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5 East African musicians you need to know

Meeting the artists of Nyege Nyege, a Ugandan festival named after the Luganda word for ‘the feeling of a sudden uncontrollable urge to move, shake or dance’

Getting its name for the Luganda word for ‘the feeling of a sudden uncontrollable urge to move, shake or dance’, the third edition of Nyege Nyege festival in Uganda descended upon the shores of the River Nile last weekend. An eclectic mix of curious locals in search of a party, East African hipsters and adventurous festival-heads from further afield were treated to a four-day party across four stages in the middle of a luscious green jungle.

From German techno to Cameroonian Afro-pop, UK reggae to South African Gqom, the lineup was as diverse as the crowd. But the show was stolen by an impressive East African contingent, so we caught up with five artists from the region – and found out what gives them an uncontrollable urge to dance.

OTIM ALPHA, UGANDA

“If you have been born you can dance. So when the rhythm is good you have to dance, even if you don’t know the words, if you feel it, dance.”

Crowds turned out in force for Otim Alpha and Leo Palayeng’s high energy performance on Friday; a result of hype following Alpha’s first album release on label Nyege Nyege Tapes earlier this year. Hailing from Gulu, a city in Northern Uganda, Alpha was a boxing champion in his younger years before he started making music and performing at weddings – first on his own, and then in collaboration with his producer Palayeng.

When he was growing up Alpha remembers seeing how “big guys” playing adungu (an arched harp instrument from Northern Uganda) lifted the spirits of people in his community, particularly during wartime: “They’d make big parties and I’d secretly follow them and watch how they played. I wanted to be like those guys.” Now aged 47, Alpha sings and plays adungu alongside Palayeng’s polyrhythmic beats to create “electro acholi”.

DJ RACHAEL, UGANDA

“Electronic African beats and sounds, drums… At Nyege the mood is very catchy and irresistible; you just find yourself swaying to whatever you listen to. I love the rains there too. There’s nothing like dancing in the rain.”

Like all the artists on this list, DJ Rachael says high energy music is what she’s all about. Dubbed East Africa’s first female DJ, industry veteran Rachael recently celebrated 20 years in electronic music. Now 39, Rachael went from MCing at hip hop clubs in Kampala as a teenager to mixing and, more recently, producing the “afro-electronic and house fused with dubs and remixes and a touch of Latino house,” which she pumped through the Eternal Disco stage late Friday afternoon. DJ Rachael has also gained international attention for Femme Electronic, through which she trains and mentors other East African women interested in DJing.

LABDI, KENYA

“All the other artists here. Everyone is playing what they love, that gives me the urge to dance. Their energy has been transferred to me through music”.

22-year-old Labdi Ommes and her three backing singers set the main stage alight on Friday performing a new genre she calls ‘Thum’: “In my language, Thum means music, a good time, an instrument. It could mean anything that makes you feel good… It makes you feel like something is happening in your life.” Labdi is best known for playing the Orutu, a one string fiddle instrument originating from Nyanza Province in Western Kenya. Typically played by men from her own Luo tribe, Labdi explains that “it’s a taboo for women to play it. Right now I only know of two women playing it, and I’m the only active one.”

KAMPIRE, UGANDA

“Bass and beats get me dancing. I’m really into these re-do’s and edits of old Afro-latin music that a lot of contemporary DJs are doing because the music is similar to and influenced by Congolese music. So it gives me a picture of what I could do with African music as well.”

Writer, arts organiser and DJ Kampire Bahana first got on the decks after getting involved in the first ever Nyege Nyege two years ago. “It exposed me to this really cool community of independent artists in Uganda and also underground artists globally who are interested in the African continent,” says Kampire, who mixed bass heavy tunes, African polyrhythms and old school Lingala instrumentals during her two party starting sets at this year’s festival.

Growing up in Zambia in the 90s, Kampire was into alternative rock music and hip hop from the West – anything from System of a Down to Eminem. But she’s proud to say that today she’s “gravitating back to the kind of music my Dad used to play, which I thought was stupid when I was a kid. A lot of Congolese music – rumba, soukous.”

SISSO RECORDS, TANZANIA

“Beats, melodies, how the singer or DJ makes you feel inside. That’s why we started Singeli – to make people happy and to make them dance.”

Dissatisfied with the what the mainstream music scene in Tanzania had to offer young people, the guys behind Sisso Records got together to create a new electronic music genre: ‘Singeli’. An underground sound from the ghettos of Dar Es Salaam, back at the Nyege Nyege Tapes studio in Kampala, Yungkeyz Morento and Tampa Pana explain how their raw, frenetic sound is “a totally new thing, you won’t have heard stuff like it before. But we are inspired by Tanzanian music like Bongo Flava, Mnanda, Mchiriki… as well as house music from South Africa.” The Sisso Records crew took over the main stage on Saturday to perform their big sound for their biggest crowd yet: “It was a very happy weekend,” they finish.

Mutoni Jolie

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