Nyege Nyege: ten years of DIY experimental music in Uganda

Over the last decade, the Nyege Nyege collective have gone from throwing DIY parties in a Kampala film school to becoming a central hub of outsider sound from Africa and far beyond. As they prepare their 2023 festival and an enormous range of new releases on their two record labels, their founders tell Luke Cartledge about the scenes they’re championing, the communities they’re working with and the challenges they’ve faced along the way

Leaning back in their chairs, periodically filling the laptop camera lens through which we’re speaking with cigarette smoke as they bask in the late afternoon sun, Arlen Dilsizian and Derek Debru almost look like they’re halfway through running a festival already. Relaxed but invigorated; at ease but attentive; a little fried, but tangibly enthused about what they’re doing. Yet their festival, Nyege Nyege, isn’t due to take place for another three months, in the eastern Ugandan city of Jinja. Since its first edition in 2015, Nyege Nyege Festival has become one of Africa’s biggest electronic music events, Dilsizian’s and Debru’s expert curation bringing together a heady mix of local and international artists, many of whom are highly experimental in approach, together in the verdant Ugandan countryside. The founders’ laidback demeanours belie the sheer amount of work – including overcoming some serious challenges in 2022, to which we’ll return later – that it has taken to get the festival to this point, and this flagship event is only one component of what they do as Nyege Nyege.

Dilsizian and Debru moved to Uganda separately in 2011, before meeting shortly afterwards as lecturers at Kampala Film School. Both have cosmopolitan, creative backgrounds: Dilsizian has worked extensively in the music industry, both as a hip hop promoter in his native Greece, and as a tour manager for artists like MF Doom; Debru, who grew up in Belgium, worked in documentary film in India and the Ivory Coast before settling in Uganda. The roots of Nyege Nyege lie in the film screenings they began organising together for their students and the surrounding community.

“We used to do these weekly film screenings for the community,” says Dilsizian. “They’d be showing African cinema, African film classics and some leftfield, arthouse cinema. In the back of [the screening venue] there was a small bar, and we started throwing parties every Wednesday after the screening.”

Immediately their parties were warmly received, “started attracting a lot of the neighbourhood”. Living and working in a “very pan-African” district of Kampala, they had a rich blend of musical traditions on their doorstep, and a diverse community which was open to hearing a wealth of different genres. “We started playing a lot of regional sounds,” Dilsizian continues, “and working with a traditional Bagandan [a Ugandan ethnic group] percussion troupe. They would come to the parties and drum, and different DJs would play electronic music, and a lot of stuff that wasn’t usually programmed into a club [around that time]. It was called Boutique Electronique, and it grew popular very fast.”

Their roles at the film school continued to help Dilsizian and Debru to find spaces in which they could work with the community that was blossoming around their parties. The school had recently rented a villa in which they could host their lectures; this soon became a residential space and studio for artists to live and work within, sometimes for months at a time, free of charge. The more parties they threw, the more artists they invited to the villa, the more they realised that they were providing a space for sonic experimentation that was difficult to find elsewhere – but that wasn’t something they’d planned on doing to begin with.

“I don’t think we thought about it – it all happened extremely organically,” says Debru. “We were doing these film nights, and at that point I was also learning to DJ along with a couple of people that came through [the parties], and there were a couple local MCs that became mainstays. There was that latent potential that people got drawn into. You have to remember that the club landscape in Kampala was quite homogeneous – you go from club to club, and there might be something Nigerian, some Afrobeats or US hip hop, but that’s all that was happening anywhere – that’s what was commercially viable. So anybody that had an interest in something else – the weirdos and the outsiders – those people have a natural inclination also for being interested in different types of music.”

“There’s a couple of factors at play,” says Dilsizian, picking up the story. “One is that, as opposed to a few other countries on the continent like South Africa, which always had a vibrant electronic scene and was very regionalised – in Durban it was gqom, in Pretoria was limpopo house, in Johannesburg it was more Afro house, in Soweto there’s a whole scene – here was much more uniform. The music industry is very much regulated by a couple of gatekeepers, so it was harder for younger artists to work up than in other places. And two, the artists we were bringing in were people who are active in their own regional scene – [someone like] Otim Alpha would play at weddings and functions in Gulu, his tribal area. There are 51 tribes in Uganda, and people wouldn’t really move around [between them], so we started bringing these people into a club context and the audience was really receptive, because it’s highly danceable.” Engineering these encounters between different groups and scenes helped them develop their music and reach new listeners; Dilsizian says that, for example, “singeli, from Tanzania, is a scene we were really active in from early on and helped popularise globally. That stuff had not moved out of the ghettos in Tanzania until then.”

