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Sho Madjozi and DJ Lag performing at Unsound, 2018
Sho Madjozi and DJ Lag performing at Unsound, October 13, 2018Photography Dominika Filipowicz, courtesy of Unsound

The rise of Africa’s most exciting new dance music scenes

This year’s Unsound festival showcased emerging movements from across the continent who are confronting colonial narratives of electronic music

Since it was founded in 2003, Krakow’s Unsound festival has established itself as a hub for avant-garde music, and has consistently spotlighted bleeding-edge electronic music from beyond the typical western milieu. This year, acts from South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Angola offered a glimpse into some of the world’s most fascinating dance sounds. While this music has often been exoticised by westerners, the vibrant array of talent on display at the festival demonstrated how these artists are building and sustaining their own community, while hybridising with the global scene.

For the past two years, Unsound has partnered with the Ugandan festival and arts collective Nyege Nyege (a word in Luganda for ‘the feeling of a sudden uncontrollable urge to move, shake, or dance’) to showcase rising East African artists. I attended a panel featuring Arlen Dilsizian, Nyege Nyege’s co-founder, speaking with Kampire, a DJ from Kampala, Uganda, who’s a core member of the collective. Their conversation tackled thorny issues of representation and identity. Kampire critiqued the way western consumers often treat African music more as a source of cultural capital than an actual living culture. She noted how some European DJs keep the African tracks they play secret in order to enhance their crate-digger clout, rather than giving shine to struggling artists. “I understand its really tempting to consider yourself some sort of authority on the subject (of African music),” she said. But “rather than booking some white dude who's playing Ethiopian house,” she argued, promoters should go straight to the source.

If Kampire’s recent tour schedule is any indication, this message seems to be getting through. Over the last year or she’s moved from the East African party circuit to packed weekends playing large clubs across Europe. Her set at Hotel Forum left no doubt as to why. She swerved through a dazzling array of African music, from martial Gqom to bubbly Afrobeats and beyond. At one point she played baile funk – the Afro-Brazilian hip hop genre – placing African rhythms in conversation with a wider musical diaspora. Earlier, on the panel, she argued that “being a woman and a minority behind the decks necessarily becomes political.” Even though she played upbeat party music, her set felt like a nuanced statement of rebuke to those who’ve profited off African culture without paying due respect.

“Artists coming out of the continent deserve the exact same freedom as some random dude in Scandinavia who can make whatever kind of music he wants” – Nyege Nyege artist Kampire

One of my favourite discoveries at Unsound was the young Angolan producer Nazar. He recently signed to the pioneering UK electronic label Hyperdub, home to Burial and Kode9; this month he released Enclave, an EP of what he describes as “rough” Kuduro, a type of Angolan dance music that has been around since the late 80s defined by off-kilter percussion. His scuffed, claustrophobic take on the sound illustrates the violence of the Angolan civil war. “Since people can’t really criticise on the streets, they do it on the internet and through their art,” he said in a press release for the record. “I couldn’t express my frustrations with what I was seeing on a daily basis and translate that uglier side. The existing kuduro was too upbeat.”

At Unsound, he started playing sparse rhythms in near-total darkness, building towards a frenzied climax complete with artillery strobe lights. With fractured beats, gunshot samples, and battering ram synths, tracks like “Warning Shots” and “Airstrike” summoned the disorienting pressure of conflict. While plenty of so-called “deconstructed club music” of the past few years incorporates similar militaristic tropes, little of it that I’ve heard has such a clear point of view drawn from real experience.

While some African producers experiment with traditional rhythms, others look further afield for inspiration. Take the rising Kenyan DJ and producer Slikback, who’s also a Nyege Nyege associate. His set consisted as much of trap, grime, and techno as it did Gqom and Kuduro. He’s an example of how young African artists are increasingly in direct conversation with Europe, inspired by the likes of experimental producers Amnesia Scanner and techno iconoclast Objekt.

“Artists coming out of the continent deserve the exact same freedom as some random dude in Scandinavia who can make whatever kind of music he wants,” said Kampire at the panel, “and it doesn’t have to be Norwegian funk.” Dilsizian thinks artists like Slikback are at a “tipping point”, and makes a bold prediction: “One of out of every two DJs in the world is probably going to be from Africa over the next ten years.”

This wave of talent emerging from the continent isn’t just located in globally recognised musical hotspots like Lagos and Nairobi. It’s also in cities like Dar Es Salaam, capital of Tanzania, which is home to the Singeli sound. Singeli emerged around ten years ago from young producers adapting traditional Tanzanian rhythms into electronic music with contemporary software. Designed for raucous street parties, it’s usually performed with an MC rapping in Kiswahili.

