The emergence of a new “underground” in East Africa
David Cecil, Co-founder, East African Records
Uganda exercises a powerful magnetic attraction for those who enjoy a bit of risk and chaos. Its feverish nightclubs, lush climate and distinctive rhythms have drawn increasing numbers of sonic adventurers from all parts of the world. Since I first came here in 2007, I have witnessed the mushrooming of genres, scenes, labels and style tribes that were unthinkable 15 years ago.
I was a refugee from the squat party and free festival scenes in Europe, which had largely collapsed by the mid-2000s. The exhilaration of zooming around Kampala on high-speed motorbike taxis and grinding till dawn in Dancehall clubs shook off my post-rave lethargy and European alienation. A plan rapidly formed in my mind to kickstart a new “underground” scene in Uganda, planting the best of European counter-culture in the fertile soil of East Africa.
The Happier Tilapia
The term “underground” does not translate well in the cultural context of Uganda. An “underground” needs a lucrative “mainstream” against which purist creatives can rebel. Uganda is a financially poor but culturally rich country. Accordingly, for most Ugandan creatives, making money from their art is an imperative, not a compromise. The noble ideals I had embraced in the UK underground – of art for art’s sake, of anti-capitalist resistance – are a remote luxury in Uganda. Either you make money from music, or you probably won’t make music at all.
In willful ignorance of this fact, I set up Tilapia Cultural Centre, a place where the few purist creatives and freaky outsiders could watch weird movies, listen to weird music, smoke herb and drink ourselves silly. Within a few months, our Friday live music nights were packed. Africa is often associated with live music in the European imagination, but in practice, much of the continent has abandoned the mastery of musical instruments to gospel groups and cheesy hotel entertainment. So, by providing an open-minded venue with all the equipment necessary and free rehearsal space, Tilapia helped to reignite an aspect of the Ugandan scene that had all but died with the advent of the digital era.
On the back of this modest success, Tilapia launched electronic music nights, catering for the fringe clubber crowd who wanted something other than the Top Twenty Pop slop. The bemused locals and Rastas were thus joined by a growing number of Ugandan freaks and hipsters, among whom were a number of “kuchus”, aka the LGBTI community. Intertwined moustaches and multiple feet glimpsed under toilet doors soon led to moralistic murmurings that Tilapia was becoming a “gay bar” and a “drug den”. We laughed it off at the time, little knowing it would soon prove to be our downfall.
Meanwhile, in September 2012, a group of DJs at Tilapia organized the first-ever Ugandan Rave Party, called Hatari Voltage. This blended traditional European Rave culture (glowsticks, Techno and designer drugs) with new African club culture (Afro-futurism, South African House and selfies). Hatari Voltage brought together the new African bourgeoisie with young international NGO workers from Europe, plus the naughty freaks who patronised Tilapia. It was a resounding success, spawning successive editions with an ever-growing audience.
Another significant musical event took place at the same time in Kenya: the third and largest edition Rift Valley Festival (RVF). Sean Ross, the founder of RVF, was another veteran of the UK warehouse scene. RVF was chaotic but well-organised, free from the usual police & thieves harassment that plague large-scale events in Kenya. Importantly, it was priced low and promoted openly, avoiding the elitism that typically characterizes international events in Kenya. Sean programmed local pop artists alongside brilliant but unknown acts from Europe and West Africa, challenging the audience to dance to music they’d never heard before.
My journey took a dive when I was deported to the UK abruptly in early 2013. Due to my alleged support for the LGBTI community, dark forces conspired to kick me out of Uganda. It was a bleak moment, as I was separated from my Ugandan wife and kids, as well as my beloved Tilapia, which was then surfing at an all-time musical high.
The Birth of Nyege Nyege
While in exile, I took the opportunity to travel East Africa, savouring the sounds and scenes of the region. With a fresh bunch of lunatics, I helped set up an events company in Kenya called Bad Mambo. In 2015, we organized an East African tour for UK sound system champions Mungo’s HiFi and I asked two European mates, Derek Debru and Arlen Dilsizian, to sort out the Ugandan gig. Their typically chaotic planning spiralled out of control, resulting in an international extravaganza: Nyege Nyege. This 3-day anarchic music festival, with acts from four continents, was a glorious, disorganized money toilet. There were more performers and crew than ticket-paying audiences, but it was clearly the start of something huge.