As they put together these events and encouraged artists to express themselves using the resources they were able to offer, the duo had to be mindful of the local economy to make their activities as accessible to Kampalans as possible – which in turn had aesthetic effects on the music that was being produced and performed.

“There was no entry fee, you would just come,” says Debru. “These weren’t necessarily well-off neighbourhoods. We realised that if something was going to be interesting, and inclusive, it had to be extremely affordable – but that’s definitely created that original sort of energy. It’s a 24-hour city, so going out is not a problem – it was more about putting on stuff that wasn’t interesting to any bar, as a lot of the clubs have the same DJs who will play every night for eight hours and keep the crowds going, playing something crowd-pleasing.”

Yet this original iteration of what would become Nyege Nyege was not to last. Kampala was changing, for better and worse. Younger, local promoters were beginning to establish themselves, tapping into some of the audiences that had initially flocked to Boutique Electronique and charging higher entry prices; on both of those counts, Dilsizian and Debru are entirely supportive, delighted to see local people continuing to develop their own scene in this way and aware that their own privileges as academic expats had at least partially allowed them to keep their events so cheap for so long. Meanwhile, the political climate was changing – and not for the last time, the repressive apparatus of the Ugandan state began to impinge on the underground music community that was beginning to flourish in Kampala.

“Kampala has changed quite a lot in the last few years,” says Dilsizian, his manner darkening. “The police have become way more intrusive into the nightlife economy. Everything requires a permit now. The politics of the country have changed a lot, ever since the last elections [in 2021, which were plagued by anti-democratic irregularities, and since which the government, already deeply conservative, has become even more authoritarian]. It’s more complicated than before.”

In 2015, Dilsizian and Debru took a significant step and staged the first Nyege Nyege Festival in Jinja (where they are today), and thanks to the residencies they’d been hosting at their villa-cum-studio courtesy of the film school, a label, Nyege Nyege Tapes, wasn’t far behind. The first festival picked up from where their Kampala parties – which within a couple of years had gone from post-film DIY dances to two-to-three-day raves – had left off, throwing together a wild mix of experimental and leftfield sounds on the banks of the Nile.

“It was a bit crazy: we organised it in two months with a mix of artists we’d been working with and some traditional bands,” recalls Debru.

“We put our life savings into it and invited musicians from across the continent to this dilapidated old resort,” says Dilsizian, “and it created this sort of moment in Uganda and East Africa, when people found another way to party.”

The international attention that the festival received naturally exposed the collective that had formed around Nyege Nyege to a far wider audience than ever before, beyond Uganda and into the consciousness of music nerds the world over (particularly in Europe and North America) opening a potentially lucrative market for the record label they got up and running by 2016.

At this point, I wonder how this made the founders feel, as their idiosyncratic, locally-focused project began to be appreciated – and scrutinised – by listeners with little idea of the reality of life in East Africa, particularly in a context where music that isn’t from the Global North is so frequently exoticised, caricatured or, most frequently, outright ignored.

“From the beginning there was always the idea that if we’re going to do something in music and culture there has to be an economics behind it, because most of the artists we work with are really economically disenfranchised,” says Debru, seriously now.  “If you’re going to do something alternative, how are you going to earn something from it? Clearly, there is an initial audience in Europe – music heads, crate-diggers who are looking for something different, and East Africa was totally unrepresented at that time. But it was also us thinking in very practical terms – how can you support your own livelihoods, send your kids to school, or pay rent? And if we don’t find income locally, then where is it going to be? And it so happened that we did get some initial support from European music listeners and avant-garde programmers – Unsound, CTM – they’ve been really critical.”

“Also,” adds Dilsizian, “this applies to a lot of places in the world. A lot of Chicago artists, for example, the likes of DJ Rashad, played way more in Europe than at home, and to this day have never played in America outside of Chicago, but they’ll get shows in Europe. You have [Detroit techno legend] Stingray and a lot of American DJs that relocate to Berlin, just because of the economics of performing in this one continent with so many promoters and so much money being pumped into culture.

“We did a release with DJ K, showcasing this new sound from Heliópolis, a slum in São Paolo. He only used to play in his local favela, but since we did the release a Pitchfork article and DJ Mag feature came out, and he’s now getting booked in middle class, uptown clubs in São Paulo every weekend. So on the one hand, you have that thing where the Western validation also helps push you locally – [gqom pioneer] DJ Lag, for example, only blew up in South Africa after he’d broken through internationally –  and then at the same time, when we look at our Bandcamp sales, it’s the UK, America, Germany, Japan: those are the markets where people are willing to pay for music.”

