Hugh Taylor meets the creator of Congotekno.
His music, however, is less friendly. It's menacing, dark and hypnotic. It's a style Rey calls "Congotekno," with a host of influences behind it, primarily the music and the culture of the Congo, with a particular focus on Soukous.
But while Soukous melodies are often bright, cheerful and played on the guitar, Rey's digital interpretations of them are much more foreboding. It's all paired with heavily swung modern club percussion. His first EP, Hakuna Kulala, kept mostly to a steady four to the floor pulse, something he drifted away from on Mushoro, his second release, which brings in a host of other influences including dancehall, although he rarely finds time to listen to anyone else's music. "I've got this idea of building a style," he explains, "and it's progressing. I don't know where it's going to be next."
Hakuna Kulala isn't just the name of his EP, it's also the name of the Nyege Nyege Tapes sub-label where Rey releases his music. The label took its name from the EP, and it means "no sleep" in Swahili. "The reason why I called it Hakuna Kulala was because when I started making beats, I didn't sleep for two weeks," he says. "After two weeks of no sleeping, the beat came. I made the beat and I was just singing about how I'd become like a zombie." He smiles as he tells me while he doesn't stay up that late anymore, he's still definitely a night person. It's not that the dissociation from lack of sleep helps him to create, it's just the love of the music keeps him awake. He describes those two weeks as "like a two-week wedding to music."
For one EP, Rey will often make around 50 different tracks. Then he chooses ten or so favourites before sitting down with Arlen, who runs the label, to decide what ultimately makes it on. Some beats he'll pass onto Pauline, and those become Poko Poko tracks. He says having that extra pair of ears is good for him. As any producer will tell you, it's close to impossible to objectively assess your own work. "I'm only human," he says. "People have very different tastes also, so sometimes the beats Pauline chooses are surprising. It's nice, because I can just make beats and play."
Pauline and Rey first met in Jinja, the spot a few hours from Kampala where Nyege Nyege Festival takes place each year, through a mutual friend. She told him she was a vocalist, and so Rey asked her to jam with him. They wrote over various beats that Rey had made, and put together eight songs in one night. The two had a clear creative spark, and Rey asked her back to perform with him at Nyege Nyege Festival that year. Pauline, who's originally from Canada, agreed, and they ended up performing live several times over the festival weekend.
Rey moved to Kampala in 2012, having left the DRC. In 2013 he met the crew behind Nyege Nyege, who at the time were putting on parties as Boutiq Electronic. He started working for them in 2015, producing live bands, and it was in 2017 that he started focusing on his own studio productions. "I was doing music since I was a kid," he says. "When I was four years old, I was singing in church, then when I was eight I started rapping on experimental Soukous stuff, and singing gospel. When I was 12, I didn't want to make gospel. I thought I could give a better message through the music I'm doing. Then I started rapping on experimental beats." Later, he would start bands with his friends, composing and beatboxing while his friends played the piano and sang.
While he may have left gospel music behind as a teenager, the church has recently come back into Rey's musical orbit, albeit with a very different focus. In collaboration with Bonaventure, he engaged directly with churches in Kampala, going into them and working with their musicians to bring the worlds of clubbing and the clergy together, presenting the results at last year's Nyege Nyege Festival. He says that they got a few weird looks, inquiries about what they were doing there, and some churchgoers told them they didn't look like they belonged. But they simply told them they came to participate with them, to see what each other does. They met the band, and the singers, and six of them agreed to join the project and record with them.
Rey is a passionate advocate for social equality, and it's this passion that informed the project, as well as most of his lyrics. Globally, he feels, religion is dividing us. "We have two worlds," he says. "We have the religious world and the normal world. So there is a belief in the religious world in their faith in what they believe in. And then they judge people, and are really not judging people equally. Which is super crazy. A church person doesn't like someone who goes to a club." But in religious spaces, Rey found a middle ground between the two groups. "I believe everywhere where you can find people, two, three, or many, there is a power. There is a party. In church we found there is a big ambience; it's like a club in a different way."
Rey's contribution to Nyege Nyege Tapes and Hakuna Kulala goes beyond his direct musical output as an artist. He's a key part of the Kampalan scene. He manages the Villa, a music production residency in Kampala focusing on new and exciting artists from Uganda and beyond. Rey's role is to make sure everyone is comfortable. "I make sure everyone is cool, has a place to sleep, and that everyone is free to create. To create things you need to have a good peace of mind."
This is vital, since the Villa is home to some intense periods of collaboration. Rian Treanor's collaboration with the Acholi multi-instrumentalist Ocen James was made at the Villa, and Errorsmith and the Modern Institute worked with singeli pioneers Sisso and Jay Mitta on a short tape release. It was in the Villa that Gabber Modus Operandi put together their show with a giant xylophone troupe for this year's edition of CTM. Suzi Analogue and Dj Scotch Egg both worked there, and Elvin Brandhi worked with rappers Hakim and Swordman Kitala, percussionist Omutaba and producers Don Zilla and Oise to create their album as Villaelvin.
Collaboration is an essential part of Rey's process, and it doesn't stop with his own output. "Different people come together," he tells me, "and it's a sharing process. You inspire one and each other." But the Villa serves another purpose—for many Kampalans, it's a place of learning as well. "It's really helping [the Kampalan scene] because we're teaching production to different people, mostly to women. We never really had women producers in Uganda, apart from the Nyege Nyege crew." DJs like Catu Diosis and Decay both came through the Villa. For Rey, music is a route to a better society, and it's one he wants to help build.