Day -1: Wednesday
“Ils n’ont pas pris le bon sorcier…” Inside Nyege Nyege one day before the world’s wildest party and the energy is dripping from the ceilings. Hidden down a small dirt road on the edge of Kampala the Nyege villa is heard before it’s seen. On site the many creatives, collectives, spectators and loose affiliations gather in preparation for the 2022 edition of Nyege Nyege on Itanda Falls, about a 3 hour trek outside of Kampala on one of Uganda’s “most treacherous roads”.
We arrive and Rey Sapienz is shirtless, searching for power cords to plug in for an improvised DJ set in a neighbourhood bar across the street. His group is scattered, seeking their masks, metal hands, and different noise-makers for a show that attracts the locals as much as the hodgepodge of internationals filming and jaw-dropping for the occasion.
Back inside the villa, there’s heavy noise pumping out of almost every room. Inside one studio there’s MC Yallah, DJ Diaki and Berlin producer Zoe McPherson making some industrial jungle that has Diaki head bopping. Upstairs is seething with dark gqom. From the second-story terrace, which wraps around the pink compound with many nooks, crannies and crests, you can see the Congolese designers trying on their recycled suits. Car parts and shampoo bottles, wires and plugs are glued and fused together for monstrous outfits. Somehow, the aluminum-can suit has disappeared. Nobody knows where it walked off to.
The real drama is going on inside the villa bureau, around a giant wooden dining room table where the collective insiders are frantically trying to make sure things go smoothly. Smoothly here is a relative concept. Between occasional blackouts and power-outages, Derek Debru, one of the collective founders, sends away for 50 cartons of cigarettes. Relentless calls come in from vague contacts trying to get discount tickets and mile-high logistics are handled one at a time, between cigarettes jokes and an occasional look that says, “do you see this shit?”
The rain is here. For a festival that’s entirely outdoors and hosting thousands of campers, it can complicate things. There is a debate about whether the team picked the right rainmaker and if there was time to pick up someone more local to stop the carnage. Arlen is somewhere on-site and dealing with the incoming mayhem. Derek meanwhile is working hard on the #Nyegeverse, taking calls saying, “Nyege Nyege hotline how can I help you?” and eventually leaving for the lakeside at around 4am. No rest for the wicked.
Whatever happens tomorrow it surely won’t be boring. The lineup is set. 300 artists, traditional groups, and creatives will be going all day and all night for 4 days for what is sure to be one of the world’s wildest parties.
Hopping on the bus. Tune in tomorrow for the recap of Day 1.
Day 1: Thursday
“Are you ready to party?” It’s DDay and everyone is up at 6AM to catch the stream of artist buses that have arranged to take everyone to Itanda Falls. The sky is blue. Giant structures are folded, tents and blankets stacked, and all the drums and xylophones are spilling out the isles in a Burning Man style school bus. Kampala is a hive of scooters darting back and forth and it takes some muscle from the driver to get us on the natural road that leads to Itanda, after a pitstop for 15 rolexes of course. The closer we approach the clearer it is Nyege is in town. Kids gather by the side of the road to cheer on the buses and soon a whole Nyege sub-structure emerges with ripoff merchandise, barbecues and makeshift sound systems. We descend surrounded by enthusiastic onlookers and slowly make our way loaded down past the military police, search parties and ticket stand. We’re in.
The first punch in the face is the epic view over Itanda Falls. It’s clear why Nyege was seduced by the spot. The falls roar, split in two by small islands that run to the mouth of the Nile. The site has a mini-bay where boats are doing roundtrips and hot attendees are taking a dip. The rest of the site is still a work in progress. Teams are running with mattresses, wood and tents, catching up after several days of heavy rains. Tents start to pop up on the Northern ridge of the massive grounds and artists filter in and post up on the cliff over the falls. Some sound systems begin to test their music across the way. Light rains in full sunshine remind us all that we’re sitting under mother nature’s heavy hand.
