyege's core aims is self-sufficiency. "We constantly remind ourselves that, in some respects, things are not so different here to other parts of the world when it comes to underground music," said Dilsizian. "Just like in Detroit, London or Memphis, in Durban, Luanda, Dar Es Salaam and Gulu young people are inventing and reinventing new sounds in conversation with each other. But the touring opportunities for underground artists, especially in Europe, and the constant exposure to new music—these things are lacking in Africa for many different reasons, and artists here are yearning for more. Some of it they are fixing themselves, but it has limits. It's about finding a balance. And it's coming. We're on the cusp."
Nyege Nyege is winning fans outside East Africa, largely thanks to its label, Nyege Nyege Tapes. The respected Manchester-based online retailer Boomkat has thrown its weight behind the label, bigging up its key releases. Nyege Nyege has also connected with NTS Radio—a relationship strengthened when an NTS contingent (Moxie, anu, A.G. and Skinny Macho) flew to Uganda to DJ at this year's Nyege Nyege Festival.
The reason behind starting the label was simple. "There wasn't a platform really to showcase the more interesting underground sounds coming out of East Africa," Dilsizian said. Dilsizian's interest in African music was ignited by a two-year stint working as a curator at the University Of Cambridge's Museum Of Archaeology And Anthropology, where he digitised the museum's ethnographic music archives. This process brought him into contact with field recordings and traditional music from across Africa.
While a lot of Western interest in African music these past few years has fallen in line with the wider reissue boom, with a focus on older music, Nyege Nyege Tapes offers a glimpse into what's happening in East Africa right now. Though its broad focus is on non-commercial electronic music from the region, the label eludes easy classification. There's no one sound or genre tying everything together. The focus is on new music, but there are archival releases, too. And the label doesn't limit itself to African music: its fourth release came from a Greek artist named Mysterians. In addition to their main platform, Dilsizian and Debru are also planning a new label, called B.E.S.S. (short for Boutiq Electroniq Sound System), focused on African grime, hip-hop and bass music, with the first record coming from a Congolese MC called Will'stone.
"We don't want to be a strictly African label in the world music section," Debru said. "Because once you get boxed into a corner like that, it's very hard to get out."
Nyege Nyege Tapes hasn't put any music out on vinyl, partly because it's not possible in Uganda, a country that has never had its own pressing plant. Any Ugandan music on vinyl was likely pressed in neighbouring countries like Tanzania or Kenya. "We're actually trying to dig these old Ugandan records up for a compilation with help from record archivist Michel van Oosterhout," Dilsizian told me. "They're in a few people's hands now, and they will generally lend them to you but not sell them." As in many African countries, cassettes were the most popular format in Uganda for decades, though it's increasingly unlikely you'll find them at a flea market. In fact, Dilsizian predicts their total disappearance within the next two years. These days, everything is digital. "In a bus station you'll find some dude with a computer—he'll load up your flash drive, or micro-SD card, or Bluetooth your phone," Dilsizian said.
A couple of releases on Nyege Nyege Tapes this year have really stood out. One is Sounds Of Sisso, a compilation focusing on a new strand of soundsystem culture, called singeli, that's come to boil in the ghettos of Tanzania's capital city, Dar Es Salaam. Singeli developed out of several other micro-scenes, including mchiriku, sebene and segere. Its sped-up rhythms are made on cheap Casio keyboards bought in secondhand markets. With fast loops produced by artists like Dogo Niga, Sisso, Bampa Pana and Bwax (and equally rapid MC lyrics), it bears some similarities to kuduro, shangaan electro and even gabber, yet it has emerged as its own distinct style that is, in Dilsizian's words, "completely bonkers."
Another of Nyege Nyege Tapes's biggest achievements has been shining light on electro acholi, an electronic version of traditional music from the Acholi tribal region in northern Uganda. Electro acholi, which emerged in the early 2000s, is fast (usually north of 160 BPM) and catchy as hell, with call-and-response vocals floating atop polyrhythmic beats.
