The Story of East African Records

Features

East African music is getting its place in the spotlight and with a wealth of talent previously highlighted, East African Records (EAR) are at the forefront of getting the world to step up and listen to the endless pool of talent that needs to be heard.

The distribution platform also has a studio in Kampala alongside doing ‘label-type services’ such as helping artists to develop a promotion strategy, assisting with creative direction, helping get covers and videos made, linking musicians  to producers and sorting out people’s online profiles. We’ve already highlighted some of the most exciting music from East African Records and they have helped to break artists such as MC Yallah, Faizal Mostrixx and Ecko Bazz.

EAR are “not a label”, as founder David Cecil has stated many times to me. They are more of an enterprise that looks to bring about a levelling off of the African music scene, which has for years disproportionally favoured other regions of the continent.

“People struggle to think of a single East African artist and when I talk to one of the higher ups in the streaming industry, he described East Africa as a ‘black hole’.” EAR director and Founder David Cecil told us. “One of the things we wanted to address when setting up EAR was to say, there is a lot of good music here and the local scene is very vibrant.”

Beginnings and early endings

Tilapia Centre Kampala Uganda

EAR’s root first took hold when David moved to Uganda and wanted to help build a space for local artists to create and showcase their work.

 “Initially my idea was to set up a cinema, which was going to be an independent cinema with a bar and cultural activities but then it evolved into a live music space Tilapia. We did some DJ nights and some of the electronic music scenes that are active in Uganda one could argue it started there.  It was, to my knowledge, the first rave that had ever happened in Uganda.”

However, David’s plans were almost de-railed before they really got started as Tilapia played host to a play about the conditions of homosexual people in Uganda, a country where it is not only illegal to be homosexual, but can be punishable by death.

The River and the Mountain was billed as a dramatic comedy, hoping to break down taboos and dispel a lot of myths about gay people that were seen as “paedophiles and monsters” to a lot of Ugandans.

After being banned at the national theatre, the play moved back to Tilapia where the show went from strength to strength and was a success. But problems were rumbling under the surface as law firms were consulted to see if the play was breaking any Ugandan laws.

“I said to everyone if anything goes wrong, I’ll take the blame. If the director for example had got in trouble, she could have gone to prison. I was very arrogant and thought they couldn’t possibly put me in prison – it wasn’t even activism in my eyes”.

 “Whoever heard of somebody going to prison because of a comedy drama? Unfortunately, I did go to prison.”

David was kept in prison for nearly a week and subsequently put on trial for 3 months, charged with “disobeying lawful orders”. However, David won his trial as the judged dismissed the case on the grounds that the prosecution didn’t have any evidence and he was subsequently let free. However shortly afterwards, David was picked up by unmarked police and taken to holding cells and kept for a week. David was deported from the country back to the UK.

“I literally didn’t have time to pick up my toothbrush.” David recounts “I arrived back in the UK in shorts and a t-shirt and had to get my Dad to pick me up in mid-winter.”

Even after that experience, David wanted to return to Uganda and after a 2 year battle, he was given leave to return to Uganda in 2015.

“That was the year of the first Nyege Nyege and I was helping out at the festival. Having said I would go back and keep a low profile, I ended up on stage!”

The East African wave

Blessed San in the music video for Traitor ft Stalawa

East African Records was set up when David returned and a locally sourced team was gathered to help bring his vision to life.

The studio was set up alongside Wana Benjamin, Timothy (aka T-Mo) and Amani Greene –  all local producer-engineers who made beats, recorded live sessions and helped manage the studio. Semulema Daniel worked on local promotion and artist liaison and had a team ready to push music on the underground and mainstream media.

Utilizing the studio as well as distribution, Ugandan artists were able to gain a more all-encompassing experience. Essentially you could record your music in the studio and EAR would handle the distribution of your music, as well as assisting with local promotion, which will hopefully lead to a growing fan base and live shows.

“Our distribution service was new and unusual to most people in Uganda – so we used the studio and live shows as a way of publicizing the distribution service”.

There was a real need in East Africa for investment in music and the arts. A lot of talented artists who wouldn’t have the contacts or funds to move forward with their own projects could hit stumbling blocks on the road to getting more recognition.

“Artists are normally expected to pay for their own promotion. Sometimes they will have a rich manager come in and say ‘I’m going to make you big, I’m going to pay for this stuff’. Because there isn’t a lot of financial liquidity in Uganda, it’s very hard for Ugandans to earn money through live shows. If artists complain in the UK or Europe about the economy of the music industry, they haven’t seen anything. It’s 10 times worse in Uganda.”

Ugandan artists primarily make a living from live shows, with side jobs in collaborations, merchandise and commercial endorsements. “Most local artists are not making a living wage off music- that is the reality”. David tells us. “The ones who were succeeding before Corona were very busy gigging all the time and it was like 10% of those who made anything worthwhile. I always tell people to get a day job or sponsor or they’ll quickly get disappointed!”

Outside Influences

A pile of equipment at East African Records Studio in Kampala

The last few years have coincided with a surge in talent coming from the East African music scene, absorbing music from other parts of the world.

