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HHY & The Kampala Unit, beyond flesh and electricity

PAM spoke with HHY & The Kampala Unit backstage at the Banlieues Bleues Festival to decrypt that which cannot be known about the mutant sounds and eclectic vibrations of the Nyege Nyege powered collective.

Imagine. A Portuguese sound scientist organizes secret jungle parties in the late 90s on the outskirts of Porto, his face covered by a skull printed ski mask. Years later, a French dancer born to Congolese parents is struck with the image of a leopard during a profound psychedelic experience which reorients his spirituality and drives him to his ancestors. On the other side of the equator, around the rougher edges of Kampala, a class of children blow into a collection of trumpets and trombones with the instruction of a soul-bound artist under the moniker Flo Moon. Now imagine the three of them together, the smoke of sage filling up an empty room and a heavy log drum pounding on the speakers. Welcome to HHY & The Kampala Unit. 

“It’s mutant sounds without a strategy or agenda,” says Jonathan Saldanha about the HHY, and their otherworldly work. “Everything just makes sense,” he continues, “in the way that we’re seeing music and the vibration and just being together and experimenting.” Though “sense making” appears mostly as an afterthought for this outfit. Originally made of Jonathan Saldanha, Florence Lugemwa and Omutaba, adding Exocé Kasongo as a dancer for this Parisian performance, HHY & The Kampala Unit isn’t bound by concrete form. That would betray the process or, as Exocé puts it, “lose sight of the metaphysical”; a problem the dancer, designer and multifaceted artist confronts with a grimace when switching between rigid French and adopted English. Instead, the sound, like the group’s formation, appears as a force of nature, inevitable circumstance, an “ever shifting collective”. Coincidence? Intent? “I don’t think about this,” says Exocé with a laugh, “I’m not here to question myself. I don’t know. And I don’t know if I want to know,” he grins.  

Still. I’ll give it a try. 

HHY & The Kampala Unit originally formed in 2017 during Jonathan Saldanha’s Nyege Nyege residency in Kampala. The colossal East African collective reached out after hearing Jonathan’s work with HHY & The Macumbas. Listen to “Wilderness of Glass” off the album Beheaded Totem and you might think you’re listening to an early Nihiloxica record. Eerie alignment. While in Kampala, Jonathan, a prolific artist working within the “interception of sound, gesture, voice, operating elements of pre-language, resonant choirs, cyclic percussion, cybernetic systems, unfathomable presence, pressure, haptic memory, allopoiesis, echo and intracranial-dub” (can you say brainiac?) went to a local reggae bar. There he saw Florence Lugemwa on the trumpet. Florence, an avid brass player, was working in hotel bars, giving instruction to kids from the neighborhood and making rounds between reggae and jazz outfits around Kampala. From the very beginning, Jonathan says he heard a fingerprint in Florence’s tone. “When I heard her play,” he says, “I heard a sound. Not a trumpet player”.

Percussionist and “Kingdom Rhythm” player Omutaba carried the beat for the 2020 project Lithium Blast. A work that brought Saldanha’s sound into a deeper and darker form; something between mutant drool and the rumble of drunk Orishas (Eshu being Exocé’s Orisha of “choice”). Later Sekelembele (from Kinshasa’s collective Fulu Miziki) was added to percussions. The Uganda Prison Brass Band, a marching group made up of employees of Uganda’s prison service, also make appearances on the record. Again, the “unit” is more liquid than solid. Sounds are waves after all. Exocé was added with the same profound happenstance after meeting at Nyege Nyege 2022 in Uganda and then again during an Afropollination residency in Germany. I first ran into Flo and Jonathan at Itanda Falls during Nyege 2022, sharing some French fries under the rain, pollyannaish about a stolen hard drive and the prospect of re-recording a nearly finished album that is now almost finished (again). “As an artist, it’s easy to get obsessed with what you’re doing and with your own processes,” says Jonathan of the mercurial collaborations, “and you forget that there’s other processes that can be achieved by just spending time with someone.” Unfortunately, for this interview, no time was spent with either Omutaba or Sekelembele who couldn’t make it to the Paris show.

But then there’s Florence, aka Flo, aka Flo Moon, a Kampala native, who uses the unit as a vehicle for inspiration and amplification of her work as a music teacher. If Jonathan is the brain and Exocé the body, (I didn’t meet Sekelembele or Omutaba, but let’s call them the beating heart), Flo is the soul. When not on tour, DJing or in the studio composing “ambient, horror, sci-fi tunes” for one of her many side projects, Flo is teaching brass to kids in the hood. Flo scrambles together donated instruments (and sometimes mattresses and food) for 30 kids, split into 5 groups, who get to exhale their spirit into the winding brass tubes. Or as Flo puts it, “meditating on my trumpet. It’s like I’m tripping. It’s like I’m high.” Though the high is manifest in more than tones and trips. It’s a pathway to perfection. A stab at grace. “Music is life,” says the teacher. “Music heals. You can reach everywhere you want, but you need to do it with love.“ 

“We’re here to bring light to people. To remind them to return to their soul,” Exocé says with deep sincerity. “It’s not a dance for me, it’s movement, but it’s also a calling. Live in the moment, and stay present, and be ready to receive everything. That’s the magic.” And Jonathan, “You know, you don’t need to pre-conceptualize whatever you are doing. You just need to be there in the present time. And that’s a massive effort in the 21st century. To be present. To be aware of your body in that moment.”

On stage and in the crowd presence is the keyword. Exocé, who quickly embodies the piercing brass and knock-about rhythms is totally captivating. In the middle and behind the others is Jonathan, there to “put on stems, the beats, bass and the electronics, then process the trumpet and add samples and crazy shit on top.” Flo is in flux between groove and wind. Sometimes things just click into place… Like the satisfying stick of a puzzle piece. But here it’s smash and grab. Riptides of bass. I’m reminded of some Lewis Del Mar lyrics, a group who’s percussions also take a walk on the wild side; “My dancehall is all bodies now, and they’re burning sugar sweet. My old world is on fire now, as I move into the heat.”

Flashback to Jonathan before the show. “You achieve something unique, this conversation that is music, this aspect of spirituality. It fills the gaps inside of you. It brings the soul back. It brings this powerful magic of being in real time and being aware of what’s around you.” As we await the next HHY album to fill the insatiable spiritual gap… 

“It’s magical. It’s beyond flesh and electricity. It’s beyond what you recognize as society or technique. It’s beyond that.”