Kampire Bahana, one of the bubbling region's rising stars, profiles some of her favourite DJs and live acts.
Setting aside the issue of compressing the music of the second-most populous continent under a single label, we are still left with a massive blind spot. One region that remains under the radar (both inside Africa and elsewhere) despite consistently producing significant and forward-facing music is East Africa. Tanzanian and Ugandan acts like Diamond Platnumz and Eddy Kenzo regularly give Wizkid and Davido a run for their money on continental pop charts. Young Nairobi producers are creating thrilling new genres like shrap, which features sheng (Swahili urban slang) lyrics over trap beats. European producers have been sampling Ethiopian rhythms and melodies for decades, but some of this has been done without a proper understanding or regard for the context in which the music was originally made.
Electronic music in East Africa is expanding exponentially as access to internet and software grows steadily. (Kenya, for example, has one of the world's fastest data connection speeds, faster than the US and South Korea.) As musicians draw from a rich musical history and incredible ethnic diversity, they are creating sounds that are new and unique.
Working to bridge the gap between traditional music styles and commercial forms is Santuri Safari, which facilitates collaboration between musicians inside and outside the East African region, both traditional and electronic. This means they get hardware to DJs and producers in cities like Dar Es Salaam, Kampala, Nairobi and Kigali, while also working with international producers like Sam Jones and Esa Williams, hooking them up with swiftly-disappearing local instruments like the nyatiti or the embaire, a giant xylophone played by eight or more people. All of this is in service of creating club-friendly bangers that can compete with Western hits and their East African derivatives on the radio and the dance floor.
Just A Band were among the first in Kenya and East Africa to make a name for themselves internationally with an undeniably electronic sound. Though the band is now on hiatus as members pursue their own projects in film, animation and music, "Blinky" Bill Sellanga continues to blaze trails as an artist, with his first solo album due later this year. Bill believes the East African music scene is experiencing a renaissance. "There's a proliferation of bands and artist communities that are seeking out sounds that represent them," he says. "They incorporate a lot of different elements from around the world, while also looking inwards and coming out with a new sound."
Over in Uganda, the label Nyege Nyege Tapes grew out of an electronic dance party series and an international music festival featuring African acts alongside global artists whose work is in conversation with sounds from the continent. Passionate about the music that does not always make it to mainstream Ugandan radio, their releases are unlike anything else out there currently, and are getting embraced on dance floors both in the capital, Kampala, and in Europe. Whether it is singeli music, the furious sound of Dar Es Salaam's ghetto youth, or the eminently danceable wedding music of the Luo people of Northern Uganda, it's clear that we are going to be hearing of a lot more East African artists in the coming years.
A list like this one can never do justice to the many East African artists beating against economic and geopolitical boundaries, but here are 15 who define the breadth of the scene in 2018.
Coming out of the '90s Nairobi hip-hop collective Ukoo Flani, Alai K's second life as an electronic producer reflects a return to his first loves: the chakacha music of the coastal Swahili people, and benga, the irresistible dance music of rural Kenya. Calling his style "Disco Vumbi"—meaning "dust disco"—his exuberant music calls to mind the outdoor parties of 1970s Kenya from which people would return home covered in dust kicked up by furious dancing.
Muthoni burst onto the scene over a decade ago, founding a number of live music events including Blankets And Wine, which now takes place in three East African countries, and Africa Nouveau, one of the few festivals on the continent featuring an entirely African lineup. The recently released SHE is a pop-friendly concept album that deals with the construction of African women's identity.
By playing the orutu, Labdi is defying the culture she aims to preserve. It's a stringed instrument that's taboo for women to play. Yet there is no dissonance in her style, which merges traditional Luo rhythms and lyrics with popular sounds. Her forward-thinking approach to songwriting and her warm vocals make her a popular collaborator for electronic producers in both Kenya and Europe.
