This year, Uganda’s MTN Nyege Nyege festival returned to Jinja for its fourth year – its biggest yet. FACT’s John Twells flew to Africa to investigate a four-day non-stop party that fused East African underground music with diverse sounds from across the globe.
As I double-checked my inventory, wondering which crucial item I’d neglected to pack for this year’s Nyege Nyege festival in Uganda (spoiler: it was bug spray), I received a concerning message. A friend had heard word that the event had been canceled and linked me to a statement made by the country’s Minister of State for Ethics and Integrity, Rev Fr. Simon Lokodo. “There will be nudity and sexuality done at any time of the hour. There will be open sex,” Lokodo warned the world. “Let foreigners not come to Uganda for sex. If you are coming for sexual reasons worse still homosexuality and LGBTQ, stay away. On that basis, #MTNNyegeNyege is cancelled. This event called MTN Nyege Nyege is off. It won’t happen in 2018.”
The name Nyege Nyege is indeed provocative. It means “horny horny” and has probably caused the event more harm than good. The Nyege Nyege Tapes label was established officially in 2016 by Arlen Dilsizian and Derek Debru, two dislocated travelers who had moved to Uganda to establish a film school before being swept up by the burgeoning local underground music scene. Even early on, Dilsizian and Debru were keen to highlight the connections between what was happening in East Africa, with its mass of passionate young producers crafting electronic music with newly-accessible tools such as FL Studio and Ableton, and what was going on in Europe and the rest of the world.
This was the fourth year they staged Nyege Nyege in Jinja, but to most Ugandans, it probably looked more like a swingers convention: why else would a sizable international audience flock to a small village on Lake Victoria for “four days party non-stop” at an event called “Horny Horny 2018”? The confusion was at least somewhat understandable, even if the language, filtered through generations of colonial British Christian conservatism, was toxic.
Mid-way through my trip, as I sleepily congratulated myself for finishing Autechre’s NTS Sessions in one sitting, I received official confirmation that the festival would go ahead as planned. And as I took a bus at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport, I found further reassurance. A middle-aged man in priest’s garb asked to sit next to me and instantly greeted me with a smile. “Is this your first time visiting Africa,” he asked, knowing the answer. We made introductions and laughed at each other’s small talk for a while before clambering onto the plane to Entebbe and offering each other the requisite “safe travels”. But as we wandered slowly further and further to the back of the vessel, trailing each other, we had a similar realization. Completely randomly, we had been seated together; to the priest, it was no coincidence.
Father Leo had grown up in the West of Uganda (“the most beautiful part”) and was eager to inform me about his country. I wasn’t going to be in Uganda nearly long enough to get the proper experience, he told me, but I’d certainly enjoy the short time I had there – it was Uganda, after all. Leo had studied theology in the USA and still spent summers there, traveling around some of the country’s most impoverished areas and breaking bread with forgotten communities. He was a philosopher with a disarmingly progressive view of religion and its place in both Uganda and the US. Catholicism had highlighted to him a way out of poverty and had helped his small local community with food, shelter and spiritual guidance. But his travels and studies had imparted knowledge that a dusty old book could only hint at. He was just as keen to let me know how damaging the oppressive, colonial spread of various religions had been not only to Uganda, but to East Africa and the wider continent.
We spent almost 10 hours sat alongside each other, dipping into long, quizzical conversation or just recounting past experiences, and I finally began to learn about Uganda. The documentaries I’d sat and watched – endless footage of Idi Amin or Yoweri Museveni – only revealed a tiny facet of the country’s complex history. This was preparation for the trip I couldn’t have planned or even asked for. Maybe Father Leo was right; maybe it wasn’t a coincidence after all.