Traditional acholi music has many different social functions—it's performed at funerals, graduations and other events, including weddings, where artists create bespoke music for each occasion, name-checking the happy couple and detailing family histories in their songs. Electro acholi first caught on locally, before Nyege Nyege Tapes released Gulu City Anthems, a compilation of music from Otim Alpha, a former bare-knuckle boxing champion who, along with his producer Leo P'layeng, has pioneered the electro acholi sound. Gulu City Anthems came out in February of 2017; by October, Alpha and P'layeng were touring Europe—their first-ever trip outside Uganda—with a live show at Poland's influential Unsound festival followed by gigs in Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels, Rotterdam, Berlin and Düsseldorf.
"We want electro acholi to be for everybody," P'layeng told me. "We want people to sing it in Spanish, English, French, Swahili, Luganda—every language. This is not our music, it's music for the world, like reggae, pop and rock." P'layeng said in the Acholi region, electro acholi music has also been used for educational purposes, with lyrics targeting vital issues like gender-based violence. "For us," he said, "this music is about peace."
The rise of electro acholi speaks to a wider trend in Uganda: artists reinterpreting traditional music using electronic software, usually FruityLoops or Logic. The first release on Nyege Nyege Tapes came from the Kenyan artist Alai K, working under the name Disco Vumbi, who collaborated with Nilotica Drum Ensemble and Ugandan instrumentalist Martin Juicy Fonkodi on an electronic EP with nods to Kenyan benga music. The meeting of traditional and electronic styles is also being explored on an upcoming Nyege Nyege Tapes release of kadodi, a type of fast-paced, rhythmic drum music that soundtracks a yearly circumcision ritual, called Imbalu, practiced by the Bagisu tribe in eastern Uganda. This is part of a series of ethnographic records on Nyege Nyege Tapes showcasing music from Uganda's various tribes. (Uganda has more than 54 different tribes, many with their own musical traditions.) The format for each release will be the same: two or three tracks of traditional music, some processed field recordings ("to give the listener a feel of the environment the music was recorded," said Dilsizian), and two or three remixes.
But African electronic music doesn't have to be anchored by traditional music. "Now you see that producers are performing live with Ableton, you see students in Kampala and Nairobi making hard techno or trap—stuff where the inspiration is coming from Europe or the US," Debru said. "Yes, the traditional-to-electronic thing is happening, but at the same time, we now have a little glimpse into the future, because everything is going to change radically if everyone's got a little home studio. Maybe ten years down the road there's gonna be a lot of young people here that will be able to live through music, live through film, and really be able to control their own representation, their own narrative, and be independent."
On an afternoon in August, I visited the Boutiq Studio, a yellowish villa near Lake Victoria with recording spaces, a kitchen and accommodation. Inside I found a hive of activity. In the kitchen a big batch of matoke stew was being prepared for the dozen or so people who were using the studio that day. In one room was Kasakwi Samuel, AKA Zilla, a mellow, deep-thinking man who is now Boutiq Studio's engineer. A self-taught musician, he played in a band but got into electronic music by making tunes in internet cafes. Now he divides his time between working with other artists, refining his mastering skills and crafting his own beats.
Zilla's open-minded approach suits Nyege Nyege's ethos. "I don't care whether it comes from India, China, Uganda, Kenya, Congo—it's all music, a universal language," he says as we sit by his computer in the studio. "And every day I'm learning more about that language."
I sat in a small studio with Rey, who makes music as Sapiens. He left behind the turbulence of life in Bunia in eastern Congo four years ago for a fresh start in Kampala. He began producing music just three months ago, first using FruityLoops, and then Ableton, which is still pretty rare in this part of the world. He's started making what he calls "Congolese techno," often spending up to 15 hours a day in the studio.
"I'm new to this and I want to learn," Rey tells me. "I'd like to finish this project I'm working on, I think it's a new style, and then I'd like to work with artists from different parts of the world."
When the studio opened in 2015, its focus was initially on film—both Dilsizian and Debru have a background in cinema—but it soon swung towards music, and the past couple of years have seen a slow accumulation of musical hardware and software. Back then it used to sit empty for weeks at a time; now it's in use all year round. It's a place for regional and international collaborations, encouraging the exchange of musical knowledge, ideas and talent. Nyege Nyege's whole operation encourages dialogue between East African artists and like-minded people from elsewhere, but it's in the Boutiq studio that you get a feel for what's really possible.