In addition to the festival, the Nyege Nyege collective also runs a label; this August they released an album from one of the core Singeli producers Bamba Pana, with features from the vocalist Makaveli. On Friday night the pair performed to a packed room. Singeli is incredibly fast – around 180 bpm. While Pana crouched behind his laptop, delivering a pummeling rhythmic assault, Makaveli worked the crowd with nonstop lyrical hype, not unlike a junglist MC. The beats never wavered from their rapid pace, but it wasn’t overwhelming – instead, it felt rapturous and fizzy, like happy hardcore with marimbas. At the end of the set, Makaveli jumped on the DJ table, took off his shirt, and waved it over his head.

Singeli’s ecstatic sound belies the rough conditions in which it was created. At the panel, Dilsizian explained that the genre is a form of youth protest music, reacting to the poverty and unemployment in the two specific Dar Es Salaam neighbourhoods where it comes from. Singeli has been around for around ten years; at first, middle class Tanzanians steered clear, but it’s since gone mainstream, and is now heard at bus stations and restaurants throughout the capital. Now the world is catching on – Bamba Pana and Makaveli have played across Europe recently, including at Berghain.

But western attention can be a double-edged sword. “If we look at what has happened in the past,” says Dilsizian, speaking to me backstage before the Singeli showcase, “it can be very trendy and boxed in, and sometimes even politicised and explained from the outside.” He pointed out that we’re still not far removed from the colonial era, which casts an unsettling pall over the phenomenon of western trendspotters fixating on African subcultures.

“We see this is overwhelming wave of praise, like, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’” Dilsizian says. That attention can be fickle. “Well, wait a minute. Five years ago, they said that Kwaito was amazing, or Shangaan Electro. Yesterday it was ‘Brazil is amazing.’” Too often, the western gaze shifts towards the next sound without lingering long enough to provide genuine material support. What he and Nyege Nyege co-founder Derek Debru hope to provide is a platform for East African artists to establish a sustainable local music infrastructure on their own terms.

“One of out of every two DJs in the world is probably going to be from Africa over the next ten years” – Nyege Nyege co-founder Arlen Dilsizian

Elsewhere in Africa, that’s already happening. Take South Africa, where Gqom – a sparse take on the country’s Afro-house sound – has exploded from the ghettos of Durban to become a pop juggernaut. “Gqom has fully taken over at this point,” says 26-year-old South African rapper Sho Madjozi, talking to me before her set on Saturday night.

Madjozi “got into making music by being very broke and needing to do something.” After writing a song for friend she found herself increasingly in demand as a ghostwriter, and eventually struck out on her own as a solo artist with a guest appearance on Okmalumkoolkat’s 2016 hit “GQI”. Now she’s a legitimate star with million-plus play counts on YouTube.

She describes how Gqom has transformed since emerging from the Durban underground in the late 2010s. “Gqom was very fucking dark,” she says. “Not melodic at all.” Initially Gqom was instrumental – producers like Cruel Boyz and DJ Lag crafted austere soundscapes with a gothic edge. The music was associated with a drug called Mercedes or Mitsubishi, and its stark rhythms echoed the harsh environs of the Durban underground. When Madjozi first started making music, her collaborators were often so broke they couldn’t afford internet to send her beats. “The daily lived reality of people having to make music in the conditions that they were making music in,” she recalls, “was not okay at all.”

Then vocalists began rapping over Gqom, and its audience began to expand. “It’s no longer just (for the) young and dejected,” Madjozi says. Now that the sound has gone mainstream, “people are getting money.” She marvels at a recent hit called “Skeleton Move” by Master KG that features singing – “singing!” – over Gqom production. The sound is beginning to gain a foothold in markets beyond South Africa – particularly in Nigeria’s massive pop music economy.  

Gqom’s visceral appeal was evident as soon as Madjozi took the stage at Unsound, flanked by two shirtless male backup dancers adorned with feathers. DJ Lag manned the decks behind her. She tore through her half-hour set, bounding across the stage while spitting high-octane bars, primarily in the South African language Tsonga. The floor heaved with the collective weight of the audience bouncing up and down; at one point DJ Lag dropped into Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction” (in what must have been the song’s Unsound debut) and the room went wild. Madjozi finished her set with an unreleased anthem about cinematic romance, which happened to provide a fitting metaphor for how African electronic musicians are forging a bright future through high-tech community. “We watched Black Panther together,” she rapped, beaming, as the dancers spun and the crowd roared. “Now we’re Wakanda forever!”