I made it out onto the tarmac at Entebbe airport some time after midnight. It was still a good four-hour ride to Jinja and there were busses to greet the gaggle of anxious travelers. But this was an unusual introduction to Africa, landing and then driving in almost complete darkness. I knew where I was, in theory, but all I could really visualize were strips of small stores, gas stations and dimly-lit nightclubs as we drove through Kampala’s never-ending urban sprawl. A stop for gas was a quick reality check, as two busses of Europeans suddenly realized their credit and debit cards were mostly useless. The preferred method of payment was MoMoPay, a mobile phone cash service that was accepted by almost everyone, from street vendors to larger stores and restaurants, but required a Ugandan phone. The ride continued, past more sweaty clubs with small groups of revelers huddled around booming soundsystems and past miles of newly-built, well-fortified industrial developments that stood motionless in the failing light.
It wasn’t until the next morning that it really dawned on me where I was. I opened the curtains in my room and a sleeping lizard fell to the floor before scuttling away, terrified. Breakfast – gingery pepper tea with toast, pineapple and watermelon – was served and the big, big sky was finally open. When I took a quick detour to the city before heading to the festival, I was greeted by knowing grins and chants of “Nyege Nyege” from anybody who cared to pay attention to my conspicuous complexion. The festival’s flock of visitors were notorious, and not just because of the widely-touted “open sex”.
In Jinja, Nyege Nyege offered a rare opportunity for locals to make a large amount of money in a short space of time. Festival-goers were a promised source of fresh income in an area where opportunity was often scarce, and smart local entrepreneurs surrounded the festival grounds and nearby hotels, selling fruit, water, clothes, parking, snacks and transport.
Noisy motorcycles – inexpensive taxis known across East Africa as “boda boda” – buzzed around the festival entrance conspicuously. They were the best way to get around Jinja, providing you could handle being intimate with a stranger at high speed, a couple of feet from the ground. Prices fluctuated wildly however, much to the annoyance of Western visitors. At night or in the early morning, the price of a ride would be sometimes triple, but this made sense to me; riding a bike in the dark with no streetlights quite clearly puts the driver at risk. And don’t we have an understanding of “surge pricing” these days? The libertarian price structure was possibly the least alien part of the experience.
The labyrinthine festival grounds were guarded by metal detectors, and police and military security in ill-fitting uniforms carrying obsolete, retrofitted firearms. There were a number of discreet stages that twisted confusingly around the banks of the Nile: a gigantic main stage for the biggest African acts and some high profile collaborations; the Dark Star stage for underground electronic sounds; the Eternal Disco, an intimate area that overlooked the water; the tiny Ndiku stage, for more low-key sets; and the Spirit of UG stage, an un-amplified area where local traditional musicians performed in the daylight hours. There was also a stage provided by local cellphone company (and festival sponsor) MTN that was among the busiest all week, offering almost non-stop African club music that had audiences dancing continuously.
Nyege Nyege offered a delightfully curious collision of styles from the outset. The majority of the lineup was made up of African artists performing a wide variety of music, from traditional and fusion to bass-heavy modern electronic material. But there were a wide array of artists from further afield, and not the usual festival regulars. European art platform SHAPE contributed a handful of artists, including JASSS, Yamaneko, Sarah Farina, Giant Swan, Bonaventure and DJ Morgiana. This injection of experimentation, funded by the Creative Europe initiative, gave the festival program an intriguing slant. This was bolstered by smart bookings like Rian Treanor, Modern Institute, Juliana Huxtable, Death of Rave boss Conor Thomas, Another Nice Mess host DJ Marcelle, Errorsmith and Dis Fig, who filled in the gaps between the art world and the sweaty basement rave.
Thursday started surprisingly slowly, considering all the controversy surrounding the festival, but it was a school night. Early visitors appeared to be a mix of NGO workers, trustafarians, wide-eyed artists, festival partners and bemused locals, eager to see what the hell was going on, and the vibe was hard to gage. Visitors seemed unsure how to carry themselves, and I was surrounded by awkward decisions, from the expected critical mass of fuzzy, colorless dreadlocks to the couple who seemed to think it was a good idea to dress in papier-mâché zebra costumes. My anxiety was persistent.
