“The label is our baby, the festival the monster.” The unlikely story of the Belgian expatriate behind Nyege Nyege, one of the most forward-thinking labels and festivals in the realms of outsider African music

Nyege Nyege Tapes – based in Kampala, Uganda – has taken the experimental electronic music scene by storm of late thanks to its uncompromising journey into the depths of what it refers to as outsider music emerging from Eastern Africa and beyond. Through both a prolific label and an annual festival, Belgian co-founder Derek Debru (1981) and his Greek-Armenian ethnomusicologist counterpart Arlen Dilsizian (aka Moroto Heavy Industries) have together contributed towards firmly establishing the festival on the long list of global festivals attended by fans and professionals alike on the lookout for a peek into the future. Here, music contributor Jeff Lemaire goes back and forth with Debru on everything from the genesis of Nyege Nyege and the politics of artist mobility to the contrasts between African and European nightlife.

Images taken from Derek Debru/Nyege Nyege’s throwaway camera shot exclusively for The Word Magazine.

What was your pre-Nyege Nyege life like? And how did you end up in Uganda?

I have a background in politics, film and dance, and my grandmother was actually born in the Eastern African region, so after some long wanderings I ended up here in 2010 upon the invitation of an old friend who had started educational projects. I set up a video production company, then met Arlen Dilsizian, my future partner on all things in Uganda, eventually teaching at his Kampala Film School.

What does it feel like to be a Belgian in Uganda?

I became forcefully aware of our apparently very talented football players – that’s pretty much the extent of Belgium’s reputation in Uganda. I think the main perk of my nationality is the discounts we get from Brussels Airlines.

How would you describe the role of music in Ugandan society?

Music is everywhere and is an essential fabric of life – it’s rare to find a moment of pure silence. Music and dance are very much part of everyone’s identity and culture, and most Ugandans are familiar with their ancestral rhythms, folksongs and dances. The Ugandan relation to noise – as in ambient noise –, distortion and reverb is much more open-ended than in Europe.

How did your parties Boutiq Electroniq first come about in 2013? Was your encounter with Arlen the founding moment?

Yes, things really took off when we met and started running Kampala Film School together: we rented a house to host the faculty, and later on music producers and all sorts of artists. This is when we started Boutiq Electroniq, screening weird films and giving Kampala’s underground scenes some space to exist – things simply grew from there.

What was the nightlife in Kampala like back then?

The nightlife here is non-stop – but a lot of us still felt that something was missing, especially parties focussing on Kampala’s underground scene. We would come across tons of great music, but none of it was playing in clubs nor parties, so we just decided to do our own thing.

Belgium has a deeply rooted history when it comes to nightlife and club culture. Does it influence the way you organise your parties?

Not really. I find European nightlife a bit dull when compared to Uganda, where things are a bit “looser”. The communal experience that comes from sweating together is harder to find on European dance-floors. Yet having said that, some of our best shows have been in Brussels – big up to Rebel Up! – so Belgians do like to get down. Overall, Europe’s rave culture and free party scene is where we come from, so combining those aspects with contemporary African dance culture on the continent remains a source of inspiration for Nyege Nyege.

You being Belgian, and your partner Arlen Greek-Armenian, were there any hurdles in “infiltrating” Kampala’s nightlife?

Sometimes our music didn’t match a particular venue and its audience, so we had to find places that were empty in order to be able to do whatever we wanted. In Kampala alone you’ll find Eritreans, Ethiopians, Congolese, Nigerians, Kenyans, Tanzanians and Ugandans of over 50 ethnic backgrounds. Yet we felt the nightlife somehow didn’t live up to this  heterogeneous reality, and soon realised that people were ready for this gap to be bridged. The issue is more with local promoters who can be quit risk-averse, preferring to put their money on “sure bets” – but thanks to the recent rise in popularity of gqom or kuduro acts, sponsors are becoming more openminded. All in all, it’s not too hard to infiltrate the nightlife of Kampala – in fact, it’s actually harder to avoid it!

First the parties, then the festival. Was Nyege Nyege Festival something you had in the corner of your mind from the very beginning?

The energy we felt from those initial Boutiq Electroniq parties set certain things into motion and inspired enough people to transform our surroundings into what it is now. Due to a number of factors, like the fast rate at which our parties were growing, we felt that a multi-day event where we could showcase the interesting forms of African electronic music was called for. Yet in order to do that, we had to first go against the major prevailing trends in the way non-commercial African music is consumed within the continent.

