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"Africa is hardcore": Duma are here to melt your face off

The electronic-infused metal makers released one of 2020's most intense albums on Nyege Nyege Tapes

  • Patrick Hinton
  • 30 September 2020

“I just wanna make chaos,” says Martin Khanja on the origins of Duma, his electronic-infused metal collaboration with Sam Karugu. Their self-titled debut album (which translates as ‘Darkness’ in Kikuyu) realises that goal with blistering intensity.

Channelling death metal and grindcore influences with trap and industrial breakcore, the nine-track release landed on Nyege Nyege Tapes in August sounding like no metal we’d ever heard before. Among the screaming and shredding guitars, there’s polyrhythmic percussion that no living drummer could dream of playing and off-kilter synths that feel unsettling in a more uncanny sense than pummeling noise.

The two musicians have been involved in the Kenyan metal scene for around a decade. Khanja is a vocalist who also goes by the name Lord Spike Heart, and Karugu is a bassist, guitarist and producer. Together they’ve played in bands such as the deathcore group Lust Of A Dying Breed and psychedelic doom ensemble Seeds Of Datura.

They grew up listening to a diverse mix of traditional Kenyan music such as Benga, popstars like ABBA and Madonna, reggae, Kenyan hip hop acts such as E-Sir, Jua Cali and Nonini, and rock bands like Linkin Park, 3 Doors Down, Audioslave and Three Days Grace.

Khanja discovered metal by chance after moving to Nairobi in 2009 and tuning into XFM to hear Suicide Silence’s track 'Unanswered' playing on the weekly Metal To Midnight show. “Something that struck me was how it sounded like the vocalist had two voices at the same time, and the energy was really insane. It felt like a sound that I’d been looking for,” he says.

Karugu’s discovery was even more serendipitous. He says while in high school he found a CD called ‘Monster Rock’ in the middle of a street in Nyeri, a remote area in central Kenya, that had music by Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, Marilyn Manson, Rammstein, and more on. “Apparently it was by a Kenyan DJ; 'til now I don't know who made it,” he says.

Karugu first started making music on a laptop with Fruity Loops, before learning bass and guitar, while Khanja initially focused on vocals “because at that time I didn't have any money, I was fucking broke”.

Duma formed in 2019 when the duo linked up for a residency at the Nyege Nyege studios in Uganda and channeled their bulging blend of influences into one of this year’s most invigorating LPs. And up next, they have collaborations with Gabber Modus Operandi, Sense Fracture, Elvin Brandhi and DJ Scotch Egg on the way.

We caught up with the duo while they were holed up in Uganda amid coronavirus lockdown last month. Check out their Impact mix and read the Q+A below.

What drew you to metal and hardcore as a sound to listen to and perform?

Martin Khanja: The energy, man — it’s really good, positive shit. When we have shows in Nairobi, people from all these different hoods around the city come. Guys from Kayole, Komarock, Dagoretti - all over - and then we meet and it’s insane. You can't be sad in the mosh pit; it's a lot of fun to see music blasting loudly and everyone is together as one. If someone falls down they get picked up, if you leave a jacket you still find it as it doesn't get stolen; guys are just buying each other drinks, talking about different metal bands.

Sam Karugu: The energy, and also the sounds. It was like something I'd never heard before. It's so loud and abrasive, and there’s just this power to metal. And also the community: you can hang out and they don't care who you are or what you're doing. They're not judgmental; it's just a beautiful thing.

In an interview with Global Metal Apocalypse a couple of years ago Martin mentioned that there’s a negative perception towards metal in Kenya due the dominance of Christian beliefs in the country. Has the dominance of religious beliefs affected your work and the development of the metal scene in Kenya?

Martin Khanja: Where we come from is a very stringent and conservative place in the world. There are no metal shows unless we make them happen. People see heavy music as dark, they say growls are like possession [from the devil]. But it hasn't hampered it actually, it's just made it even more more sweet because now people really fuck with metal and this heavy stuff, they just get into it. The environment is a bit negative towards us, because it's thought that is not supposed to be happening, but it is happening.