The Nyege team is in full army mode to put the finishing touches on the site. It’s a massive undertaking to bring their 6, or is it 8? stages out here, setup electricity, food stands, camping amenities and carnival rides. The afternoon passes slowly and once the magic hour falls and some groups begin to take their place, the party finally gets its first breath. Down by the water a drum ensemble is playing for the sunset. Dancers jive, someone builds a fire, the bamboo structures keep getting bigger. It’s like watching a million hands put a chimera together piece by piece and its image becomes all the more awesome and terrifying with each addition. “Who’s ready to party?” A bandleader screams into the mic. “Who’s ready to party?”
The smell of fish and barbecue start to fill the air near the loud hum of generators. Stage managers are running to grab beers then running back to their posts, trying to find longer cables, duck tape and new ways to suspend a club in the middle of the forest. Smiles get wider. Everyone is either working or running. It’s a marathon and feet are fresh. A Wakaliwood jet has crash-landed on the hillside. A mechanical bull’s red eyes illuminate. A swing-round is turning on and off. The North side hill is now full of tents and wooden structures. You can chat with locals from Jinja, people visiting from Kenya or DRC and a healthy dose of curious Europeans double fisting Tuskers and tripping over branches with big laughs in the dark passages between the many stages.
After one false start, the first Nyege act of the night lights things up. Binghi from Rawanda crashes on the Hakuna Kulala stage with ferocity. The sheet metal structure is covered in hanging mushrooms that are flowering and dripping. The red lights attract the wild ones and the dance floor tucked away in the woods takes shape. The bass and thizz faces are a reminder of what all this crazy nonsense is about. Heavy club music in the Pearl of Africa. DJ Flo Moon hops on the decks next. On the Darkstar stage Hibotep does a dope-girl gangsta rythme soundcheck fast roll into a full set. A new crisis emerges. Where the hell does one spend their time with the heavy-hitters coming in from all directions?
A clear highlight comes in the form of an eponymous prophecy. R3IGNDROPS, Ugandan native and blossoming DJ goes into a dark-trance, gnarly bass music that’s lofty and serious but difficult to describe. The party reaches a new crescendo at about midway into the 50-minute dream-state when raindrops start to fall. Is it a first for the young talent? They’re light and cool, a friendly visitation, a subtle mist, mother nature’s soft approving kiss. Everyone is moving. Bodies are bumping. The sound system signs its adoption papers. Flo is screaming her MC heart out to get the crowd geeked up. Hibotep is getting down onstage. The Nyege family is in their element and it’s a beautiful site to see. Your humble author just got chills.
From there it’s a ping-pong match between two stages. With a few exceptions on the main stage, like Arsenal and his one-man fingerstyle show, the others are saving their major lineups for the rest of the weekend. Ecko Bazz and Chrisman launch the colorful crowd in a mosh pit at Darkstar. Po gives the crowd some carnal bass back at Hakuna Kulala stage. Don Zilla conjures some dark shaman energy, and back to Kulala with Decay for experimental hyper-pop. Turkana comes out swinging with her undefinable hardcore. We heard this song twice (I wanna say from Flo and Hibotep). The corporate stages like Smirnoff and Coca-Cola also have a steady flow of Dancehall and Afro-pop that attracts a contrasting crowd. Everyone has dem ting’. The Hakuna Kulala stage literally goes up in smoke.
Hakuna Kulala is the motto. Once the final sets were winding down the team grabbed a pag boat to the other side of the river. In the dark, down the currents to the vague greys and blacks as the final bass fades away and the falls overcome the ears. Someone had to charge their computer to write a recap. The rains stayed gentle. For now.
Day 1 was an eye-popping warm-up. Here’s going into Day 2 hot and ready.
