A celebration of East African club music.
"People in Kampala really like to dance—it has a reputation in East Africa as a party city," Kampire Bahana told us in a 2018 interview. This is where Bahana got her start as a DJ, throwing down soukous, Afro house and dancehall in the city's clubs and bars. Meeting Nyege Nyege cofounders Arlen Dilsizian and Derek Debru turned her onto the region's vibrant dance music scene, which is now the foundation of Nyege Nyege's record label and festival. The scene's impact has been remarkable—these days, many of the world's leading festival bookers, DJs and producers look towards East Africa for inspiration.
As Nyege Nyege has grown, so too has Bahana. Her upbeat, funky DJ sets are in demand across Africa and much further afield. (She's spent much of 2019 playing gigs in Europe, the US, Canada and Mexico.) In the interview below, she said that her career path is not an easy one for other DJs in Kampala to follow. "Making a living from the arts in Kampala is a luxury that few can afford," she said, noting the city's high unemployment rate. "Entrepreneurship is both impossible and absolutely necessary in order to make a living. So all artists here, like most young people, are hustlers, with fingers in a number of pies."
Bahana's RA Podcast spotlights some of the most exciting dance music coming out of East Africa and other parts of the continent. It nails down Bahana's place as a scene-leading DJ who can connect the dots between music the past, present and future of African club music.
What have you been up to recently?
I've been touring like a crazy person! I still feel pretty young as a DJ so to have the opportunity to travel the world and play to different audiences every weekend has really been a privilege. I can feel myself growing as a DJ and artist. I got to visit Mexico for the first time a few months ago so that was definitely a 2019 highlight for me. And I put out my first release as well, with the help of good friends Decay and Gan Gah, a remix of South Sudanese artist Nyaruach's song "Gatluak."
How and where was the mix recorded?
I made so many attempts to record this mix and something went wrong every time! It was done at a crazy time when I was coming off my European summer tour heading into our own festival Nyege Nyege and then on to my first tour of North America. So attempts were recorded in three continents; in London at Pirate studios, at the Nyege Studios in Kampala, in LA at the Creatington Warehouse and finally at the home of a really great promoter in Durham, North Carolina. Laura has been running a great event series called Party Illegal in Durham and I stayed with her for a few days before my gig.
Can you tell us about the idea behind the mix?
I really just wanted to highlight some of my favourite East African tracks and global producers, and also give people a taste of what I've been playing these days, so it has some well-loved tunes that I've been rinsing on tour recently. My first mix for RA was so well received and really opened a lot of doors for me so I wanted to show my growth and make it a good one (hence the analysis-paralysis that led to so many failed attempts). I think one of the things I've loved about DJing is that everything is in the moment. You put your art out there and even though it never measures up to what you had in mind, you do your best and hope that people enjoy it. Nothing is perfect and while you're obsessing about a missed transition, the audience is just happy that you made them dance and introduced them to something cool and new.
Mixes are so tough because once you put it out there it lives forever. But it's great to have that snapshot in time and to (hopefully) look back in a year or three and see how you've grown.
What do you see as the main challenges to more artists from East Africa following in your footsteps and building a career from their music?
The challenges are myriad. I'm very privileged because i'm educated and well-travelled, but even for me I've spent thousands on visas, and suffered delays and missed gigs. I know of artists who, even with all the correct papers and visas, have been denied entry onto their flights for hugely important gigs just because they don't speak English well enough to defend themselves against overly aggressive and vindictive immigration agents and airport staff.
I don't think people with "good" passports realise the struggles of #TravellingWhileAfrican, what a huge boon it is to get your passport stamped with no questions, without having to show all your transit visas and return tickets and that you have a certain amount of money on hand. And that's assuming that you have the skills and language to get your music out there and heard in the first place in order to book international gigs.
What is life like in Kampala in 2019 for a young person trying to make music and art?
Kampala is gorgeous, but it's definitely a challenging place to be a young artist. Making a living from the arts is a luxury that few can afford in a place where unemployment is high, entrepreneurship is both impossible and absolutely necessary in order to make a living. So all artists here, like most young people, are hustlers, with fingers in a number of pies. Because it's a small community, it's a supportive one and thanks to spaces like Nyege Nyege and 32 degrees, there's a bit more room for those who want to do things out of the mainstream.
What are you up to next?
I'm excited to be playing a couple of shows in Kenya and hopefully Tanzania in the new year. I'm also playing in Australia for the first time next month. And I'm working on some new things to bring to my 2020 tours, some costumes, some videos, some new remixes and edits... But I don't want to jinx it by talking about it too soon!