Africa’s most important music festival is a breeding ground for new and unheard sounds.
“There will be safe sex in Jinja”.
These words were spoken by Derek Debru, one of the two leaders of Africa’s most innovative music festival in Uganda near the city of Jinja, in an interview for the weekly newspaper The Kampala Sun to underline that the Festival won’t be a breeding ground for immoral behaviour.
Coincidentally, this was the first thing I saw when I landed at Uganda’s international airport in Entebbe, the site of the infamous hijacking of flight AF139 en-route from Paris to Tel Aviv. A hijacking carried out by German and Palestinian terrorists cum freedom fighters by taking Jewish-Israeli passengers, and as well as the subsequent liberation by Israeli security forces. A rapid succession of memorised snippets of knowledge flashed through my mind, including that of the dictator Idi Amin, whose name I discovered as a six-and-a-half-year-old through an unbeatably catchy rap song by the North German comedian Otto Waalkes. This very first German-language rap song entitled “Dupscheck” was now buzzing around in my head. Featuring Alexander Dubček, the general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communists Party, and hero of the Prague Spring who was removed from his post after Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968 two years before my birth. Waalkes raps in the style of a human beatbox. After the bone-dry mention of Mao Tsung, followed by King Kong, Idi Amin is honoured by singing his name in a wonderfully false falsetto voice: “Idi Amin, I-Idi Ami-in”, the man who dictatorially ruled Uganda as head of state from 1971-1979 and enforced strict Africanisation, “I-Idi Ami-in”.
“The legacy of Africanisation”
Africanisation? Well, that is the technical term for a kind of ethnic cleansing, better expressed as “Uganda for Ugandans”. This meant that only “organic” or indigenous, tribal “black” Ugandans were allowed to belong to the country.
A decree of 1972 by Amin meant that within 90 days all Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese and Lebanese, all non-Blacks, had to leave the country, plus all those colonial whites who had not left by then. There were not so many as in other post-independence African states as Uganda was not a colony but a protectorate. A protectorate often kept its self-governance concerning the internal affairs. On the territory of Uganda existed four kingdoms as for example Buganda and several loosely organised tribes as for example the Acholi. The domestic policy was mainly ruled by the local nobilities and heads of certain tribes but in order to keep them all in check, the British colonial government played the different groups off against each other and re-ethnicised them.
Idi Amin’s arrival to power was well framed by an already installed and even a semi-democratically elected Prime Minister Apollo Milton Obote, whose middle name incidentally happens to refer to the author John Milton and his epic poem “Paradise Lost”. Milton a staunch follower of the English Puritan revolutionary Oliver Cromwell, who wrote his masterpiece after Cromwell died of malaria in 1658 and Parliament again placed a new king on the throne, a Charles II, thus coming to terms with the “loss of his paradise.” Did history repeat itself here? During Obote’s first term, Uganda gained its independence from England in 1962. Obote, like Cromwell once did, seemed to be the country’s innovator until Idi Amin hounded him out of office in 1971. Obote took revenge in 1979 when he regained power over the country with the help of the Tanzanian army. The Muslim Amin true to his nature fled to Saudi Arabia and led a luxurious life in exile without any international prosecution.
Obote now served another term as Uganda’s president. Unlike Idi Amin, Obote had the dubious honour of being a less successful dictator. “The Butcher of Africa,” as Idi Amin is known, murdered up to 500,000 Ugandans, depending on sources, but before Amin, Obote had already murdered more than 100,000 people as part of his Africanisation. In 1970, Uganda had a population of 10 million, which means that about 6% of the total population was murdered without cause within a decade. What about the white population at that time? Unless they were essential for trade, they were forced out of Uganda immediately following independence. This was relatively easy. Most of Uganda was already well developed in terms of infrastructure at the beginning of the British colonial period in 1894: There was a well-differentiated economy, a good education system and a military. Several waves of missions had already taken place. Whites had a hard time establishing themselves on Ugandan soil, because most of the fertile lands were already firmly in the hands of the local rulers, who could not simply be expropriated in a protectorate. So, the only thing left for non-blacks and whites to do was to export coffee beans and cotton.