Boutiq Studio has hosted residencies from African artists like Mamman Sani, from Niger, who's a pioneer of African electronic music in the 1970s; political rapper Joey Les Soldat, from Burkina Faso; legendary Cameroonian filmmaker and intellectual Jean-Pierre Bekolo; Rwandese visual artist Pou Pout, Ugandan fiddle player Ocien; Tanzania's Bampa Pana and Makaveli; Kenya's MC Yallah; and international guests like Irish sound artist Alyssa Moxley and the LA rapper and producer Riddlore, who stayed in Uganda for three months. Gorillaz member Jesse Hackett was another resident—he worked with instrumentalist and singer Albert Ssempeke (a royal court musician to the Buganda king) and other Ugandan artists, using a 200-year-old harp and a ten-foot xylophone on an album called Ennanga Vision, which came out on the UK label Soundway Records earlier this year.
"People are excited to play here, to stay here, and also a little bit fearful, because it's a step into the unknown," Debru said. "But we give them an entry point."
One of the first things international artists notice in East Africa, Dilsizian said, is the natural integration of music and performance into everyday life. "There is more fluidity between the performer and the audience, and between music and dancing," he said. "In Africa dancing is much less determined by the nature of the space, while in Europe the nightclub became to dancing what White Cube became to art."
An international collaboration was going down on the day I visited Boutiq Studio. I peeled open a heavy curtain and watched Nilotica Drum Ensemble recording a live album alongside Blip Discs artist Spooky J (playing drums), Ben Beheshty (an engineer) and Pete Jones (on synths). The project, called Nihiloxica, debuted on the final night of this year's Nyege Nyege Festival, and their album came out on Nyege Nyege Tapes in November 2017.
As a steady rain began to fall and thunder cracked in the distance, everyone sat on the studio's patio, as Jaja, the charismatic leader of Nilotica Drum Ensemble, held court. Jaja is a spiritual medium and an accomplished martial arts practitioner. Young percussionists who join his ensemble are taught not only drumming skills but also how to tailor clothes. "These guys are our brothers," Jaja said, gesturing towards Debru and Dilsizian. "For us, it's a cultural exchange, when you have electronics mixing with indigenous percussion, authentic sounds," he said. "We teach each other."
A key tenant of these collaborations is that everything, from the profits to creative decision-making, is split down the middle. "We've recorded a lot of local music troupes across Uganda and the stories are often the same," Dilsizian said. "Some ethnomusicologist rocks up, takes recordings and then leaves, and never gives them the recordings. So there is some mistrust among local traditional musicians in Uganda, because the exchange is not always fair."
The future of the Boutiq Studio, however, lies away from its current home, which Debru and Dilsizian recently discovered is being razed to be replaced by a parking lot. "We're currently looking at other options, and weighing up the possibility of a fundraising campaign to support a move to a new space," Dilsizian said.
On a Friday evening one week before this year's Nyege Nyege Festival, Dilsizian drove his 4WD along a bumpy stretch of Ggaba Road lined with markets, gambling parlours, pork joints and bars. Sitting in the passenger seat was Camille, a friend who runs the Afro Bass Culture festival in Burkina Faso. They were on their way to pick up beers before heading to a party in a disused warehouse on the outskirts of Kampala. Shallow pools of water had filled potholes in the road after a heavy downpour earlier in the day, but the evening air was dry as Dilsizian discussed the challenges of putting on a music festival in East Africa.
"There are three pairs of CDJs in Uganda," he said, glimpsing his rearview mirror. "And only two of those are available for hire." There's roughly the same number of vinyl decks—a big hurdle for anyone holding a festival where at least half the acts are DJs.
Camille giggled wryly. "In Burkina Faso we struggle to get even one pair of CDJs," he said.