I was fortunate enough to have my deportation overturned just in time to attend Nyege Nyege. Over the next two years we ran a ramshackle recording studio in Kampala called The Villa. It was so badly designed that one visiting producer preferred to record in the garden, but some wondrous magic emerged from there. We hosted everyone from members of the Gorillaz to Norwegian Pop producers to West African kora players. Arlen had a vision of setting up a label to release this material, plus ethnomusicology oddities from around the region; thus, Nyege Tapes was born, which has since become a world-renowned label.
East African Records
A twelve-piece Norwegian calypso band called the Frank Znort Quartet had played at Tilapia in 2012 and I’d stayed in touch with their charming double-bass player, Johannes Saboe. In 2016, he proposed that we set up a music distribution company, to get the region’s cornucopia of music onto the world market. International appetite for African music was growing exponentially, with the rise of Afrobeats, Afro-House and successive waves of vintage re-releases via foreign labels. However, looking at a map of where contemporary African releases were streaming from, east Africa was a musical “black hole” (as one industry guy put it).
Johannes’ proposal came at a time when some of us in Nyege Nyege felt increasingly sidelined from the growing success of the festival. It was attracting a lot of attention and funding, but all the budget seemed to be spent on flying in artists from abroad. Perhaps unfairly, we viewed Nyege Nyege as being more focused on becoming the darlings of the international avant-garde than helping the local scene grow. Resentment was festering and egos were clashing, so in 2017 some of us branched off to set up East African Records (EAR).
The core aim of EAR is to get the region’s music distributed professionally to an international audience. In terms of curation, EAR has always been hands-off, with no prejudice regarding genre or style. This means EAR doesn’t have a particular market but needs to identify the audience for each particular release. Working with our partners Ditto Music, we identify suitable playlists on the major streaming platforms for each release, and pitch to them. Many of our strongest releases are now ending up on official playlists, getting hundreds of thousands of streams for our more successful acts, which is no mean feat for upcoming African artists.
We also set up a full live recording studio in a lush, tropical garden, hosting a network of local and international producers. While few artists had any money to pay for sessions, the studio introduced us to many artists who we could educate about professional distribution, and they in turn helped us to understand how the local industry worked. While we’ve spent more time making music in the studio and doing gigs across the region than counting Spotify streams, the distribution service has quietly grown in the background. We now handle around 70 releases/year for over 120 artists, with a handful of these earning some decent money.
Foreign incursions and local excursions
The years 2017-19 were a rollercoaster, as we courted fate with risky events while investing ever more energy into stimulating the local scene. Our international reputation was growing, without our noticing. We were contacted by Joss Stone’s manager and hosted her in early 2017, shortly followed by Jamaican Reggae legend Eric Donaldson (singer of 1968 hit “Cherry Oh Baby”). In 2018-19, we went on to host DJ Moocha (Kool FM, UK), Skitz & Rodney P (BBC 1Xtra), Mungo’s HiFi (again), DJ Vadim (UK), Roland van Campenhout (Belgium), Tom Dogu (Ancient Astronauts, Germany), Martin “Youth” Glover (UK), Simbad (France) and DJ Raph (Kenya). For each of these visiting dignitaries, we organised studio collaborations with upcoming East African artists. Wherever possible we’d take them on a regional tour, visiting our friends’ venues in Nairobi, the Kenyan coast and beyond.
Many of these visitors were my musical heroes, filling my record crates from my teens through to the present day. I’ll never forget the ecstasy of hearing Youth work the dancefloor with a unique dubplate version of Little Fluffy Clouds, in the very same Naivasha campsite where Rift Valley Festival was originally held. This was a musical wet dream for me and a culmination of years of sweat in the often-thankless tropical obscurity that was the “underground” of Uganda.