Nyege Nyege was envisaged as a space where young producers who again are working outside of the mainstream could showcase their music; showcase all the micro-scenes within Uganda.

Did you have any role models in mind before giving Nyege Nyege a go in 2014?

Not really; we didn’t really have a festival in mind either. I think our slight ignorance on festival matters actually made it easier to jump into it. As for the label, we definitely have some other imprints that we look up to: Crammed Discs’ long-standing engagement with African music – be it in their releases from the DRC, European releases with Afrocentric influences or collaborations between experimental European artists and Afrodiasporic musicians – being an important one.

What was the major hurdle?

The mobility for artists from Africa’s underground – or rather the lack thereof. Few promoters are willing to book such acts from within their country of origin, let alone outside. What’s more, grants for tour support are close to non-existent. It’s easier for us to get a grant to fly Yves De Mey over from Belgium than for DJ Balani from Mali. Likewise, it’s way more common for someone like Mamman Sani from Niger to play in Paris that in his hometown of Niamey, where he makes a living as a hotel pianist. We really wanted to change that. The situation is getting better, but internal flights in Africa can still be very expensive. More locally, Nyege Nyege was envisaged as a space where young producers who again are working outside of the mainstream could showcase their music; showcase all the micro-scenes within Uganda.

Looking at your line-ups, I have the feeling that not having a headliner is one of the festival’s prime features.

It really depends. It’s safe to say that 90% of our audience will know hardly anyone on the line-up. They come precisely because they know they’ll discover new music. That gives us a lot of freedom in curating our line-up; we don’t have to worry about booking “crowd-pleasers”. Some people do get excited for specific acts though, even if these vary greatly, and so in that sense our festival is full of headliners. Truth be told, social media followers and likes are not our concern. Instead, fairness in fee differences is really important, even though offering a headline slot does remain a big selling point for artists that are on the brink of blowing up. This year, Sho Madjozi, South Africa’s “Black Cinderella” came for a symbolic fee just a week before playing in New York with Cardi B and Janet Jackson. Needless to say, we had to show some respect: a packed crowd, fireworks and the full Nyege Nyege treatment.

The festival industry in Europe has become professionalised to an extent that was unthinkable 20 years ago, with Belgium’s Rock Werchter pretty much leading the way. What’s it like to organise a festival in Uganda?

Uganda is a great place for organising festivals: businesses are reactive to our needs, and even though we’re a DIY operation we still run a pretty tight ship. All you need are reliable partners. We work with the best production companies in the country, and occasionally outsource talents from outside Uganda to boost our capacity. The challenge remains the same for everybody, however: having the cashflow to make your dreams come true, while staying true to your values and remaining as inclusive as possible. I think it’s more important to ask oneself whether Rock Werchter was more fun 10 years ago. A good festival needs some unexpected glitches along the way – a little bit of chaos is all part of the magic.

A few days before opening the gates, Uganda’s Minister of State for Ethics & Integrity tried to ban the festival. According to him, Nyege Nyege was all about “open sex, noise, homosexuality” (Uganda passed the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014). How did you deal with that?

You call the right people and try to state your case. The festival generates a lot of income for a lot of people: small businesses, big sponsors, the Ministry of Tourism. There were enough stakeholders to vouch for us. Then it’s a matter of leveraging the publicity.

How easy, or hard, is it to convince Western acts to travel to Uganda?

We’ve never really had any issues in persuading them. At first it was difficult simply because we had no fame nor money, but we worked with the right people from the onset. When you play at Nyege Nyege Festival, you become part of the family, and the handful of days you spend here are often a transformational experience – though this only occurs if the artist is ready to give up some of his or her comfort.

The people who gave it a shot all tell the same tale: it’s a one-of-a-kind experience. The unique, the unforgettable – is that what you’re going for?

Yes, immersive, poetic and slightly dangerous. Just what you need to shake yourself from Euro-slumber. The problem with many European festivals is that the “experience” sometimes overshadows the music itself.

Do you consider one to be more important than the other?

I think they go together, but what kind of “experience” do they really offer in Europe? Nyege Nyege creates an environment, and you create an experience on the basis of that. Not everything should be spoon-fed. If you downplay music out of a festival experience you can’t really attain anything serious, but you also have to think about how the music is experienced, and how this can lead to more common and human experiences. Everyone is welcome here, although some Europeans still think that Idi Amin is alive and Ebola is still rife in Uganda!