Day 2: Friday
“I think the boat crashed…” First full day on-site. The team woke up around noon across the river and trekked down to the boda boats around noon. It’s a gentle stream and the Sun is cut up like a kaleidoscope between the massive cumulus clouds. The festival ground looks like a hill covered in ants from across the way. As soon as we arrive and make our way to the food court we spot Derek sipping on fruit cocktail in some cozy chairs. “What a fucking night,” he says, feeling a bit of relief. Since last night Nyege Nyege has sharpened the corners of the organisation. The stands are put together. The lights are on. There are chairs. Radical.
There’s more people than ever and one of the kick-off sets is pure magic. Desiree from South Africa takes everyone on an Afro-house cruise full of drum breaks and classic highs. The sky is golden. She’s got the moves and with the Boiler Room stage (the Hakuna Kulala stage is under a Boiler Room takeover) in full swing, everyone was showing off for the cameras. Now and then the sound would cut out. A bad omen. But resumed again without any major discontent.
Nyege is always full of surprises. Walking through the grounds you might stumble upon a witch who curses you with their eyes. There’s a Japanese-Ugandan fusion food stand that kills. Somewhere behind a fence a Ugandan drum ensemble is practicing their strokes. Otim Alpha is heating his nanga harp by a fire. The Congolese shape-makers aka Kinact are trying on their recycled uniforms. Clothes of all shape and design are sprawled out along the dirt walkways. A volleyball court and face painters hover on the beach. The Nyege experience is slowly lifting its head from the water like the Creature of the Black Lagoon.
*Record scratch* Full stop. The Boiler Room / Hakuna Kulala stage breaks down. A generator blew, or the speakers got over-juiced right as Pö was getting started. Remember the smoke from last night? A short burst of panic and like pirates the Hakuna Kulala people move onto the Darkstar for their equipment. Several back and forths full of chords and sound system parts and Boiler is back on point. Dark Star needs some time to recover. Pö plugs back in to a mostly empty dancefloor, but within minutes she manages achieve one of the more impressive DJ acrobatics; creating a vibe out of thin air. She does. Quickly. And everything is how it should be. Not surprising coming from a Nyege insider, organiser and all around boss.
Darkstar on the mend, the bass’ beating heart begins again. We walk into a Kizomba-club fusion with Makorissi steering the wounded pirate ship. Detour to the Main Stage for Ugandan old head and staple Navio with DJ Zato. The rapper sang r&b hits to a crowd full of locals who knew every word. The green haired, mesh types looked a bit lost. Wasn’t De Schuurman supposed to be playing at this time? Everyone wants to see De Schuurman. Everyone.
Although the highlight of D2 comes deep into the night when Jako Maron sets up his Maloyan synths. It’s a music that catches everyone. Those who are tripping out, the connoisseurs, the locals and the techno heads. It’s a world blend of trance music. The bass is long and the synths rip hard and mix with recordings of traditional instruments from the Reunion Islands. It’s patient with a payoff. DJ Diaki stood just behind the stage wearing a dark blazer and looking upon Jako with an air of approval. Arlen was spotted getting down on the dancefloor.
It’s almost time to wrap up the show when we hear there was a boat accident on the river. No more pag boats tonight. Need to wait until after sunrise. Hakuna Kulala. We post up with some friends in the official Nyege Nyege Merch stand and I take a disco-nap on the plywood floor. Sunrise, still no boat. We manage to snag a tent at the artist campsite and fell asleep to lullabies of Wakaliwood Killing Captain Hendrix jokes and rowdy young Ugandan’s partying into the emerging day. “Who Killed Captain Hendrix?” “Brian!”
It couldn’t be any other way. Day 3 here we go!
Day 3: Saturday
“Are they digging a grave?” Eventually the days start to blend together. The music and stages are melted into memory as feelings and impressions, breaks and boogies. Strange facts and queries come to mind. The dance floor, or rather, the forest floor, is full of bumps. The mushrooms are gone. How can a star be dark?