In the leadup to Nyege Nyege Festival, Dilsizian in many ways resembled any festival promoter, his mobile phone constantly ringing as he zipped from one errand to the next. Earlier that day he visited the Wakaliwood film studio, where he spoke to the studio's founder, Isaac Nabwana, about bringing out a roving film crew to shoot improvised scenes at the festival, as they had done in 2015 and 2016, when attendees acted out murder scenes. Together they agreed on a plan to bring a crew and camera gear out to the 2017 edition for one night. "I think it's important some festival-goers get killed this year," Dilsizian said as we sat in the Wakaliwood editing room. Nabwana agreed.
To put on a festival in Uganda, Dilsizian has learned, is to flirt with disaster. This year the festival site's landlord had seemingly caught wind of Nyege Nyege's rising popularity, and was threatening to back out of their agreement unless they coughed up more money. As there was no written contract, Dilsizian and Debru decided to play chicken and hope the landlord would blink first. (They eventually managed to pacify the landlord, though the haggling continued for several days.)
"Everything here is fluid," Dilsizian said.
Dilsizian got out of his car, ran into a shop to buy beers, then returned, slamming the car door closed behind him. "Say you want to get 500 tents to set up," he said as he jammed his key in the ignition. "There's no one in Uganda who can supply that many tents. We're dealing with 30 or 40 different suppliers, which means 30 or 40 additional chances for things to go wrong." Portable toilets, a precious commodity at any music festival, are exceedingly rare in Uganda. "There are so few of them here, and they're insanely expensive."
As we headed in the direction of the party, Dilsizian started discussing Kampala's rougher edges. "It's generally a very friendly, open-minded place, but it's a hard place, too. A lot of people break their backs here to survive."
A moment later, Dilsizian jerked the steering wheel left and pulled to the side of the road.
"You don't want to get on the wrong side of them," he said, nodding towards a convoy of three vehicles that passed us to the right. A white 4WD drove past, guarded at the front and back by two dark vehicles with men sitting on the back, looking out impassively with machine guns draped over their shoulders.
The first edition of Nyege Nyege Festival, in 2015, was conceived and executed in just six weeks. Then and now, the festival happens thanks to the monumental efforts of a small group of people. In 2017, volunteers travelled from as far afield as Mexico and Scotland. Many of the artists performing also pitched in—like the Mexican producer Emiliano Motta, who worked round-the-clock as the main stage's sound technician, or Kampire, who, in addition to playing two DJ sets, also pitched in as a press liaison and communications manager.
The festival takes place near Jinja, a colonial-era town a few hours' drive from Kampala. Attendees staying in nearby accommodation were whisked to and from the festival site on boda-boda motorbike taxis. The festival site is Nile Discovery Beach Resort, a crumbling, overgrown complex that was built but never actually opened. It has a magical, lost-world feel, its winding paths twisting through thick jungle, with views of a disused hydroelectric power station on the Nile. Festival-goers drank Nile Special beer and cocktails; vendors sold jerk chicken, curries and Rolexes, a Ugandan speciality with eggs and avocado rolled up inside an oily chapatti.
The most impressive of the festival's four stages was the Eternal Disco, overseen by the Scottish collective Samedia Shebeen. It had a Funktion-One soundsystem, driven over from Kenya, and a prime spot: its mosaic-tiled dance floor looked directly onto the Nile. It was here that I caught a set by DJ Rachael, a pioneering Ugandan artist who runs Femme Electronic, a mentoring programme for female DJs in East Africa. As she played, I was thoroughly out-danced by her son, Cruz. Nearby was the Umojah Sound System, a mammoth dub reggae rig, also driven from Kenya, and most likely the biggest of its kind in Africa, run by Sheel Dread, AKA Dread Steppa. People gathered by the soundsystem to soak up the low frequencies.
The festival's programme—which basically ran non-stop for three days—took in all kinds of music. There was Cameroonian pop from Reniss, whose rendition of her 2016 hit "La Sauce (Dans La Sauce)" ended with an orchestrated all-female stage invasion; Kongoloko dished out Congolese hip-hop; South African duo Cruel Boyz gave a lesson in gqom; a wonderful percussion troupe from Kampala called Buganda Music Ensemble gave a joyous live performance on the main stage; and EA Wave, a young collective from Nairobi, bounced around excitedly behind the Eternal Disco booth, taking it in turns to play trap, hip-hop and house. Depending on where you were, you could hear anything from EDM to heady experimental music.