Sam Karugu: It's hard to arrange gigs. If the owner of a club is a hardcore Christian or Muslim, they won't let you do do the show. But I think the Christian thing has also helped metal because they always have gear and they have practice spaces for cheap. So you can say you're practising for a church band, and then go there and play some metal. Of course, they're gonna kick you out if they hear it. Most people already have this thing in their head that metal is Satanic.

Read this next: The beautiful chaos of Amapiano, South Africa's emerging house movement

In the same interview Martin said “I think Africa is the most Metal place on Earth”. What makes African metal stand out in your view?

Martin Khanja: I think what makes African metal stand out is the way it's more oppressed here to do metal than anywhere else in the world, because most people here are very close-minded. They don't want to branch out too deeply, they want to stay in the comfort zones, in the mainstream, you know?

Life here is hardcore man, it's death metal as fuck. A lot of challenges and problems here are different to the rest of the world, they're dark problems. So I think with African metal, we embody that and we translate it into songs that we can vent and express ourselves on. It's more intense for me because I see that the lives we're living and the music we're making here just go together. We make the music from our lives; it's a lifestyle.

Sam Karugu: As Khanja says, Africa is pretty hardcore. You turn on CNN, and there’s a farmer in Ethiopia and a farmer in Kenya with locusts eating everything. There's all these things happening. And also the sound is different. The metal that we do here has African music influences.

One thing I would say is metal labels need to watch what's going on here. I'm so happy bands like Overthrust, Scarab and Myrath are making moves, and people are seeing this stuff here in Africa. Even Duma, apparently we're on Mixmag and you see now that there's a scene in Kenya. I wouldn't say African metal is the best - there's metal all over the world - but I would say more people should pay attention to what's happening here. The African people are also looking at what's happening all over the world and they inspire us. We should all see what's up.

I read an article from 2018 on the Heavy and the Beast fanzine headlined: Kenya’s Rock Scene Desperately Needs Record Labels. How is the music industry infrastructure developing?

Martin Khanja: Before it was just guys jamming out in these weird practice spots in Nairobi, recording in bedrooms, and just doing small shows. Everything was very separate. Record labels help as they have distribution, marketing and promotion, and it makes it easier for artists to do what they want to do. I think it's getting more professional now. We have our record label in Kenya, it's called Obsidian. It was a blessing when we partnered up and founded that label: we now have gear, drum sets, guitars, amplifiers. Normally to start a band you need to think about all those logistics, but record labels just set out for you, and then you can just express yourself.

We didn't really think about the business side in the beginning, we just wanted to make music. But there's all these other factors that need to be considered to go together with making the music. Now the infrastructure is getting better and every release is engineered towards taking stuff to the next level.

Sam Karugu: When you say the Kenyan rock scene desperately needs record labels it's true, because we just have three labels for metal and rock and funk: Andromeda, Shinigami and us in Obsidian. It needs to be more because there's a lot of bands that need to have releases. I would love people like Napalm or Century Media or, I don't know, any metal label in the world to just look at what's going on in Africa. There's a lot of good stuff.

The infrastructure in the country is just for pop and local traditional music. That's also why we started Heavy and the Beast: we had to start our own zine, we had to start our own labels, we had to do this ourselves. It's good that Nyege Nyege is here and is recognising that there's different sounds in Africa.

Read this next: Africa Is Not A Jungle: How Black Coffee is leading a music industry revolution

What inspired the decision to start Duma and how has your approach to the music you’re making changed with this project?

Martin Khanja: I felt a bit limited by the genres I'd been making music in and their parameters. So I was like: I want to do some experimental stuff and have these crazy ideas, I don't want to follow any rules. I just wanna make chaos, you know?

Sam Karugu: I like a lot of metal and I also like electronic music, especially a lot of industrial breakcore and this kind of thing. The idea with starting Duma was to fuse these genres, because it’s gotten to a point now where most metal is not as heavy as some electronic music. We just wanted to make something new and experiment; I'm in shock that people actually feel it.