The breath of fresh air into Day 3 started off-the-bat and by chance. From afar, we hear the sound of marching drums. Slowly, a line of Burundian drummers dressed in red and green with their inkaryendas hoisted atop their heads emerge, banging their rods into the cowskin in perfect unison. They form a semicircle with a single drum in the middle and the show begins. It’s a mixture of acrobatics and synchronised pounding. The drummers each rotate into the middle to jump into the sky, legs horizontal the ground, wrapping their necks with drumsticks in a circular cut throat motion. A crowd forms and the leader invites others to come give their best at the central drum. For an instrument and discipline normally reserved for men, it’s a treat to see the small Japanese girl take her best whack.
Not long after the group picks up their drums and heads off, two men arrive with a machete and pick. They tap at the rich red earth and begin digging what looks like a grave. It’s long and human shaped. But others arrive with wood and sticks, tools and keys. Placing each piece in like a puzzle, a massive xylophone is formed. 6 men sit barefoot at its side and the psychedelic spectacle begins. The hypnotic rhythms of Nakibembe, a troup from Busoga, Uganda, are circular and wholesome. Each key almost flies off the xylophone with the aggressive strikes and chants, but everything remains perfectly in place and in time. Repetitive and trance inducing, it’s perhaps the trippiest set we’ve seen at Nyege yet.
These natural acoustics are a healthy contrast to the oft admired Nyege hardcore, but just as much a part of the collective’s DNA. The perfect in-between being house favorite Otim Alpha and his acholitronix which we saw next on the Main Stage, our adopted home for the day considering the unavoidable lineup. Otim, or the Big Man as I like to call him, played for our Nyege Nyege Paris edition and was a show stealer. Now, seeing the Ugandan native perform with his full set of dancers (around 10 women and 5 men) and a live band was totally captivating. Otim screams into the mic, painted in white stripes and dandelion headgear, insisting the women dancers shake their hips faster, having them fight over his attention while they carry 8 pots on top of their head with impressive hip-work. It’s a full spectacle and everyone is immersed. A conga-line forms in the crowd, nobody is still. Otim is captain. An encore was due.
Somewhere backstage sits an elderly man in traditional Cameroonian garb. He’s discreet and holds a small bottle of Waragui Gin in his hand. Come a little close and you’ll realise it’s none other than Eko Roosevelt. Yes, the Cameroonian groove legend, head of the Cameroonian National Orchestra, consultant to the ministry of culture, collaborator of Manu Dibango… That Eko. He’s awaiting his concert patiently on a small plastic chair. I have to approach him. After due thanks and praise was given, I slipped in the question, “What gives you the most meaning in music nowadays?” He didn’t hesitate. “Teaching the children to play it.” Wisdom always goes down easy. Although he had some strong opinions on electronic music and DJs that I won’t cite here. When the time comes it’s as natural as could be. You can smell that Eko has done this a thousand times. His voice still fresh and full of truculence, Eko plays hit after hit (like the track “Kilimandjaro My Home” which was discussed with vigor and maternal serendipity between Eko and Kenyan native Kabeaushé), overwhelmed by a swarm of river flies gathering throughout the stage attracted by the bright lights. He laughs it off, and finishes by asking the team to bring him into the crowd while his band finished the set.
We indulge in the backstage experience for a bit longer awaiting the performance of Black Sistarz, a duo formed by Catu Diosis and R3IGNDROPS including a team of backup dancers. It’s a hard switch from the live instrumentation of big-heads like Eko and Otim, kicking off their mix with dancehall bangers. But it’s a major point for one of the festival’s central missions; bring together two different peoples and preferences. Local and international, commercial and avant-garde (of which Kabeaushé, also programmed on the Main Stage, is a proper paragon). There is the new Nyege signee Adomaa from Ghana who is mastering afro-pop, some local favorites, and the progressive punk attitudes of Black Sistarz and the French collective Maraboutage. The whole Nyege team was hyper-present and doing their best to keep the ship on course. It was a challenge but Nyege stuck to its guns. The stage closed with a packed audience.
