July 10th, 2007. The day is overcast and a group of scientists in white lab coats gather in a remote bush somewhere in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A large thin object of about 4 meters is hidden under a metallic tarp as the scientists and participants move to a makeshift bunker full of laboratory equipment and computers; a sheet-metal mission control. Front and center, Jean-Patrice Keka Ohemba Okese sits solemnly with “D.T. Azimuts, Division Spatiale” embroidered on his back (aka Développement Tous Azimuts, a clever astro-pun roughly translating to “development in all directions”). The rocket, Troposphere 2, is revealed from underneath the tarp and the countdown begins. Smoke begins to billow at the base and in a sonic-whish the rocket fires into the air, shooting just out of sight. The team and bystanders rush into the field with shouts of joy, hands in the air, carrying Jean-Patrice Keka Ohemba Okese on their shoulders in celebration of the DRC’s first successful rocket launch.
2012, Nord Kivu. Bahati Sapiens Moïse Dhekana aka Rey Sapienz begins the long trek from his home in a volcanic region of eastern DRC, towards Kampala, Uganda, intent on recording an album. After his arrival, the flames of civil war reignite on his home front, closing the roads and leaving Rey in a long term political limbo. The young musician turns to an Ableton manual left behind from one of East Africa’s vagabond DJs. The next two weeks Rey forwent sleep, combing through each page of the software’s handbook, injecting Zoom recordings of the city-sound into the software and entering another dimension of what was to be the birth of Congo Techno and Hakuna Kulala. The former a malapropism that has less to do with techno than Congolese soukous and American trap and the latter a tribute to the zombified era of Rey’s watershed moment into electronics meaning “no sleep” in Swahili and the name of a Nyege Nyege sublabel that hosts East Africa’s most experimental, apocalyptic and fearless underground electronic music.
2018, Busan, South Korea. An American from Western Massachusetts widely believed to be a defected special agent (but really isn’t) turned DIY musician is planning a trip to Kampala with his Ugandan wife. After all, “Even Spies Fall in Love”, or so says the second track MB Jones’ 2018 album R.O.K. Spy. Collecting intel, MB Jones stumbles upon the Nyege Nyege imprint based in Kampala after a music blog places his release next to one of Nyege Nyege’s own. The serendipity cause for chuckle, MB Jones sent an electronic transmission to the crew hoping to schedule a rendez-vous on his upcoming trip. After arriving in Kampala and entering the villa, MB Jones is introduced to Rey Sapienz sitting comfortably in the studio, a shadow king of East Africa’s electronic underground. The duo spent the next 3 days locked in the studio, creating a new sound from scratch, colliding the sonic worlds, embracing the cosmic spirit of the moment, the essence of DIY, christening their project Troposphere 7.
What takes place on Troposphere 7’s album Grey Parrots is as much of a sci-fi mishmash as the stories of the characters involved in its creation. The album opener, “Boda Boda Ride” is a broken and revamped display of minimal downtempo. Rey’s identifiable fatty bass and up-tempo flutes are mixed with the slowburn synths of MB Jones’ repertoire. “Buta Na Moyi”, premiered here on PAM for the first time, has the kick-driven rhythm Hukana Kulala embraces, but is an exception among the more dissident and messy soundscapes that play out across the project. We’re given a “Korean Weather Report” on the backend of the album with a vocal performance by Korean citizen Eun Young Ju to the tune of helicopter blades and glitchy AI vocal manipulations. Like Jean-Patrice Keka Ohemba Okese’s Congolese space program, the album is pieced together with the blind expertise of each participant using the gritty will of DIY electronics and wrangling together unlikely facts of the world.
“I usually have that stress of what I want to play. What is in my mind. All I want to explain which can not be played in life. For me, I wanted to do something else.” Rey once said of his music, on a detour in France’s Transmusical Festival, looking like a spaceman in a suit made of ripped CD’s and a vinyl helmet. MB Jones expressed a similar sentiment over a satellite communication from South Korea explaining the inspiration from his encounter with the Troposphere space program. “I was interested in the actual physicality of that. The future of DIY science, the metaphysical aspect and spirituality. But it’s also like the physical reality of the world we’re living in now that people are able to actually do that.” Jean-Patrice once said in an interview with the global press, “I understand that one might think a country like the Democratic Republic of Congo would have priorities other than a space program. But we also need something to project ourselves into the future.”
Projecting ourselves, like rockets into an uncertain future, which artists and scientists audaciously seek to shape in their image, that is Troposphere 1,2,3, 7 and so on. It’s an element of faith that misfits can make magic and pregnant ideas are worth bearing into the world. They can be difficult to hear, impossible to define and at times sound stranger than fiction. Yet the collaboration continues, the rockets are quietly being built and the soundtrack to a hybrid form of human experimentation bounces off satellites and in and out of hard drives waiting for the celebratory minds dreaming far past the troposphere and into the unknown tomorrow.