I idly wandered around the site and noticed that experimental musician Tomoko Sauvage was encountering unexpected issues as she attempted to soundcheck. Her unique setup – a “natural synthesizer” made from amplified bowls filled with water – wasn’t co-operating with the generators powering the stage. Every time she tried to play the instrument, an electrical surge would shock her, and while she bravely tried using a rubber-lined industrial glove, upgrades had to be made before the performance could go on. Thankfully, the problem was eventually solved, and provided an early indication of how resourceful everyone, including the artists, managed to be as they worked under unfamiliar conditions.
As daylight slipped away, local outfit Nakibembe Xylophone Troupe began setting up their impressive hand-made xylophone, with only a huge cavity beneath the wooden blocks for amplification. It was kinetic and hypnotic; rhythms and tones melted into each other in a blur of undulating repetition. It was a rare privilege to see this performance close up, and it stuck with me for the entire festival. One local staffer, who grew up in Jinja, informed me that this kind of “culture music” was taught at school, admitting that it didn’t interest young people more likely to be dazzled by EDM’s decadent neon bounce. But as a foreigner lacking that early education, every bit of “culture music” I witnessed throughout the week papered over another gaping hole in my studies.
Later that night, Rian Treanor performed on the main stage alongside Acholi fiddle player Ocen James. Treanor was more animated than usual, brushing away carpets of insects from his bright laptop screen to control a flurry of wonky beats and tones that accompanied James’ distinctive fiddle playing and joyful vocals. Occasionally, Treanor’s synth drones mirrored James’ string tones, causing an eerie psychedelic rush that remains hard to describe, but the majority of the audience reacted best when things crashed back down to earth, with Treanor dutifully spinning a few party bangers that James accompanied excitedly.
Tired and hungry, I took a break to investigate the food options. Artists had the option of being fed in a special backstage area that provided delicious local vegan food: rice, chapatis, banana, nuts, stewed greens and plenty of starchy local vegetables. But there was plenty more on offer across the site, whether you were an adventurous eater or not. The most common delicacy was a local street wrap known as a “Rolex” – an omelette wrapped in a chapati – and this was what I gravitated towards most frequently, adding coal-grilled offal for some familiar Black Country flavor. If that sounds a bit too complicated, vendors with baskets wandered through the crowd offering freshly fried chicken, kebabs, cigarettes and soft drinks, and if you made your way to the large, well-lit food area, you could pick up all manner of international cuisine, from meat pies to Teppanyaki.
With a full belly, I managed to catch most of Hakuna Kulala’s takeover at the Eternal Disco stage. This lengthy showcase marked the launch of a new label and incubator project from the Nyege Nyege Tapes crew, focusing on younger, fresher sounds from East Africa and the Congo. Kenyan producer Slikback was the star here, fluidly blending frenetic electronics and familiar syncopated rhythms with vocal snippets and welcome blasts of sub bass. The showcase offered a chance to hear how young East African producers were absorbing elements of footwork, D&B and other global club subgenres into the framework of local dance music. Familiar gqom rhythms were merged with double-time tom patterns and occasional amen breaks or hoover sounds, while syncopated woodblock trills bounced off narcotic womps and trap drops. EDM wasn’t off limits either, with conspicuous filter sweeps, neon-blasted synths and white noise buildups absorbed into the eclectic throb.
On the Dark Star stage, Dutch veteran DJ Marcelle was back in Uganda for the second year running and performed an impressive four-hour all-vinyl set, clanging awkward, powerful dance bangers, field recordings, spoken word and whatever else was in her box. For the first couple of hours it was almost transcendent, but energy began to wane as the morning rolled on, and bodies moved towards the alluring throb of the nearby MTN stage.
The following day, I arrived to the sight of campers washing their clothes in the lake as music chimed through the sound of cooking, yelling and boda bodas. By this point, there was now almost non-stop music on most of the stages and I accepted that it was impossible to see everything. The crowd swelled as the day pushed on, congregating mostly around the busy main stage that hosted breathtaking performances from Nihiloxica (an earthshaking collaboration between Bugandan percussionists Nilotika Cultural Ensemble, British drummer Spooky J and synth player Peter James), and Slikback, who performed again with a selection of MCs and collaborators.