The rest of the night was consumed by the party as usual. Maraboutage made the locals dumbstruck. Diaki, with a paper pink heart stuck to his head and wild open eyes put Mali on the map with one of the higher intensity DJ sets of the festival. Dark Star, Hakuna Kulala. But you’ve heard all that already.
The night finished with a sunrise and gqom. A touching combo.
It’s the last day of Nyege Nyege. We’re running on fumes but they’re getting us high. Tonight is all or nothing. I wouldn’t expect a massive recap tomorrow.
Day 4: Sunday
“You know we’re not sleeping tonight?” 2 hours of sleep going into Day 4 and we’re feeling great. Our first stop after crossing the river is into the artist camp. We have a rendezvous with Kinact, the Congolese performance and design crew that has planned a walking spectacle. In the meantime, lunch is served for the artists. No forks, so we eat with our hands. The monsters begin to arrive, each covered in their own material; wires, plastic bottles, fur, glass or rubber car parts. The bottle and wire beings begin a procession down the long alley towards the entrance. The Burundi drummers join, marching with their drums on their heads, banging a steady beat.
The gates to the festival open and we’re outside the grounds, into the surrounding locality. Crowds of kids and onlookers gather in awe of the costumes, slightly frightened and totally captivated. The drummers put down their drums, the monsters stand upon a hill and what came next was the most shocking and engaging performance of Nyege Nyege yet. Zora Snake, a Cameroonian performance artist and dancer arrives, sets up a blanket between the monsters with various objects. An icon, a bell, a bowl and some powders. He screams every so often, a war-cry, a place of need. When the drums pick-up Snake walks towards the tightly fit crowd of local children and adults and begins to undress. He’s wearing a pink speedo. He undresses again. Another pink speedo. It’s hard to tell, knowing full-well the reputation of Nyege and the recent parliamentary debates, what everyone is thinking. The dancer gesticulates, falls, and bounces to the beat. He returns to his blanket, mixes a powder, covers himself in green, rips a collection of tree branches apart and duct tapes them, standing almost a meter high, one-by-one around his head. He then makes a clay mixture which he smears on his face and in his mouth. It’s violent and grotesque but terribly beautiful. The drummers anchor the performance in heritage, traditional music and garb, while the dancer and monsters take the whole thing to a psychedelic, future Africa.
I’m awestruck. There’s too much to pull-apart. Too much imagining what impressions this had. But it was the first time during Nyege Nyege I glimpsed the deeper and profound purpose of this event in shaping and moving culture. The procession stands up again and marches back into the festival. Surprising people from behind, the dancer continues his snake-like moves, the monsters chase people around, it begins to rain. Everyone is totally enamoured, pulling their phones out and not sure whether to laugh or run.
As if by curse or magic, the rain continued to pound harder and harder. We escaped into the Nyege Merch box, our home away from home, and watched the torrent continue. A miss-mash of festival-goers all crammed together, one of our temporary roommates decided to run out into the torrent to find a bottle of Waragui. He comes back soaked. We all take shots. The power cuts out. The sun goes down. Some wonder whether their tents are still standing. The remnants of the Nakibembe xylophone troupe are laid out and abandoned in front of us.
Sure enough the rain subsides, leaving the mud and puddles behind. The lights click on. Nakibembe returns to empty the water from the acoustic grave, and finishes building their xylophone. It’s the last night, and with the rhythmic splendour of Nakibembe we realise there’s no stopping this party.
The place to be was Hakuna Kulala. It was the densest crowd, full of the Nyege family. The artists were out in support, the lineup was insane and everyone was ready to go all out. We caught Ugandan DJ Decay first. A smooth and slappy technician. Then Binghi was back. Then Congolese powerhouse Wutangu, after Jokko’s TNTC, then Hibotep… Full female badass firepower and the whole crowd loved-it. Behind the decks and in front of the stage was a massive blob of bumpers and bouncers.