Working alongside Mikael Seifu and Dawit Eklund to create a style they call Ethiopiyawi Electronic, Ethiopian Records (AKA Endeguena Mulu) is at the forefront of producers and DJs pushing back against Western-imitative Ethiopian pop and Ethiopian-imitative Western house and techno to create something new, authentic and rooted.
Joseph Kamaru's work reflects the diversity of music coming out of a youthful Nairobi. Tending towards ambient sounds, his first EP was released by German label Black Lemon and his next EP will include collaborations with Pablo Fierro, Perera Elsewhere and Ghanaian songwriter and poet Poetra Asantewa.
Otim Alpha has been making music for years alongside his producer Leo P'layeng, but despite being endlessly danceable, for a long time their tracks did not make it far outside of Luo communities in Uganda and the diaspora. Now, that's changing. Since last year's Gulu City Anthems, released on Nyege Nyege Tapes, Otim has played at the esteemed festivals Unsound and CTM, with plenty more dates lined up in 2018.
Young DJ, producer and filmmaker Hibotep brings a love of bass and trap to her weird-kid aesthetic. In 2018 her project Ninjabis was selected by Holly Herndon for the 2018 Forecast Platform and she will perform live at the Forecast Festival in Berlin in October.
Uganda's first woman DJ, Rachael has been holding down the decks in Kampala for more than two decades. Through her Femme Electronic platform she is passing on skills and opportunities to women DJs in Kenya and Uganda. Her recent collaborations with The Black Madonna have brought new attention to her career, and she has performed at WOMEX and Chicago's smartbar.
Contemporary dancer turned electronic producer Faizal Ddamba Mostrixx makes "tribal house"—with a clear understanding of the role that East African instruments and Baganda rhythms play in their traditional context. His hope in merging these sounds with electronic techniques, he says, is to preserve the cultural heritage of the instruments and songs he samples. His last album, Tribal Match, is a must-listen.
Another act using traditional Baganda elements, this time a four-person percussive troupe (who also perform under a larger crew called Nilotica Cultural Ensemble) merged with electronic percussion from Blip Discs' Spooky J and his production partner PQ. Together they have created something entirely new. The group made their debut at CTM Berlin and will be all over Europe this summer, including stops at Roskilde and Strange Sounds From Beyond.
Mim Suleiman brings traditional Tanzanian and Zanzibari music to the contemporary stage with collaborations with electronic artists like Spoek Mathambo and Maurice Fulton. Think Taarab vocals and percussion crossed with dub and disco. Many consider the traditions that Suleiman was brought up in to be going extinct, but her music will give you hope for its future.
Singeli is the opposite of Tanzania's leisurely taraab sound, and the aspirational commercial values of bongo flava pop. Rabid-sounding and driven by the youngest and poorest of Dar Es Salaam's neighbourhoods, it sounds unlike anything you may have associated with Africa. With their release on Nyege Nyege Tapes, Sisso Records producer Bampa Pana and MC Makaveli have become Singeli's ambassadors to the world and just completed a spirited tour of the UK.
Singeli, born of slums like Tandale that are synonymous with poverty, is as male-dominated as any other music scene. But two female MCs coming to prominence, Caad Reeda and Memoree Cad, work closely with one of Sisso Studio's pioneers Jay Mitta, and will appear on a forthcoming release on Uganda's Nyege Nyege Tapes label.
Karungari "Karun" Mungai is a member of the art collective Cosmic Homies, who merge electronica and R&B with an indie worldview. She is one of very few Kenyan women in production, and is part of the genre-defying and prolific NuNairobi movement, which includes a number of other young producers making waves like Jinku, NvFunk, Sichangi and Basthma.
The Kenyan underground continues to produce stellar DJs and producers making thoughtful and exciting new music. DJ Raph's latest release, Sacred Groves, comes out of the University Of Bayreuth's Mashup The Archive project. Sampling field recordings that are representative of the extensive archives of African art gathering dust in European collections, Raph creates access to these meaningful works by way of the dance floor.
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