The Nyege Nyege studio where we made the album is for electronic and club music; it's not like a metal setup filled with amps and pedals. This made us think more like an electronic music producer in our approach to making the album.

I’ve seen your sound widely described as grindcore. What do you think of this term?

Martin Khanja: I think our sound is so much more, it's not exactly grindcore. Like I said, we wanted to make chaos; we didn’t want to be restricted by any barriers. Our music has grindcore influences, it has death metal influences, it has industrial influences, it has black metal influences, it has electronic influences, it has trap influences, pop influences, but it is not any of those influences exactly. It's a mix of ingredients, and then the chaos is Duma.

Sam Karugu: I was watching this documentary Slave to the Grind, and grindcore was just people who were listening to a lot of funk and stuff like this, but also listening to metal, and then they made grindcore. So why is it now that people think new genres cannot be made? It always has to be in one space... Sure, Duma is a bit grindcore. Not a bit, like maybe 60%—

Martin Khanja: 20!

Sam Karugu: I disagree with Khanja [laughs].

How did your residency with Nyege Nyege come about and how important has it been for your work as Duma?

Sam Karugu: I was making music with Khanja in bands like Powerslide and Seeds of Datura, and also at the time I was working with synthesisers and Ableton. Then Khanja hit me up, like, ‘yo let's go and make a record with this guy called Arlen [Dilsizian, Nyege Nyege co-founder]’. It was supposed to be for two weeks, and then two weeks turned into three months. I love how Nyege Nyege is down for really experimental stuff and pushes different acts from Africa.

Martin Khanja: Back in 2016 I made a track in my home studio where I live in Kenya and later Nyege Nyege hit me up about it. I was supposed to play in Botswana back in 2019 at Winter Metal Mania Festival in Ghanzi with Seeds of Datura, but we couldn't do it because of some challenges with immigration. So I was like, yeah, since Nyege Nyege contacted us let's just go there and develop the sound. It was interesting for me how we could go even harder. Normal drummers can't play the drums we do live, the synths I play are weird - the whole setup is very weird.

At the Nyege Nyege studio they listen to a lot of music, so that gave us a lot of inspiration and influences. We would jam songs with Gabber Modus Operandi and then hang out with them. It's really nice, you absorb all these influences.

Sam Karugu: Meeting all these artists from all over the world, chilling with them and making music — good music will come out of that, because so much is being shared.

Read this next: “Sweat and hope and the love for music”: Meet the Nyege Nyege Festival team

What inspirations - musical or beyond - shaped your self-titled debut album?

Sam Karugu: I'd say a lot of industrial, noise and metal. And also just going through life, making music in a different country and meeting artists from all over the world. Uganda is crazy, man. Kampala is like Berlin times 10.

Martin Khanja: I listened to a lot of trap, metal, jazz and industrial stuff, and a lot of Afro-centric music. And real life too. We’re out of our comfort zone being in these different places that we're not used to, so it's really good for us.

Martin, you have a master’s degree in psychology. Does that influence the way you approach making music and writing lyrics? If so, how?

Martin Khanja: Yeah it has a lot of influence. Psychology is a study understanding the mind and what makes us tick as people. That's what makes me go deep with these subliminal messages we have in our music. If you write lyrics in a very weird way, your mind will create that in your life.

I studied people who were very successful in their work in their world, and it's the way they think, you know — they think in a very weird, evolved way. That was really good for me, because I also understand people by understanding myself. That translates to the lyrics and the sounds we make, because it's a way that we can all connect. We can find that middle ground, whereby all our differences combine and they're now strengths building us up.

The lyrics of your tracks are in a mix of English and Sheng. What made you choose to sing in both? Do you think each language helps you express yourself in a distinct way?

Martin Khanja: I had no choice but to use both, because that's all we talk back in Kenya. We talk in Swahili and English all the time, everywhere. Sheng's a hybrid of English and Swahili. It means I can pass my message to people overseas in different countries, and also people at home. It's local and international.

Sam Karugu: I love how Swahili has a lot of syllables, like Japanese. It goes well with metal because of the beat, you can do weird polyrhythms.