Then Sisso’s new project, Sisso & Maiko. The forerunner of the DIY, MP3, rapid afro-rave music that is Singeli. These two were so hot it was unbearable. While one pounded the keys, the other used a computer keyboard and loop machine to create the hypnotic ecstasy of Singeli. You can’t do much more than bob to the 160bpm music. Wearing orange shorts and orange headbands, no shirt or shoes, the duo was there to impress. At one point they covered their eyes with their headbands. One jammed on the keyboard with his nose. The other went onstage and played the computer keys with his feet. A huge “fuck you” to overzealousness and overproduction. We can make bangers without eyes or a floor.
I was convinced to skip the next Hakuna set to go see the MainStage for Portuguese DJ Zakente’s afro-tech show. We arrive a bit early and the intermission was brutal. The rain sprinkled, people began to walk away. The crowd was nearly empty. It’s about 2:30 AM. Out of respect and solidarity we stayed, heading front and centre for the performance. Zakente seemed unfazed. Ready to put on a show no matter what, even for the 5 to 6 people grooving in the front. His set was flawless. Another technician with a taste for Kuduro beats. We danced under the rain, shouted and cheered and slowly but surely the crowd returned. Peaking and smiling, Zakente brought the goods and with a crowd that finished as respectable, he closed out his set.
After saying hello and congrats, we walked quickly back to Hakuna. DJ Marcelle was scheduled. The set was nothing short of historic. It felt the rain would thunder down and shatter the structure, that the speakers would emerge from the mud and everyone would roll around in a blissful chaos, psychotically laughing to the electricity of the music stretching their veins until they were thin as sound waves. Marcelle is a master. Nyege knows it, that’s why she earned the peak of 4-5AM.
But it’s never over with Nyege Nyege. Next up with Kadilida, the Tanzanian Singeli MC who’s machine-gun raps require no breath or pause. Another 160bpm party from 5-6AM. She’s a modest star, wearing a hoodie and a fedora, and bouncing while she spits hot lava.
Once the sunrise was visible, everyone moved to Darkstar. Belgian DJ M I M I was playing and she ripped holes into your brain with her experimental bass. Then Eye, the Japanese producer, whose hyper-vogue sound kept the people awake and on their toes. Up next, Authentically Plastic who murdered a mixture of gqom, techno and the undefinable cool that accompanies the artist’s aura. Note, Authentically Plastic was always front and centre, full of energy and getting down with some of the smoothest moves of the party at every set.
Finally, Jokko took the stage. The collective had been earning a name as some of the more ruthless, badass party-goers and DJs and their reputation became legend. Sometime during the first few minutes, a local on a motorcycle with a big red leather jacket shows up with his gear and lady. He rides directly onto the dancefloor, hops off his bike totally obliterated with a flask the size of a King James Bible and revs his engine to the music. Some loved it, others hated it, but it was a show. Eventually the police showed up demanding the music be cut. A cold shiver ran up my spine. It can’t end this way can it? The Jokko DJ’s response, after a small conversation without music, was basically, “fuck you”; one artist pulled out his flute, began playing some psychedelic Arab riffs while the crowd shooed the police away. Once the police moved on, they cut the bass back in.
I could go on, because in truth this party never stops. We swam in the River Nile. We pit-stopped at the tents. A group formed to cross the river for the artist afterparty at the River Lodge. 2 days no sleep, going on 3. The festival is a glittery and chaotic pretext.
Final thoughts on Nyege Nyege 2022. Don’t expect. Don’t assume. It’ll hurt as much as it’ll please. The make or break moment is pushed back until next year. The commercial partners, fragile infrastructure and morality police will continue pulling the Jenga blocks from the growing international tower of the collective. The fearless underground aesthetic and counter-culture capital can be leveraged into an institution or play as a counterweight to their growing ambitions. It’s watching a swan dive into beauty and chaos. It’s a centerless experiment in mind bending music. It’s Pandora’s box in a region surrounded by older, stricter myths and morals. It’s holding your breath through a long tunnel to make a wish. It’s a conflict resolved in motion. It’s a wild, wild party.
Here’s to tuning out of Nyege Nyege 2022.