The southern outskirts of Kampala are teeming with life, but head off the main strip leading to Ggaba beach and you will find Kawuku road: a quieter, wide, red and dusty street lined by a mixture of homespun shacks, open dried-up storm drains, and recently constructed villas. It’s also where you will find the home of Derek Debru, co-founder of Nyege Nyege, a collective of musicians from around the world who are turning the music scene in the Ugandan capital on its head.
“We want to showcase sounds from across the continent into one experience,” says Belgium-born Debru, a chain-smoking idealist with a wild, unkempt beard, who, along with Arlen Dilsizian – a Greek-Armenian academic with an encyclopaedic knowledge of musical ethnography – was attracted to the city by “the energy, the freedom and the easiness of the people”. Together, they have created a community in Kampala with little precedent in Africa.
Debru’s home is the heart of what Nyege Nyege – also a label, Nyege Nyege Tapes – is about. A temporary space while they move between studios, it provides room for a revolving cast of musicians (and three stray dogs). The house is always filled with music, and the sound shifts constantly from soukous – a traditional music born out of Congolese musicians’ interpretation of rumba – to blistering techno, hip-hop, tribal music, contemplative abstract electronics and beyond. The artists often play at wild raves in the city, attracting the rich and the poor of Kampala, united by their appetite for this forward-thinking electronic sound.
The space that Nyege Nyege provides is a breeding ground for innovation, and it would be difficult to replicate the marriage of different backgrounds outside Kampala. But many of the musicians have harrowing stories: Otim Alpha and Leeo P-Layeng Kenna come from Gulu, in northern Uganda, an area with a history of violence by organisations ranging from government-affiliated militias to the Lord’s Resistance Army of Joseph Kony. Alpha, a former kickboxer who has updated traditional music of the Acholi people into insatiably upbeat electro, protected the people of Gulu against repeat attacks. Other musicians, such as hip-hop duo Kongoloko, from Congo, talk of seeing friends being shot in the street.
“In my country, you just see people dying for nothing,” says Rey, a Congolese artist who produces music as Sapiens. “When you get home from school, you find that your friend is dead.” He fled Congo aged 10 with his father during the second Congo war in 2000, and came to Kampala four years ago. Originally a singer, he learned to use production software six months ago and is pursuing a childhood dream to produce a new sound he calls “Congo techno” – an amalgam of soukous and 4/4 beats.
A prominent artist in the villa is Kasakwi Samuel, a softly spoken, dreadlocked man who makes music as Zilla. “This is the only place in Uganda that gives hospitality to artists,” he says. “[We] get free tools to use, free computers, tools that can help us model our act the way we want. There’s going to be something great that comes out of this place.”
“What was on offer in Kampala wasn’t reflective of the diversity of music in the country, and that was problematic,” says Dilsizian. The continent’s music is evolving rapidly, from electro chaabi – complex, soca-like Egyptian dance music inspired by north African folk – to singeli, the fast and furious sound coming out of Dar es Salaam that Nyege captured on its Sounds of Sisso compilation. “You wouldn’t get an electro chaabi producer being booked for a Kampala club, even though you know that sound will rocket,” Dilsizian continues. “We’re trying to address these inhibitors. If you don’t have a scene to perform in, it becomes challenging for a scene to survive.”
Another problem is the long history of western musicians going to African countries to find new sounds, only to leave local artists feeling used and scammed.
It is something that Nyege Nyege is wary of, and Debru and Dilsizian have tried to turn into something positive with Nihiloxica, a project formed by British artists Spooky J and PQ collaborating with Kampala’s Nilotica Drum Ensemble. “The problem with arriving, sampling and going away is that you may capture some amazing things but you’re going to be very disconnected from the actual outcome,” says Jacob Maskell-Key, AKA Spooky J, who did exactly that before returning to live in Kampala. “You have to be somewhere for a while to really understand not only the musical traditions but also how people live – it all ties in together.”
“Collaboration excites us,” says Dilsizian. “We have no problem with artists coming here from abroad. It’s just that the terms of the collaboration need to be fairer.”
When Debru is asked about his dreams for the future he just utterssays: “No dreams, only plans.” Looking at what Nyege Nyege has achieved in just four years, it is easy to believe. “We’re going to just go as hard as we can and see how far we can take this thing. In the beginning, it was about swimming in the ocean. Now, it’s about steering the ship.”