Joseph Kamaru, the performer who records under the name KMRU, admits that being a composer of ambient electronic music is not an obvious path to fame and fortune in his home country of Kenya.
“It has not been easy to do what I do in Nairobi,” he concedes via email. “But I’m grateful that I’m able to create this kind of music and introduce it to the people there. It’s always interesting to watch crowds while I play the music. At some point, I was tense, but eventually, this has grown and (I’m) glad that people know Kamaru makes ‘weird’ music.”
But that “weird music” is not only gaining a following in Kenya, however small, but also among fans of electronic sounds in Europe and the U.S. He’s also at the forefront of an African alternative music scene, much of it based in East Africa, that smashes together avant-garde, ambient, house, downtempo, hip-hop, rock and traditional rhythms and vocal patterns into a unique Afro-futurist vision.
“In the new wave of East African electronic music, indigenous rhythms, 808 drums, synthesizers, traditional African instruments, and field recordings combine to create auditory paths to liberation,” declared the site bandcamp.com two years ago. “And while the music may vary widely, all of it springs from a similar spirit of defiance.”
AVANT-GARDE AFRICA: Click the above Spotify playlist to listen or click here.
Jinku of the Kenyan band EA Wave (“EA” stands for East Africa) says the spread of relatively low-cost technology has fueled the creative boom. “We have always had acts in East Africa, the world is just catching up to what is hot on the streets,” he says via email. “The main catalyst is accessibility, you can pretty much become a musician with a laptop, decent headphones and music software. That’s how we started and scaled up as we progressed.”
Parallels can be drawn to the guitar bands of Mali, such as Tinariwen and Songhoy Blues, who’ve refashioned rock and blues in their own image.
Yet the scene isn’t defined by one approach. KMRU’s dreamscapes are very different from the chilled-out funk of EA Wave, the glitchy grooves of Ethiopia’s Ethiopian Records, the Kraftwerk-meets-the-Sahara electro-pop of Niger’s Hama, the banging percussion of Uganda’s Nihiloxica, the socially conscious sonic montages of Uganda’s Faizal Mostrixx and the 200 beats-per-minute caffeine rush of Tanzania’s singeli music from the likes of Sisso, Jay Mitta and Bamba Pana.
It’s proof that “African music” doesn’t conform to stereotype and shouldn’t be seen through a traditional “world music” lens. “We have a wide array of genres and bottling all of them up under one tag is ridiculous,” says Jinku. “Also expecting African music to fit into stereotypes such as African drums, tribal vocals and a certain feel is reminiscent of decades past.”
What’s happening in East Africa builds on what’s happened in other parts of the continent. South African DJ/producers Black Coffee (who has worked with David Guetta, Pharrell Williams, Drake and Usher) and DJ Lag (who emerged from Durban’s gqom dance scene) have experienced outside Africa. Joining them soon may be Johannesburg musician/producer Sun-El Musician who last month released the enthralling and soulful 31-track “To the World & Beyond.”
Meanwhile, Nigeria’s Mr. Eazi — whom BBC declared Africa’s biggest star — has taken his Afro-pop/hip-hop global and worked with the likes of Bad Bunny and J Balvin.
When Stephen Vitkovitch, head of the London-based Byrd Out label that has released the music of many East African acts, first heard these artists, it was an eye-opening experience.
“All the East African artists I’ve released have their own sound, and to my ears they’re pretty distinct from much of the house-led stuff about in Europe,” he says. “It’s a way of doing electronic music people often aren’t familiar with.”
He’s not worried about the sound being watered down now that the rest of the world is starting to pay attention.
“The artists’ sounds are so distinctive that co-opting would be difficult without losing something,” he says. “It does seem that people are paying more attention right now, which can only be a good thing. Of course, artists’ styles will evolve, so it’ll be interesting to see how that happens. Quite a few of them are now based in Berlin, so that might have an influence how things develop.”
Here are some of the African acts worth checking out. All are available on music streaming platforms.
KMRU — who claims influences from American experimental musician Katie Gately to English sound recordist Chris Watson — is not particularly interested in pop songs. His sound sculptures (he also does sound installations and field recordings) are ambient and abstract, floating like clouds across the landscape. He’s especially inspired by broken instruments and using their sounds in his work. “In undergrad studies, there were these old pianos from the ’60s and they were just banged by children on their way home,” he says. “For me, I was more interested in their stories and the sounds they could still make, to inspire me to create new works and share the stories of these abandoned instruments.”
Country: South Africa
Sun-El Musician (real name Sanele Sithole) is a producer/DJ whose lush and soulful take on deep house music — blending South African vocals into a swirl of strings, keyboards and melody — reaches a blissful high point on “To the World & Beyond.” On the song “Ngiwelele,” he manages to combine lyrics about talking to one’s ancestors with a musical tip of the hat to Nat King Cole’s 1948 hit “Nature Boy.”
Endeguena Mulu records under the name of Ethiopian Records and his often clattering, broken sound — such as the tracks “All the Things” and the head-spinning “This Was Made Here” — is like falling down a flight of stairs. It’s bruising and you’re not sure where you’ll end up. He has called his style “Ethiopiyawi Electronic,” with “Ethiopiyawi” means Ethiopian in Amharic.
This Nairobi collective makes low-key, chilled-out beats that are rich with hints of hip-hop, trap, ambient and jazz, undergirded by whispers of African instrumentation. Last year’s EP, “EA Wave Reimagines Ami Faku,” a five-track selection of reworkings of songs from South African singer Ami Faku, whets the appetite for a full-length album.