“A country of active discrimination against LGBTIQ+ high rates of HIV infections and American Missionaries from Kanas:”
In the first half of the 1990s, one in eight Ugandans was infected with HIV. Since the virus was first detected in Uganda’s hinterland in 1982 many citizens of this country have died. It is now even scientifically believed that the virus itself has been traveling in the mountainous regions of Uganda since Belgian and French doctors conducted experiments with monkey viruses and transfusion of human blood in the 1960s to supposedly produced a kind of vaccine against malaria and other serious indigenous infections. Conspiracy theory or not, what can be said is that after the first public outbreak of HIV in 1982, in the 1990s, Uganda became a global model in the fight against the spread of the virus. This was not only because tests were widely available all over the country, but also because of the mantra of the ABC approach, the slogan that was repeated everywhere: “Abstain. Be faithful. Or use condoms.” Free condoms were distributed throughout the country and intensive education campaigns were conducted – and all this before the white American religious fundamentalists came to Uganda with their civilising mission.
The HIV prevention measures led to a successful and steadily decreasing infection rate. Since 2004, Uganda has been receiving retroviral drugs free of charge, which has not only improved the well-being of those infected, but also brought the life expectancy of those infected closer to the average of healthy Ugandans. However, it should be noted that since 2004, the number of infections has increased more strongly again. One reason for this, among others, is that the US subsidies to combat the spread of the HIV virus did not approve of certain approaches and favoured others. As a result, the free distribution of condoms was discontinued, due to the influence of American white evangelicals on politics the so-called ABC approach was reduced to an A approach, “abstain”, and abstinence has become today’s mantra. This moral imperative has a high symbolic value for the conservative, extreme religious views of a large part of the local political establishment as well as for the influential evangelical preachers.
“The new call!” How Christian missionaries, members of the International House of Prayer, a large evangelical organisation based in Kansas City, Missouri decided to do their holy deed to bring the people of Uganda back to the only one true spiritual path of God. Allegedly Ugandans and especially the children are constantly threatened by sodomy and polygamy, i.e. allegedly for homosexuality and promiscuous life styles.
Oh, Good Lord, what a country! All the snippets of information almost made me cancel my travels to the Nyege Nyege Music Festival. Uganda’s political and religious establishment is not just merely entrenched in religious evangelicalism, its fanaticism goes even further by criminalising all alleged deviant sexual acts, such as same-sex sexual acts, with heavy fines and up to fourteen years in prison with beatings and torture as a normal part of the core. The fight against the LGBTIQ+ community accelerated from 2004 with draft laws in 2005 and in 2009, with the proposed Uganda 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill. This bill was jointly developed by the American Christian anti-LGBTIQ+ lobbyists in exchange with the Ugandan evangelical clergy that used its influence on evangelical members of the Ugandan parliament, as the latter presented the bill to parliament and it passed. Among other things, the bill even provides for the possibility of the death penalty as the maximum punishment for “severe immoral activities.” After much international protests, the Ugandan Supreme Court decided to temporarily suspend the law. An absolute peak in the persecution of LGBTIQ+ people was an actual hunt for allegedly “immoral and deviant” Ugandans in 2010, triggered by a national publication of 100 images of allegedly LGBTIQ+ people in the Ugandan Rolling Stone magazine (not to be confused with the American music journal). There was an open call to “Hang them!” As a result of this, David Kato Kisule, an Ugandan teacher and LGBTIQ+ rights activist, considered to be the father of Uganda’s gay rights movement was murdered in his home in early 2011.
In this context, Derek Debru and Arlen Dilsizian founded the collective Nyege Nyege in 2013. In Luganda, the language of the people who live in central Uganda and especially in Kampala, this combination of words describes the irrepressible, sudden and uncontrollable urge to move to music, to dance. In Kiswahili the word has another meaning which is essentially: ”to have sex”.