Postcolonialism implies a mutation of colonialism but not a disappearance, something people should be aware of.

In 2015 you also launched Nyege Nyege Tapes, your very own label. Was it the frosting on an already beautiful cake, or was it more of a logical next step; something almost inevitable?

The festival was more of a surprise, but still the two naturally came about as different platforms to show-case fresh music. The label is our baby, the festival the monster. Our festival is partly a giant showcase for our label: everyone performs with a full orchestra and presents his or her latest work, so it informs you on the shape of things to come.

How does an artist land on Nyege Nyege Tapes?

Since the label is part of a wider structure – a community studio, parties, festival and tours – artists can be associated with us in many different ways. As the label’s popularity has grown we are beginning to receive a lot of demos from around the continent, which we always consider. Yet whatever the vector or channel, we’re always exploring new grounds, encouraging collaborations and holding residencies for young producers who we feel have a lot of potential. Interestingly we had over 20 festival programmers from Europe and China scouting at our festival this year.

What’s the vibe in your two studios?

Sleepless nights, people constantly making music, lots of residencies, a great family vibe. Home cooking and four dogs. Right now, we’re working with young producers exploring electro-Kadodi, a new hybrid form of Eastern Ugandan electronics. We also launched our new digital label Hakuna Kulala this year. It’s less concerned with vernacular styles of indigenous electronic music, and more with a new generation of producers who are exploring new forms of local club music by being exposed to underground electronic music culture from other parts of Africa and the world; recombining it with their local flair for an interesting effect.

Labels like Awesome Tapes From Africa exposed Western audiences to the importance of the cassette format in Africa. Most Nyege Nyege releases are in tape format, too. Is that an aesthetic choice or your reaction to the demand side of the local market?

Having something physical was always important for us. The ease with which it’s possible to accumulate a large amount of digital music can be overwhelming. We’re still very much about making albums and, at least with tape, you’re  encouraged to listen to the whole album in one take. Furthermore, tape was the main, popular physical format in Uganda. CD-Rs also existed, but the jump from tape to digital was more prominent: nowadays tapes are a dying breed, but we still wanted to maintain the quintessential Ugandan physical format for our label.

You and Arlen are “the Westerners that made it happen”. Yet how protective are you of the local culture? Do you want to keep it as distant away as possible from a potential “Western threat”?

Cultural imperialism is a reality, and we definitely feel protective of our artists, especially after a few failed collaborations due to the opportunism of certain Western residents. Some local musicians have also experienced shady Westerners who after recording them simply vanish. We encourage all of our artists to think about their interactions with the West and find ways to regain ownership of representation. Additionally, when Errorsmith and The Modern Institute produce mutations of singeli music from Dar Es Salaam, it’s a cultural borrowing that is first about love, interest and respect, and really amplifies the culture because it’s properly credited rather than appropriated. It’s the Western media that likes to create boxes locked by language and concepts, invented with the sole purpose of fitting it in their pre-existing fantasies and ideologies.

Could we go as far as to say that Nyege Nyege is a postcolonialist venture?

In the sense that we try to be as aware as possible of the structural dynamics that continue to create problematic representations of culture for Africa, very much so. At the same time, many young people in East Africa are actively battling with patriarchal and class dynamics that they no longer relate to, and it’s important to remember that the key struggles in obtaining a fairer future for East African youths are happening internally. It’s intimately connected to their postcolonial relationship with the West, but is also separate. Postcolonialism implies a mutation of colonialism but not a disappearance, something people should be aware of – especially young Europeans, who imagine that colonisation is simply a thing of the past.

And how do you want it or expect it to grow from here on?

Organically. There’s a growing interest amongst young East Africans for more inclusive parties in all respects. And with more underground DJs and producers getting booked, both locally and internationally, we see a rising number of young people enter the music business – positive stuff.

In terms of what has been achieved, do you feel there’s still a lot more to be done?

Everything remains to be done: we plan to scale our programmes up, improve our festival, launch new projects like an online radio and an East African touring agency. We also have a keen interest in film, fashion and contemporary arts, and our integrated approach to incubation could be replicated in so many ways… Most importantly, however, there is still so much great music that deserves to come out.