As I made myself more familiar with the festival grounds, I began to explore the small sub-areas dotted around the stages, which offered spaces to sit and relax, chat to new friends, collaborate, learn or trade. Sitting down, I noticed that I wasn’t alone. During daytime, large spiders sat almost motionless on huge webs anchored to the trees that surrounded the site. Most of these eight-legged friends weren’t dangerous, but they were elegant, with huge female Nephila spiders (two thirds bigger than their tiddly male counterparts) taking pride of place, catching the bright sunlight on their irresistable iridescent markings.
Of course, the presence of massive spiders, no matter how adorable they looked, wasn’t a positive for many out-of-town visitors. But it’s surprising what you deal with when you’re forced to; quite soon, even the most nervous foreigners forgot about the silent watchers surrounding them, and as the swarms of flies and moths reached truly ridiculous levels, sometimes requiring a “parting of the sea” tactic that left you scratching phantom itches for hours afterwards, their importance was understood on a practical level. The Nephila mothered us through the festival, pacifying a very real, very irritating threat.
Eventually I grabbed some delicious, tart fresh passion fruit juice – worth a trip to Uganda alone – and made my way through the rest of the evening, dotting from stage to stage catching snippets of sounds – Kamapla’s DJ Naselow at the Eternal Disco, Nyege Nyege Tapes’ Sisso on the main stage, Jlin on the Dark Star stage – before settling into a transformative 4AM set from JASSS. Silvia Jiménez Alvarez’s sound resonated perfectly here as she threw together uncompromisingly messy warehouse acid, wonky techno and all manner of unabashedly weird dance music without missing a beat. The audience replied excitedly with whoops and cheers and the atmosphere was intimate, open and electric. Nyege Nyege wasn’t the dangerous sex party the Ugandan government had been so worried about, but it did appear to provide a place for people to visualize other hopeful, idealistic weirdos from across the globe – dancing, listening and reacting to sounds pieced together and performed in the name of cultural freedom.
A few hours sleep prepared me for the next day and at this point, many remaining visitors had lost track of time completely. Random improvised sets that sprung up around the Spirit of UG stage were an early treat for disorientated visitors nursing sore heads and feet, with local musicians and poets sitting on elevated platforms or around campfires. This was an ideal space to reflect on the festival’s sights and sounds before darting towards another overwhelming experience. The main stage was impressive yet again, with stand-out sets from Zimbabwean mbira superstar Stella Chiweshe and Nyege Nyege Tapes figurehead Otim Alpha, who coaxed an adoring audience to transcendent jubilation. Meanwhile, the Eternal Disco stage was transformed into a Boiler Room showcase for the evening and early on hosted an incredible set from gqom legend Dominowe. But it was Sisso who truly blew the lid off, with a troupe of dancers and excited collaborators who performed in amongst the audience, making it one of the most interactive, unmissable sets of the entire festival.
Over on the main stage, gqom originators Rudeboyz turned up the pressure, giving the swelling audience exactly what it needed: a massive, bass-heavy party. The Durban duo united rapturous local fans, international gqom aficionados and global ravers desperate to dance with a deafeningly loud, hyperactive fusion. They were the perfect main stage act, offering the kind of breathless energy that carries well across borders. Elsewhere, Tanzanian duo MCZO & DJ Duke amazed at the Dark Star stage, pushing the already breakneck Singeli style to turbulent heights. Rhythmically it was unforgettable, with DJ Duke’s rolling snares punctuated by synth squelches and pounding bass as MCZO toasted non-stop overhead, with the guttural growl of a ragga toaster and the Duracell bunny’s unfathomable energy. When Errorsmith followed quickly afterwards, it was a very welcome tempo drop and Erik Wiegand’s bright, syncopated experiments connected with the audience immediately, who danced furiously.