The non-African bookings were refreshingly different to the two-dozen or so DJs and live acts that dominate European dance music festival lineups. The broad focus was on artists inspired in some way by African music. There was polyrhythm devotee Harmonious Thelonious, who played live on the Eternal Disco stage, and Italian duo Ninos Du Brasil, whose thumping live show on Friday was one of the weekend's best sets. And then there was DJ Marcelle, the maverick Dutch DJ who plays mind-bending experimental sets with three turntables.
But the most special performances came from core Nyege Nyege artists like Hibotep, Kampire, Otim Alpha, Nilotica Drum Ensemble (who also had their own tailoring booth on-site) and the Sisso Records crew, who travelled from Dar Es Salaam by bus to perform for the first time outside Tanzania. Otim Alpha took to the stage in a dazzling kitenge suit, accompanied by Leo P'layeng. Alpha first showed his mastery of the adungu, a harp-like instrument from northern Uganda, before he and P'layeng launched into their catalogue of high-octane electro acholi hits.
The festival peaked on Saturday, when around 7,000 people turned up—safely making it the biggest-ever electronic music event held in East Africa. Attendees travelled from Rwanda, South Africa, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia, Congo and beyond. There was a large Kenyan contingent—Jinja lies on the road that connects Nairobi with Kampala, and "party buses" made the 12-hour drive to transport performers and festival-goers.
Early on the final night, lightning lit up the sky behind the disused power station. And then it came: a torrential downpour, which lasted deep into the night. The resort's dark, rain-slickened pathways began to flood. People took turns belly-sliding down a muddy slope from the top of a hill, between food vendors and towards the main stage. Later, as most people sought shelter, I saw a drenched Dilsizian dancing to Nihiloxica's live performance on the main stage. Late—very late—the rain dried up. Those hardy souls who remained danced past dawn.
With the dust settled on this year's festival, the Nyege Nyege crew is now looking to the future. "A lot of new challenges will arise, but we're confident that with hard work and resilience, coupled with the mad talent brewing through the region, we'll be OK," Dilsizian told me via email after the festival. "But were able to come close to breaking even while expanding the lineup significantly and adding two more stages. We have proven that having a musically adventurous festival in this region can also be commercially viable. Now it's time to improve on production and go crazy with the lineup, fund and curate more performances and bring more artists from around Africa."
The continued success of Nyege Nyege's label, festival and studio will provide a platform for the artists to carve their own careers. In March of 2018 a Nyege Nyege crew will tour West Africa, with stops in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali. Before that, in February, a Nyege Nyege contingent will head to Goma, a city in Congo that glows red at night under the Nyiragongo volcano, to perform at Amani Festival, an NGO-funded event with a US$1 entry fee that attracts more than 10,000 people per day. Nihiloxica will head to Berlin for CTM Festival 2018. And this past week, Bampa Pana and Makavelli from the Sisso crew played at Lausanne's Les Urbaines festival.
After playing twice at this year's Nyege Nyege Festival, Hibo Elmi—AKA Hibotep—said she's been galvanised by the response. "DJing was a hobby for me, but when I felt how exciting it is, and how you can make someone's night, and make someone's life feel good for a moment, that was what hooked me," she said. "Now I don't want DJing to be a hobby. I want it to be a lifelong thing."
Kampire Bahana, meanwhile, has her sights set on a professional DJ career. "I want to be paid to go to parties and play, especially in Africa," she said. "I think that you have to be validated by Europe or the US before people are willing to pay you here, or see you as a real act. So it's been really nice for me to meet other independent DJs and musicians in Uganda who are just doing it anyway, and doing it outside of the mainstream, and finding some sort of success, or at least being able to sustain themselves emotionally and maybe financially from their art. For me that's the dream, really."
Kampire has put together an exclusive mix of some of her favourite tunes, a blend of uptempo African sounds.