It’s taken a while but many of the studio collaborations are finally coming out. Youth’s first African EP dropped in May 2020; the first official Mungo’s HiFi & EAR release, “Pull Up On Mi Bumpa”, came out in August 2021; and in November we released “Posers”, our third DJ Vadim collabo. And we’re finally going physical, with five vinyl releases scheduled for 2022: Nilotika Cultural Ensemble produced by Switchstance Recordings (DE); Blessed San and Moocha remixed by Controlled Weirdness (UK); Eric Donaldson and Lion Story (Burundi), with remixes by The Orb; Youth producing Albert Ssempeke and Lion Story; and a double album featuring various artists from Uganda and Kenya, produced by Gilles Peterson’s studio partner Simbad and ADA Studios in Kenya.
The end of the party?
2020 found us in a deliciously inflated state, bursting with creative residencies and live shows when Covid abruptly sat on our plans. The deathly silence that ensued was something of a relief at first, a time to reflect, plan and give our livers a rest. As desk work became the only thing left to do, our distribution output doubled during the pandemic. We helped artists finish projects, get videos made and produce new material in the studio. However, without gigs to promote the releases and generate revenue, most artists became listless and depressed. This was made a lot worse by the Ugandan government’s decision to impose one of the harshest lockdowns in Africa; at the time of writing, all clubs and bars are still closed after nearly 2 years, with a 7 pm curfew.
Nyege Nyege was hit very hard, both at home and abroad. They had two editions of the festival wiped out and their first major tour of Europe cancelled. It was gutting for the artists, but arguably the festival needed a break. To many of us who were part of it from the start, Nyege Nyege had become too big too quickly and lost its original charm. The last time I attended was in 2018 and I was shocked at how many people were getting robbed and beaten up. It was just too crowded, with endless queues and dense throngs everywhere; it was becoming like the worst bits of Glastonbury. More sickening was the penetration of the mainstream, with corporate logos and naff acts booked by tel-com sponsors. The main crowd were no longer dedicated music fans, but hordes of Insta-junkies lured in by slick advertising, pursued by gangs of thieves and gropers. I didn’t bother going in 2019 but heard with a glimmer of schadenfreude that Derek and Arlen themselves were pickpocketed on the first day of the festival.
As the world now knows, you can’t live off streaming revenue, but East African Records has precious few other sources of income in the pandemic era. Accordingly, we became reliant on one of the few sectors I once vowed never to join: the NGO industry. In 2020-21 we made more money off a handful of NGO gigs than we did from all the creative studio work and streaming combined. This has led to one very interesting outcome, however, which is a renewed interest in education. In late 2021, we were funded by the French Embassy to deliver workshops in music production to aspiring female producers. It was a resounding success, and we are now working to develop this programme to train more women over a longer period.
Of course, the party isn’t really over, but the landscape has changed, perhaps forever. We should be celebrating the tenth anniversary of Tilapia with an epic live show, but instead, we’re turning down offers to do yet another virtual performance in the metaverse. But we’re looking forward to 2022, regardless of what Covid decides to do. With all the clubs closed, a new scene has been emerging in Uganda: off-radar parties, where you go and rave in some beautiful forest with a hundred kindred spirits. That small-scale type of event feels nicely back-to-the-future: before the European rave scene got squashed by cops and crackheads; before Nyege Nyege went mainstream; before Tilapia got shut down by the sex police. The new direction of East African Records – focusing on education and online distribution – also feels more sustainable and positive. That might not sound very rock & roll, but it will help us and our friends keep our heads above water instead of moaning about the death of live shows.
Uganda is still the friendliest country in the world, with one of the coolest and most organic music scenes I’ve ever encountered. If you fancy a trip here, please hit us up on social media, or drop us a line at [email protected]. Hope to see you soon!
Note: At the time of writing, East African Records expect to launch a Kickstarter in early 2022 for the next round of music production workshops, which will result in the first EP of Ugandan music produced exclusively by women. Your support will help to make this a regular programme and get some excellent music made.