“Nyege Nyege builds bridges between different worlds:”
Nyege Nyege, started as a collective whose first steps was to do the “Boutiq Electronique” series of events, usually held in a venue in Debru’s and Dilsizian’s residential neighbourhood in Kampala. There they presented artists who had caught their attention since their migration to Uganda around 2010. This music was and is the sound of a different society and was not heard, neither on the “heavy rotation” radio stations in East Africa or even internationally nor on the African dance floors. Changing this dire situation within Uganda itself was the driving force behind the creation of the Nyege Nyege Tapes label, which released mainly non-commercial music for a wide audience on cassettes and online on Bandcamp. In 2018-19, a second label Hakuna Kulala was founded for exclusively digital releases in the field of experimental club music.
The centre of their initial activities was and is the studio and residence house in Kampala proudly called “The Villa.” It is a bourgeois, spacious house from the late 1950s or early 1960s, which offers space for accommodation, sound studios and offices for artistic, social and community gatherings and exchanges with sound artists throughout Africa. Since 2015, it has consistently hosted musicians, dancers, as well as curators and organisers. At first, the majority of the cultural residents were from East Africa, i.e. Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo or Sudan, as well as Uganda itself. Gradually, word of the special working atmosphere of “The Villa” spread throughout the experimental music and the club scenes globally, and thus more and more residents from far beyond the African continent joined its ranks.
The results of the Villa residencies needed staging. Nyege Nyege festival was born. The first three editions (2015-2017) were relatively small and as many of the first visitors tell, quite chaotic. Nevertheless it was a huge success for all the people that were interested in new East African music and for all who felt not seen in the Ugandan society. Conversely, the festival attracted many visitors who are seen by the religious and political establishment as deviant and as violating the ethical and moral principles of Ugandan society. The 2018 festival was then officially cancelled by a political and religious alliance around the Minister of Ethics and Integrity Rev. Fr. Simon Lokodo who claimed that the nature of this event attracted the attention of several stake holders who have taken keen interest in it. Consequently, he had received credible information from religious leaders, opinion makers and local authorities that the appearance of this festival has been compromised over the past years to enable the celebration and recruitment for young people to homosexuality and the LGBT movement.
Derek Debru, one of the main organisers, made his Safer Sex 2018 statement in direct response to the cancellation of the festival a week before its opening. Fortunately, higher-ranking politicians overruled Minister Lokodo and the festival was given permission to take place one day before its official start. In almost identical fashion, the last-minute cancellation was repeated in 2022, and this time it was MP Sarah Opendi who prompted it as Mr Lokodo had passed away in the meantime. The 2022 ban differed only in nuances from 2018, citing allegations of sexual debauchery, promotion of drug use and homosexuality, and that Uganda’s children in particular are threatened by the moral lapses taking place at the festival. Thankfully, it was not cancelled. One of the closest allies and probably silent partner in the Nyege Nyege organisation is the CEO of the Talent Africa Group Aly Allibhai. In front of parliament Allibhai defended the festival with tangible figures, such as the fact that 700,000 UGX / approx. 190,000 USD had already been invested in the infrastructure of a new festival site. The sum is quite large from an Ugandan perspective. Furthermore all hotels around the city of Jinja and along the Nile until Itanda Falls the space where the festival took place were completely booked out. It was the highest occupancy rate in the year 2022. Mainly the financial impact and the many people traveling to Uganda were a reason for the Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja to lift the festival’s ban a week before its start.
No doubt, Uganda, is a country of active discrimination against LGBTIQ+. It was an uproar of the old power but also of the religious fundamentalists, which was thankfully stopped by more progressive forces in the Ugandan parliament.
Nevertheless, it is difficult for me as a queer, gay man to travel to such countries. Are they even travel-able? I ask myself, because all these facts raised even more questions: Am I not supporting these machinations by my mere presence? Am I allowed to show the world that I am – terribly cool and current and hip – at a festival in Uganda? Do I really want to spend my money and my time here? And anyway! A country with these obvious constellations of such rigid moral politics, a decidedly anti-life attitude towards all non-heteronormative lifestyles, and the aftermath of almost 20 years of civil war that has failed to boost Uganda’s economy, and then the HIV/AIDS pandemic that followed the two decades of horror of Milton Obote and Idi Amin. And then there is President Yoweri Museveni? Yes, let’s not forget that the current president provided six years of civil war and probably rigged all the elections. On top of that, he had the maximum age of the presidency removed from the constitution, which allows him to be in power for the rest of his life.