Yet still, after all this, the night hadn’t reached its peak. New York legend Juliana Huxtable stepped up at 3AM to bring US club music in all its queer glory to an eager Ugandan audience. It’s tough to relay the emotion present on the dancefloor; I was dancing amongst new and old friends and we glanced occasionally at each other in amazement, barely stopping to catch a breath until it was over. Huxtable has long been an essential, inspiring DJ, but her almost effortless blend of bass, soul, funk and levity never sounded so urgent or so blissfully crucial. This was a radical moment and joyful tears dripped freely into the red clay beneath busy boots and sneakers.
Afterwards, I pulled myself together, brushed myself off and trekked down to the Eternal Disco stage to catch Conor Thomas’s DJ set as the sun rose over the Nile River. It was a surreal moment for me – I used to work alongside Thomas in Manchester and never expected to witness him playing an event at the cradle of human civilization. Fifteen years ago, we were lucky to get a back room in Salford. But despite a powerful start, the set was sadly cut short as the week’s first rain caused a power cut and had the remaining audience running for cover. When the storm subsided, power was still an issue, but a few of us waited around until the final listed show of the morning: an 8AM un-amplified performance from Ocen James. Sure enough, James appeared, fiddle in hand, with his band and played to the remaining handful of locals and visitors as the clouds slowly cleared overhead; it was a magical conclusion to an unexpectedly jubilant night of music.
When I returned to the festival ground after a couple of hurried hours of sleep, the audience had noticeably diminished. Vendors could be seen huddled over their tables, napping while they had the chance, and most of the trustafarians – visibly unprepared for four days of professional raving – had retreated. The crowd now was mostly eager locals and dedicated weirdos, desperate for another experience before the weekend drew to a close. And Nyege Nyege still managed to provide: throughout Sunday, until mid-morning on Monday, the music continued. Highlights included breakneck DJ sets from both members of Modern Institute, destructive live performances from Tanzanian producers Bamba Pana and Balotelli and a bass-heavy DJ set from Rian Treanor that climaxed on Autechre’s ‘Flutter’. By the time the festival wound up, with Dis Fig playing into the sunrise, I wasn’t sure whether I was exhausted or exhilarated. I didn’t feel tired, but I hadn’t slept in days.
It took a while to decompress. A low-key afterparty followed the main festival, but the drop in energy was visible across Jinja. The city was knackered, and satellite events that had cropped up around the hotels and the festival ground fell conspicuously silent; no longer was an omnipresent syncopated kick drum booming from every nook and cranny. It felt as if someone had switched everything off, which to tired locals was no doubt a relief. My ride home was long – around 35 hours – and I didn’t meet any priests on this leg of the journey. Instead I caught up on sleep, trying to piece together everything that had happened and work out what I’d just witnessed.
As wrong as the government had been about their statements about Nyege Nyege, I couldn’t help but consider the subtext of their message. This festival didn’t offer open sex or nudity and, as far as I could tell, visitors hadn’t arrived for “sexual reasons”. But there’s certainly something egalitarian about Nyege Nyege festival, and freedom tends to rattle the resolve of most politicians, Western, African or otherwise. The sensationalism seemed sinister, an attempt to mobilize religious fears and shutter cultural development and interaction. And I got to witness what that interaction looks like, face to face. I sat and chatted with vendors whose lives had been changed by the opportunities offered to them by Nyege Nyege – the music had changed their perception of what an event should, or could look like, and their interactions with foreigners had often been educational and inspiring. As the festival was winding down, the most familiar phrase I heard shouted my way wasn’t “Nyege Nyege”, but, “come back next year!”
I can’t recommend Nyege Nyege to everyone. It requires respect, experience and serious stamina. If you’re expecting home comforts you’ll be disappointed and if you’re looking for a destination festival to hear all your house and techno faves, this isn’t the one. But for adventurous musical explorers, dedicated bass heads and jaded ravers looking for an antidote to the festival industrial complex, this is what you’ve been looking for. In over two decades of festival-going, I’ve never witnessed anything that comes close to Nyege Nyege. Whether it can happen again, who knows; the additional interest generated by Boiler Room and, of course, this review, will likely change something. But Uganda can’t be discounted and shouldn’t be ignored. If there’s a Nyege Nyege 2019, I’ll see you on the dancefloor.