You played at Berghain earlier this year during CTM Festival. How was that and how did it compare to gigs played in Kenya?

Martin Khanja: One thing about Berghain that really blew my mind to smithereens was the quality of the Funktion-One soundsystem. I even want to cry thinking about it right now. The delivery was so nice.

The vibe is cool in Kenya: guys turn up, we mosh, we do it. But mostly we have challenges with the sound, so the delivery of the music is not that good.

Sam Karugu: I loved the Berghain soundsystem. We play basement shows at some dingy ass clubs. When you're playing metal, it's like: this guy has an amp, this guy has a mixer, this guy has this and that. We make some Frankenstein soundsystem. Kas from Gabber Modus Operandi told me that when you see the soundsystem, it will change your life, and it did. But one thing I didn't like about Berghain is the bouncers, I think they are arseholes.

You’ve spoken previously about the closeness of the Kenyan metal scene community. How does it feel to be releasing the album during the coronavirus pandemic? Has the sense of community remained despite people being kept apart?

Martin Khanja: The sense of community will always remain forever and ever, because this isn't a phase. People have phases in their lives: they pass through shit and then forget it. This is not a phase, the metal scene in Kenya is our life.

Thank the lords that we have the internet, you don't need to come to my show bro, you can just livestream that and we're together. I think it's good we released the album in coronavirus times because now everyone who is bored at home can listen. It's also a dark time, and the album is dark.

Sam Karugu: The closeness is still there, I can still call up friends and listen to metal in the house. But there's no shows any more, there's no mosh pits, and that sucks.

Where have you been during lockdown and how much has the pandemic disrupted your plans for the year?

Martin Khanja: I've been in Uganda. We came from the tour of Europe back in February and were supposed to leave in a week or something after shooting a video for 'Lionsblood'. Then they locked the borders and we're still here in August. We were supposed to go on more tours and now we can't do that. I miss my people and my bands in Kenya, I haven't seen them since going on tour. I hope it ends soon.

Sam Karugu: I've been chilling in a town about 5 kilometres away from Khanja. We lost a lot of shows. We were supposed to go play Saturnalia in Milan, and go to Czech Republic and Austria and all these places, and now we can't. We can't even go play in Kenya as we cannot leave Uganda.

Your Impact mix varies across a range of atmospheres, from palpitating club beats to raw metal to free jazz, and more. How did you approach making the mix and how does it reflect your tastes and work as Duma?

Sam Karugu: We listen to a lot of stuff; I could write a book on my influences. The approach was to represent that. In this mix, you have a grindcore track and you have Ornate Coleman with a sax behind; it makes sense. If you listen to a lot of free jazz, it's basically grindcore in the 50s or 60s.

Martin Khanja: If stuff is sick we don't care what genre it is, we're not elitist metal heads that listen to metal only. The youth always sniff out good music in the world. If it's good music, we listen to it. Duma is like a conglomeration of all these influences and all these sounds together. It's good music, yo.

Tracklist:
CHRIS AND COSEY _ STEVEN
999999999 - X0004000X [NTNLTD001X]
AMMMUSIC _ SIDE A DURING A FLAMING RIVIERA SUNSET
y2mate.com - elvin_brandhi_empty_weeping
deli girls _indentured pervert
marylin manson_angel with the scabbed wings
chet baker _ laura
autechre_ tilapia
squarepusher_nervelevers
ooame_ machine translations album
helios is dead_tombstone
pig destroyer_jennifer_cheerleader corpses
ornate coleman_ ?
passenger of shit_faecalibrium
gabber modus operandi_ tekyan
libido airbag_?
duma_pembe sixsixsix
Slug † Christ - On It (Seven Grams) ft. Stalin Majesty
discordance axis_?
Burzum - Ea, Lord of the Depths
Max Cooper - Resynthesis

'Duma' is out now via Nyege Nyege Tapes, get it via Bandcamp

Patrick Hinton is Mixmag's Digital Features Editor, follow him on Twitter

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