Additionally, the country is one of the poorest in the world. The annual per capita income was €2400 in 2022. There is a lack of solid infrastructure in general, but also of sustainable solutions in particular: Exemplary for this is the handling of household waste, constantly burned in the backyards or a bit away from the house. But, the better news is that since 1992 the proportion of the population living below the poverty line has fallen by 30%. Still, the poverty rate is unimaginably high with 23%. The demographic figures are impressive: 80% of the population is under 30 years old, and only 2% of the people are over 64, like the ruling President, who has reached a Methuselah age of 79. For this reason, it should only be a matter of time before things are going to change in this country.
“When European artist*s travel to an African country, they usually already have very specific ideas about what music they want to make for what market.”
In 2018 I went for the first time to Nyege Nyege Festival together with a colleague, Susanna Niedermayr, who is co-curating the festival musikprotokoll im steirischen herbst in Graz Austria, but more importantly an editor for the prestigious ORF Ö1 Austrian Radio Zeit-Ton series. Susanna and I were there to report from this extraordinary festival for a German speaking public.
The festival was a tour de force, because over 250 artists performed, the programme seemed to run 24 hours a day for four days without a break, and it was a constant juggling of situations that were on the one hand enchanting and on the other threatening. Be it the fight of the three taxi drivers who wanted to drive me to the hotel while the shuttle organised by the festival had to be found. They didn’t stop trying to convince me with prices and special conditions while I repeated that there was a shuttle that I was looking for. Until the sentence slipped out: “What will you pay me? 100,000 Shilling! I am famous and you can be lucky to drive me!” There was a short silence, then a big laugh started and I joined in and we hugged each other and I said that the next time there was no shuttle I would look for them. So everything was settled and everyone went their separate ways including exchanging numbers.
In the conversation with Debru and Dilsizian, it becomes clear once again that tendencies towards exploitation of African artists are always present. On the one hand, this is due to the knowledge gap, because artists from countries with more stable legal systems and a focus on property rights usually know better what they have to do to protect themselves. In addition, of course, there is always the question of racism. To what extent do the so-called Western producers use the intellectual property of others? It would be a lie to claim that they don’t, as can be seen in the various discussions about techno in Germany. However, a differentiated view is necessary here, because the protagonists around the record shop Hard Wax in Berlin as well as the club Tresor and the mastering house Dubplates & Mastering have close ties to the Detroit techno scene, especially to the label and formation Underground Resistance. They have always pointed out these influences precisely, as well as releasing their music, which found little sales in the USA but was enthusiastically received in Europe. In contrast, the city of Frankfurt am Main got up in arms when the mayor at the time, Peter Feldmann, said at the opening of the MOMEM – Museum of Modern Electronic Music – in 2022 that this unique museum was located: “In the middle of Frankfurt, where techno originated”. Here, not only is an absolutely false localisation of the origins of techno propagated, but also, to quote the intersectional feminist association female:pressure from their critique of Feldmann: “With this statement, you [Feldmann] find yourself outside of all academic research and assessments on the origins of techno culture, which has its polyphony from the diverse cultures of queerness and BPoC and in particular emerged in the urban centres of the USA (…).” It is furthermore embarrassingly painful to note that the curators of MOMEM – they are only men – apparently could not or would not correct these official statements in time.
“A(…) place of gathering, exchange and mediation that gives visibility and hearing to many.
Nyege Nyege: What makes the festival so special?”