As they lay out their story today, our conversation also touching on the upcoming 2023 festival and their pretty relentless label activities (both with Nyege Nyege Tapes and its recent sister imprint, Hakuna Kulala), the growth of Nyege Nyege could seem remarkably straightforward. Economic and geographical difficulties perhaps needed to be grappled with from time to time, and certain risks may have had to be taken; yet to not only sustain but grow an experimental arts project against the turbulent political and social backdrop of Uganda (or indeed anywhere) in recent years is quite a feat – one that, as of this afternoon, Dilsizian and Debru seem remarkably nonchalant about.

But there have been issues, some of them very serious. In the runup to the 2022 festival, Nyege Nyege became the subject of a moral panic on the part of the conservative right in Uganda, who accused the event of “promoting sexual immorality” and whose advocates in parliament lobbied to have the whole thing cancelled. As a lively, contemporary festival with attendees from all over the world, it was seen by a certain reactionary bloc as “un-African”, or to use the nakedly homophobic language adopted by former MP Sarah Opendi, as “recruiting” young people into the LGBTQ+ community. As Resident Advisor reported that November, Dilsizian was required to attend “a cabinet meeting with Uganda’s Prime Minister to ensure no orgies, nudity, admission of minors or vulgar expressions would occur” in order for the authorities to allow the festival to go ahead.

The problems with the 2022 festival didn’t end there. As the RA story quoted above details, attendees arrived at the remote site to find that the luxury accommodation that many of them had booked for the weekend was unfinished and insecure; there was a lack of sufficient security staff; there were sanitation issues; and most troubling of all, there were reports of sexual and physical assault across the weekend. Many of the problems with the festival infrastructure could be traced back to one man, Arthur Kirunda, to whom the organisers had entrusted several important logistical responsibilities. He turned out to be a complete charlatan.

The aftermath of 2022, and particularly RA’s description of what happened, hit Nyege Nyege hard. Although they don’t dispute that there were serious issues at the 2022 festival, today they’re reluctant to entirely agree with how it’s been portrayed since.

“Nyege Nyege relocated to a new site last year, [which] proved to be too remote, which coupled with intense rain and the government shutdown one week prior to the event created a challenging edition for 2022,” they tell me via a follow-up email after our chat. “The RA article focused primarily on the accommodation hurdles that impacted a small percentage of festival goers. There was zero focus on jobs created, community involvement, the inclusivity, and above all music and performance art and the artists and collectives from all across the continent performing – including many who had left their homes for the first time to perform abroad. Many people had a transformational experience.”

Again, they’re keen to reiterate their responsibility for the problems that did occur insofar as they’d trusted someone they shouldn’t have, with Debru admitting to RA that “we were foolish… [Kirunda] hustled us over almost everything”. In their email to me, they expand on how they plan to make amends this year:

“The immense challenges and losses we faced initiated a lot of soul searching and called upon our resilience and creativity to face our shortcomings. The safety of festival goers and their accommodation are always of paramount importance, and this clearly informed our decision to now hold the festival on a smaller site closer to many accommodation options. By moving to a new site this year in partnership with Jinja [and in the middle of the city itself] and not getting tangled up in having to set up camping facilities due to lack of reliable service providers, we feel confident we can get back to our core values and execute the 2023 festival in a way that meets international standards.”

Having built such a dynamic, inclusive ecosystem for new and experimental music in Uganda over a decade – always, it’s important to underline, in collaboration with the local community, rather than as paternalistic outsiders – it does feel like Nyege Nyege have earned the right to make up for the issues of 2022 (perhaps bracketing the most serious security issues – those involved in the incidents alleged by the RA report shouldn’t be expected to simply move on or approve second chances, but this isn’t the appropriate place for speculation or relitigation on that subject) as they move to a more secure, manageable site and learn from previous experience. Nyege Nyege Tapes and Hakuna Kulala are two of the most progressive labels in the world at the moment, giving leftfield voices from the Global South (including but not limited to their beloved East Africa) platforms that are very difficult to find elsewhere. Perhaps the most significant testament to the value of what Debru and Dilsizian have built is the new wave of young Kampalan promoters and artists they’ve directly inspired.

“A lot of people that came to the parties eventually started organising their own parties, with most of the artists from the collective,” says Debru, back on the call, smiling down the camera. “That’s also one of the reasons why we stopped throwing parties [in Kampala] because now other people were throwing them, and we’re part of it with everyone else; it’s something we support. Now you have four or five young Ugandan promoters who promote alternative music. That’s great.”