Once a year, deep in the Ugandan forest along the banks of the River Nile, lies a pocket universe of electronic music. For four days, 300 artists from over 30 countries – ranging from traditional local dance troupes to rising East African selectors to international talent like Josey Rebelle, Shyboi and Juan Atkins – descend on Nyege Nyege Festival, delivering psychedelic percussion and hypnotic sets to the sweat-drenched crowds of thousands who shake, vibrate and dance their bodies into a new dimension. Ever since the near-catastrophic rainfall of its first installment in 2015, the team behind Nyege Nyege have faced and overcome challenges on a scale many festivals elsewhere couldn’t imagine. Here are some of the people who help turn Nyege Nyege from a dream into an annual reality.
Growing up with an African grandmother, Derek (co-founder, with Arlen Dilsizian) felt a strong relationship with the country from day one. Having moved from Belgium to the Ivory Coast with plans to start his own film company with an Ivorian mate, he was soon bored by a stagnant industry. Making the jump to buzzing Kampala, he found himself putting down his camera to throw parties, and made like-minded friends in the underground scene. Naturally, his ambitions grew: “I was organising more and more events and working with more and more artists. Arlen and I needed a platform to push those people out to wider audiences and by chance, a bunch of international acts were going to be in Kampala at the same time. Throwing a festival seemed like the next step.”The first Nyege Nyege was a traumatic birth, to say the least,” says Derek. “There were no sponsors, there wasn’t even any security! We made a deal with the army that they would ‘stand watch’, so it was basically just a rave in the forest.” Planned in just over a month in Uganda’s wettest season, it rained like hell. Derek and Arlen gave out tickets and added to the 50+ line-up to make Nyege Nyege a hit ...and it ate up their life savings. Since then, Derek’s paid thousands to police and opportunists that rock up yearly at Nyege Nyege’s gates. “Everyone is out to hustle you, and the problem is, everybody thinks we’re making a shitload of money! We’ve yet to make a profit.” Bank balance aside, the future for Nyege Nyege looks bright. Thirty to forty international bookers will be at this year’s event to scout East Africa’s up-and-coming artists. In addition to his commitments as organiser, artistic director and label head, Derek acts as an ambassador to African artists who now tour globally, with 150+ bookings over the past few years including at Unsound, Sónar, CTM and many more.
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Darlyne has been a core member of Nyege Nyege collective since its inception, from Derek and Arlen’s first parties at notorious Kampala dive bar Hollywood to the decision to throw a festival with six weeks preparation. “The first Nyege Nyege was wild. It was a mad rush. Things like toilets? Security? Lights? Getting people to even come to the party? We didn’t know what we were doing. It was just sweat and hope and the love for music. It poured. Everyone was slipping down the hills, tents were soaked. We had to cover the equipment with tarps, but even in that madness, people were so into it and kept dancing.” A multimedia artist, Darlyne’s gone from giving TED talks on her travelling installation ‘Salooni’, which champions the history of black hair (also with Kampire), to landing a job as the DJ photographer. Last year, joining Kampire on tour opened another creative dimension: “I was already spending so much listening to music on YouTube, so I took my laptop to the club, plugged it in and gave it a shot. My transitions were terrible, but luckily I’m blessed by being surrounded by fucking talented people!” Being a DJ at Nyege Nyege comes with some complexities. While things have progressed from having only two CDJs in the whole country, Darlyne says she’s still witnessed stage-hands running vinyl decks between artists and elaborate lengths reached to transport a Funktion-One system all the way from Kenya. Yet she seems to be in her element. “I have a lot of music in my head that I want to get out. I’ve started producing my own music as well, under the name Cardi Monáe, so I’m excited about that. Ugandans are huge dancers – it’s our national identity to drink and dance. So as long as the music makes us dance we’re not mad at it. If the beat is good, people are into it, and they’re going to give it a chance.”
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Raised in Zambia on a diet of East African rhythms and jazz, then educated in white middle America, it’s not surprising that Uganda’s break-out DJ quickly started crate-digging for music that sounded like home. “I was homesick, and artists like Buraka Som Sistema and Batida were mixing the older African sounds that I loved while making them dancefloor-accessible.“ Returning back to Kampala, Kampire hit the parties Nyege Nyege boss Derek was throwing, and soon was asked to step behind the decks. Though she worked the first festival handling communications, when she finally decided to make her DJ debut it would be a set worth waiting for: “I was super nervous because the artists before had played so many songs that I thought I would play! But people responded so well. There was even a singalong that broke out at the end... I almost cried! It was a really beautiful, beautiful moment. I still carry the energy from that gig with me.” As come-ups go, Kampire’s has been meteoric. In the past year, she’s blasted her vibrant, bass-heavy sets on some of the world’s biggest platforms and made her US debut at Red Bull Music Festival in New York. Coming off the back of a packed-out summer of European gigs, she’s hyped about returning to the place where it all began. “Nyege Nyege is like Christmas for me – I just want to enjoy the moment. Every time I DJ I get better, so it’s definitely still scratching that itch for me.”
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Donzilla Lion operates on a higher level. When pressed to sum up his sound ahead of his DJ set at Nyege Nyege, he explains: “I play experimental African music that makes people vibrate and get out of their bodies” – and if anyone should know about a trip to otherworldly places it’s Zilla. Not only is he a DJ, but he’s responsible for the 50+ troupes that will perform on the Traditional stage, bands he searched for over a year to discover. “I move a lot and dig deep. It’s important that we find the very best, so I’ll travel from Kampala into villages (sometimes 7+ hours) to meet people I know are unlike anything else.”Zilla became a core member of Nyege Nyege as a musician in a band managed by Derek, but he says his passion for Africa’s rich roots is what keeps him on board. “Nyege Nyege has put me in a position to be an activist for my culture. I realised that my people in Kampala are getting lost. They’re African, but most of them have never seen or heard of traditional music. When these troupes play, it reminds people of who they are. It reminds them about the music their ancestors played, and that still exists.” Among 2019’s line-up are Fonkodelics Arkestra, a group of percussionists playing the only three-headed drum in Uganda , Fulu Muziki, an eight-piece Congolese band playing repurposed garbage, and the Nakibembe Xylophone Troupe, who will perform a polyrhythmic onslaught on a huge indigenous xylophone they will construct on-site using local materials and dig a hole for to amplify the sound. “In this traditional scene, there is no competition. Some are playing these instruments because they inherited them from their forefathers, and when they die, their sons will play them. Each tribe has its own sound, and way of representing their culture. Bring their own power and energy. For me, I’ve fallen in love with all of them.”
Tracy Kawalik is a freelance music and culture writer, follow her on Twitter
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