In September 2022, I had the pleasure of visiting the Nyege Nyege Festival for the second time after 2018 as a music ambassador for the Berlin Music Commission. It was the 7th edition and the first after the COVID-19 pandemic. The Nyege Nyege team had found a new festival venue, picturesquely located at Itanda Falls but also away from the usual infrastructures that make festival organisation and attendance easier. Much has already been reported about what the change of location from the town of Jinja to the Itanda Falls, 30 km away, brought with it in terms of new challenges. Hotels in the vicinity were almost non-existent. Jinja with its hotels is an hour’s drive away and there are only very colonial-style lodges with their high-priced conveniences nearby. Thus, accommodation on the festival grounds was booked in advance in a hut equipped with shower and toilet for two to four people. The idea of the festival organisers was well thought out, that there would be accommodation on site for the majority of the visitors and in different price ranges for people with different purchasing power. This attitude of making it possible for many different people to visit the festival has inspired me at Nyege Nyege from the very beginning. There are inexpensive tickets for local East African visitors or tickets that more marked up for non-African visitors who can financially afford it. Furthermore, quotas of free tickets are given to various Aid organisations and minority representatives. This attitude of solidarity was also expressed in the very diverse audience from all social classes.
In 2022, there were unfortunately several different hurdles for the organisers as well as for the visitors: My first jump into the festival reality saw me as a victim of a glamping/camping scam, which left a number of hut-like ruins at the most beautiful end of the festival site. A huge number of visitors were forced to move into the artists’ tents section. All revellers who were accommodated at the festival’s camping grounds complained about the lack of hygiene facilities and the poor security situation on site. In addition, changes in the line-up or performance times were announced several times a day. Often there were changes right up to the start of the concerts, so one ended up being in front of a stage either too early, too late or on the wrong day. In 2022 alone, the festival was three times as large in terms of area. The audience numbers were 14,000 guests according to the organisers and about 1000 of them were not from the African continent. The majority of the visitors, around 8000, come from Uganda, 3000 from Kenya, 2000 from other African countries. A festival that is inclusive for its local population, that’s a good thing!
Nevertheless, especially non-local people but also locals, felt the situation in 2022 was unsafe and too dangerous. Most of the criminal activities on the festival grounds were the theft of cell phones, the burglary of various tents in the camping area where mostly technical equipment such as hard drives but also jewellery and money deposited in the tent were lost. On the festival area, which can be entered directly with an entrance ticket, a rape was reported and various thefts of cell phones and other things that everyone carries around with them to enjoy outdoor music. For example, my first night actually started very nicely at one of the seven stages. I chose the experimental one. Everything was fine until one of my friends dragged me away to the other side of the dancing audience where stood our friend with a one-sided swollen face, bleeding from the mouth and somehow irritated near an illuminated empty stall. He stammered something about robbery. And indeed, the thieves had really snatched something: an android phone, a pack of tissues as well as a disinfectant gel. It was clear that we had to go to the hospital tent. Only first aid was needed and lo and behold, a group of ten Red Cross workers passed by 50 metres away and I immediately directed them to us. Five hours of „hospital“ and numerous stitches later we finally all got to sleep. No more party that night.
The 2022 edition of the festival saw the implementation of a strong line of collaborations between African artists and musicians that are based in Germany. It is Afropollination, a project that will „lead both German and African artists to work on deconstructing existing hardware and software to re-appropriate and re-purpose them.“ as the website says. One of the project’s most exciting collaborations is 30K a teaming up of the Malinese DJ Diaki, Berlin-based experimental electronic musician Zoë Mc Pherson and the Tanzanian producer Jay Mitta. To quote Nyege Nyege: „Diaki, Zoë and Jay Mita, (…) join forces into a mind-boggling foot-stomping collaboration mixing Jay’s hypnotic Singeli, Diaki’s crazy Balani and Zoë’s sharp electronics.
30K is an example of the diversity of sounds and backgrounds that is found in the program of the Festival. It presents unheard voices that have evolved from the diverse scenes of East Africa. There is a story to tell about each of the artists, which underlines the significance and importance of the Nyege Nyege platform. Here I will give just a few examples from my own work with Nyege Nyege: Catu Diosis. In her work, Catu not only focuses on hypnotising DJ sets that trigger an irresistible urge in listeners to dance, but she also tries, like the Rwandan artist Binghi, to support women in their work, especially in Africa, and give them the means for self-empowerment. What unites many of the musicians coming from the Nyege Nyege environment is that they are decidedly political, which is usually and then most strongly expressed in their actions.