Country: Democratic Republic of the Congo
This band, which started out making instruments from scrap, calls its music “tekno kintueni” based around traditional Congo rhythms.
Somali-born, Uganda-based Hibo Elmi, aka Hibotep, has made a name for herself as a DJ, designer, rapper and producer in a male-dominated culture. Her sound, on such tracks as “Ancestry,” is low like a rumble.
Country: South Africa
Durban’s gqom style of electronic music is stark, minimalist and pounding. Sleeping Buddha, on such tracks as “Goro” and “Onimusha,” injects an added sense of urgency. The DJ, who recently released the lockdown EP “Area 51,” told Bandcamp, “I always used to imagine that if aliens were listening to music, it’d be this.” But he can also be wonderfully melodic, as on “Galaxies in Your Forehead.”
Not a performer but a record label and promoter overseeing Nyege Nyege Tapes and the Nyege Nyege Festival, East Africa’s biggest electronic music fest which attracted around 9000 people in the pre-COVID era. This has caught the attention of some of Uganda’s more conservative elements who’ve tried to shut down the festival. Nyege Nyege is also the home to the Tanzanian team of Sisso, Jay Mitta and Bamba Pana, leaders in the fast-paced singeli style.
The computer-inspired pop of Germany’s Kraftwerk, the DIY ethic of Detroit techno, the computer-game sounds of the ‘80s and sci-fi soundtracks intersect with the melodies of the Touareg people of Africa’s Sahel region in the music of Hama. He’s a reclusive one-man synth operation, also known as Hama Techno, working, according to his bio, “on the spotty electric grid…with earbuds and a hacked copy of FruityLoops,” referring to the music-production software. His career, and rising profile in the West, represents technology as breaking down barriers in the way it was promised. According to the site Okay Africa, Hama “became an underground star on the underground mp3 networks [of Niger], unattributed compositions traded by Bluetooth on Saharan cellphones.”
The Kampala musician/producer/dancer declares on his Bandcamp page, “My music production focus and interest is to give African Ugandan traditional instruments and organic rhythms a poetic electronic instrumentalism.” He has done that strikingly over the course of the last couple of years, releasing a string of singles and EPs that are representative of the new East African scene but also distinctive from what his peers are doing.
This project represents the marriage of the Kampala percussion outfit the Nilotika Cultural Ensemble with English musicians Spooky-J and pq. The result is a boom-tastic smashing together of drums and electronics, Ugandan old world and British new. Last year, the group released its debut full-length album, “Kaloli.”
Country: Cape Verde/Portugal
Born and raised in the island nation of Cape Verde and now based in Lisbon, the man who goes by the name inspired by a Cape Verdean stew, toys with art-rock, psychedelica, folk and electronics on his two albums, “Último Caboverdiano Triste” and “Pomba Pardal.” What he does is a far cry from the lilting style of Cape Verde’s most famous musical export, the late Cesaria Evora.
Country: South Africa
Congolese-born/South African-based Yannick Ilunga goes by the name of Petite Noir for this moody art-rock project that bears similarities to the likes of New York’s TV on the Radio or Montreal’s The Dears. He has said his last album, “La Maison Noir,” was the third of his “noirwave” projects, meant to reflect Africa’s current cultural moment.
With a style that’s all over the musical map, Rachael is one of her country’s best-known DJs. She founded Femme Electronic, a space for female DJs and producers.
Country: South Africa
In 2010, Spoek Mathambo released a memorably tense take on Joy Division’s “She Lost Control” — accompanied by a brilliant black and white video — but he’s much more than one cover song. Last year, he released the brash conceptual album, “Tales from the Lost Cities,” a look at life on the hard streets of contemporary Johannesburg with such tracks as “Anatomy of a Campus Rape Riot” and “Jimmy Comes to Jozi.”
Blinky Bill, aka Bill Selanga, pioneered the Kenyan alternative-music scene a decade ago with his group Just A Band, an outfit whose blend of dance music, old-school soul, rock, electronics and hip-hop reverberates through the current African scene like a stone skipping across a lake. Unfortunately, that group is on hiatus but Bill is active with a solo career and has released the 2018 album “Everyone’s Just Winging It and Other Fly Tales” and last year’s single, “Bado Mapema (Simama).”
Muthoni Drummer Queen
The socially conscious Nairobi alt-hip-hop rapper — who has a similar style to Zambian-Australian Sampa The Great — turned in a 2018 take on Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” (dubbed “Kenyan Message”). She updates the angry “don’t push me ‘cuz I’m close to the edge” sentiments and even seems prescient with the ending of “We can’t breathe.”
Kenyan-born and later based in Kampala, Freddy Njau — now known as Slikback — broke out at the Nyege Nyege Festival. He now has gained a following in Europe for his stark style that includes fusions of grime, trap and African influences.
Musician Alai K., who performs under the name of Disco Vumbi, refashions traditional East African rhythms into something for the modern age.
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Cary Darling joined the Houston Chronicle in 2017 where he writes about arts, entertainment and pop culture, with an emphasis on film and media. Originally from Los Angeles and a graduate of Loyola Marymount University, he has been a features reporter or editor at the Orange County Register, Miami Herald, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In addition, he has freelanced for a number of publications including the Los Angeles Times and Dallas Morning News. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or by Twitter: @Carydar