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The Uganda-based Nyege Nyege Tapes label has been showcasing the underground sound of the local Kampala scene and outsider sounds from across Africa since 2016. They also run the Boutiq Electroniq club nights and the Nyege Nyege Festival, which is by far the most important gathering in Africa featuring underground and electronic music. We talked to Arlen Dilsizian, one of the duo behind Nyege Nyege. An academic of Greek-Armenian descent, he’s lived in Kampala for more than seven years. The following article represents Nyege Nyege in their own words, as they see themselves, and music in general.
Interview by Rafael Severi
Photos by Darlyne Komukama shot in Kampala, Uganda
Can you talk a bit about music in general – and experimental music in particular – in Uganda?
There’s generally very little Western underground music penetration in Uganda, from North America or Europe. I’m not sure how many people have ever ordered a Throbbing Gristle album in the country, but most probably no one ever has. On the other hand, people’s relation to noise (as in, ambient noise) is much more open than in Europe and distortion, reverb are a big (unconscious) part of people’s sonic lives.
A lot of early African societies prefigured abstraction in the visual arts much earlier than in Europe. The same can be said for music but in some ways those trajectories have been forgotten by local producers. Once again urbanisation and lack of access to old field recordings (like you find in Western music libraries and collections) can explain some of this, but definitely one aim of our label more recently has been to explore the possibilities that the immense continental body of work can open for young producers.
We want to explore the possibilities that the immense continental body of work can open for young producers
How did the Electro Acholi genre come about?
Originally, wedding songs were performed by full bands, with complete percussion troupe, calabash players and singers and dancers. It was a crucial part of any wedding ceremony. Following the wars in northern Uganda in the 1990s and the massive loss of material wealth, such bands became very expensive. It was at that point that some enterprising young producers, starting with Otim Alpha and Leo Palayeng, had the idea of reinterpreting those songs electronically. They followed the style quite closely, but the end result was one that was faster sounding.
Can you explain the idea of the Nyege Nyege Festival?
We wanted a multi-day event where we could showcase in one spot what we felt were the interesting forms of African electronic music on the continent.
When it comes to the mobility of underground African artists within the continent the situation is not good. Few promoters are willing to book such acts outside of their country of origin and very often even within. Funds and national grants to assist with touring support are close to non-existent. It’s way easier for us to get a grant to fly over, say, Yves De Mey from Belgium than it would be to fly in a Balani DJ from Mali.
We book a lot of local DJs from smaller towns across East Africa who often play their own tribal vernacular electronic forms of music but who rarely play in Kampala. At the same time Nyege Nyege was envisaged as a space where young producers who are again working outside the mainstream could showcase their music including a lot of stuff coming out of our studios and artist residencies.
Nyege Nyege was envisaged as a space where young producers who are again working outside the mainstream could showcase their music
Is Boutiq Electroniq your quick and dirty version of the festival?
Boutiq Electoniq parties are mini Nyege Nyege’s. It all started with our party nights sometime around mid-2014 in Bunga Kampala. At first, they mainly attracted people from our local area, also a pan-African crowd that used to hang out in the club we first started doing parties at and sometimes foreigners living in Kampala who were missing electronic dance music nights they might have been used to back home. For the first six months, we ran these nights on Wednesdays in a club called Tilapia. Once that closed we moved next door to a place called Hollywood, a run-down guest house and bar run by our great friend Rastam Binyam, an Eritrean war hero. We’ve done parties all over Kampala as well as in Rwanda, Congo and other towns in Uganda but this venue is our natural roosting spot. We can do what we want, our last party there a few months back went on for three days straight.
Ancienne Belgique organizes two Nyege Nyege Tapes nights on 20 and 21 June. More info here.