One of these people is also the musician and analogue synthesiser builder Afrorack alias Bamanya Brian. Afrorack is the fantastic result of a lack, namely mainly the lack of professional sound equipment and backline. Every year Nyege Nyege is forced to hire or procure part of its technical needs in many neighbouring countries because it is almost impossible to get it in Uganda. For example, to hire more than two CDJs – digital DJ media player- because there are only a couple in the entire country. Innovative ways have to be found other than buying expensive equipment that cannot be afforded. So Afrorack built a modular synthesiser from locally available materials.
The artists mentioned here all performed at Nyege Nyege 2022, as did many others. In total there were 300 artists on the programme and it was truly worth spending all the time with them. In-spite of organisational hick-ups, I really enjoyed the rest of the days at the festival and if you follow some basic rules, like not walking around alone, then you can be sure to listen to groundbreaking experimental music and to see probably some of the most exciting performances on the planet right now.
Again, it is an absolute unpleasant ‘normality’ to be robbed and sometimes physically injured. In Uganda, the number of rapes are horrendously high. Most women experience this violence within their families, but it also happens in everyday life and can also happen at a festival. This must not be forgotten or accepted on any level. The situation is volatile after all even in most unexpected moments when the senses are awakened by amazingly awesome music and then you are suddenly woken up by unexpected transgressions of violence. The festival and its organisers can only be partly responsible for the security situation, because the environment they are in is already over-burdened. Honestly, it is just not always possible to provide more security in a public place like the Nyege Nyege Festival is. One of the bigger discussions that could not be answered was why with such an excessive military and police presence at the festival did not lead to less crime, but the opposite.
But I could not stop wondering, what could help to provide more security at a festival in an essentially unsafe country? Of-course the reasons for the violence are complex but never ever excusable. And in-spite of all problems, what Nyege Nyege does, what Nyege Nyege means, what the artists take away from their stay and what they give at their performances is much bigger and more sustainable. So much experiences, knowledge, solidarity, and friendship, everything exciting that the festival offers, has left me, but I also think most visitors, happier and profoundly enriched!
Furthermore, since the first Nyege Nyege festival of 2015, over the years the name has become a political rallying cry in Uganda for those who do not identify themselves with the right-wing moral conservative worldview that calls itself strictly Christian or Muslim or otherwise religious, and one which is still enforced legally by sections of an all powerful political and financial minority. There is resistance in the enthusiastic loud cry of “Nyege Nyege!“. It thus stands for basic human dignity, respect, equality, freedom of expression, self-determination and a joy of life. In other words, Nyege Nyege stands for many things that do not seem to have existed in Uganda for a very long time.
Oliver Baurhenn is co-founder of the CTM Festival for Adventurous Music & Visual Arts, Berlin, one of the leading innovative music festivals in Europe. At the end of 2023, after 24 years, he will leave his position at his own request to make room for more diversity in the three-member management team. He will continue his work elsewhere as a curator, theorist and specialist in electronic contemporary music / sound art and the visual arts. He has a regular radio show on Berlin community radio reboot.fm and works on special radio features for the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation: ORF. He is also a spokesperson for the Council for the Arts, Berlin, as well as chairman of the prestigious Laguna Foundation for the promotion of sound art residencies.
Nyege Nyege Festival > www.nyegenyege.com
CTM Festival > www.ctm-festival.de
Dupscheck (Mao Tse-tung) – Die Otto-Show V. 1977. In: Youtube https://youtu.be/4wN6xVJik24 . Retrieved on 10.2.2023.
Zoë Mc Pherson > https://pendulumrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/abyss-elixir
Catu Diosis > https://catudiosis.bandcamp.com/
Binghi > https://www.youtube.com/@cherylisheja2757
Nyege Nyege video Channel: https://www.youtube.com/@NyegeNyegeMusic