“We are hearing EA Wave in Nairobi; they are a self-styled electronic movement that has emerged from hipsters in Nairobi. Then you are hearing new forms of hip hop in Uganda called ‘Luga-flow’, it sounds like an international hip sound but Ugandans have a way of working the language which is very melodic. I don’t know what they are saying but the words just flow.”

But alongside Nyege Nyege Tapes, whose explosion in popularity for its African music hasn’t occurred before in the underground music scene, there could be an argument that this is a warped image of the African underground that is purposely designed for Western audiences.

“[You sometimes have] outside actors operating in Uganda who are influencing Ugandan artists to deliberately produce music that is more palatable to an international audience,” David explains.

 “That can be problematic as you are encouraging people to make music that is to be consumed abroad but those people abroad think it’s authentic, local music. They are making music in a local spirit, but they are not making it for the Ugandan crowd.”

It’s both a gift and a curse in a sense, as artists who previously struggled to sustain their art could have brand new income sources from Europe and the West, but could have to sacrifice their true identity. This has led to conversations propping up about the difficult balance between outside influences on African music, potentially shifting the landscape of the music scene.

Ugandan DJ Authentically Plastic said in a recent Unsound festival roundtable “Black Techno Futures” that the African underground could be in danger of “European voyeurism”.

That losing of authenticity is not in danger any time soon, not only because of the huge popularity of Ugandan producers and MC’s for their own local music ecosystem, but also in East African Records variety in its musical output. You will find pop, trap, and techno co-existing and given equal love and attention.

On the flip side, outside influences being fed into the African underground has created some of the most interesting and exciting music in the world, and arguably can’t be replicated outside of Africa. “I personally don’t have a problem with that happening. They might like it and they might think that the direction the label is suggesting is better and in many cases the labels coming in they give the artist full creative control.”

Investment in East African music

Blaq Bandana – Motoka Yange. Out now on East African Records

With an ever growing roster of artists and talent that David and his team have helped nurture, you sense that this is only the start of an upward trajectory for EAR. That upward trajectory can arguably be mirrored in the ever growing popularity in legitimate music streaming in East Africa.

Currently music consumption in Uganda is driven by kiosks – local shops where you would go along to have music downloaded to an mp3 or laptop. Despite helping to drive exposure for artists, they won’t make any money back, unlike streaming. Even if the streaming revenue is famously low for artists, it could still provide some much needed revenue. Tidal has become one of the first of the big streaming giants to recognise the emerging African market, offering cheap subscription deals.  

“Our system anticipates these developments, as we get all our artists copyrighted and established on major international streaming platforms. We think the industry in Uganda will go legit and EAR is positioned as one of the only (perhaps the only?) distribution company that operates transparently and legitimately.”

But streaming revenue won’t help a burgeoning music scene by itself, as real investment is needed in a country that has been ignored for so long by international markets.

“I saw that setting up a venue was a good thing because I was able to give a platform for artists to try out new material and I would invest in career development. It was the same thing when I set up the studio. For me, one of the most positive things you can do for the music industry is building the infrastructure and partnering with artists to help reduce costs, so if you are talented and broke, you still have a chance to create the music and platform it.”

The new batch of East African music festivals such as Nyege Nyege and Kilifi New Year may have a lot of international acts on their lineup, but nonetheless they showcase the melting pot of talent that exist within the region and self-sustaining independent festivals can provide not only performance opportunities for local musicians but also gain widespread international attention and transform people’s perspectives of the region.

“Apart from that you have the British Council and Arts Council one-off funds. Are they worthy, yes but they aren’t sustainable. If you coming in with one grant or sponsoring a singular event, unless you invest in the infrastructure where are those artists going to be playing. We need less one off grants and more investment in infrastructure.”

Listen to our East African records takeover show on Reform Radio:

Top Tracks from East African Records

Features

Following our East African Records Takeover on Maracuya Soundsystem, we will be bringing a series of articles about the distribution service and studio based in Kampala, Uganda which is aiming to bring the best in East African music to the world.

First up, we have highlighted our personal picks from a wealth of music that EAR have helped to release or distribute, featuring some of the most exciting and promising artists from the region. If you enjoy the list, there is more music on an East African Records playlist to check out via Spotify, where label founder David Cecil from EAR has picked his own personal selection of tracks.

Elle Bero – TOPOWA

MC Yallah began her ascent to greatness from East African Records, so could rising Ugandan musician Elle Bero be the next? She shares the same energy and positivity with bright and fun track TOPOWA providing a necessary positive push during times of crisis.

“This was the best time to release the song – people need hope for a better tomorrow.” Elle, the self-made entrepreneurial musician told us. “They can change their situations, they don’t have to lack in life. The second verse is all about when times get tough, I get tougher”.

Faizal Mostrixx and Susan Kerunen – The Thi

A lot of music was released in the crazy last few months we’ve  had but one release from ‘Ebikokyo’ from Ugandan “tribal electronics” maestro Faizal Mostrixx, pop/folk singer Suzan Kerunen & instrumentalist Aloysius Migadde has slipped under everyone’s radars.

We could have picked any track from the EP, but The Thi holds a special atmosphere to it as The Suzan’s echoey voice breathing life combined with a flowing flute, gives a traditionally African vibe that feels modern and fresh.  

Dimitri and the Scarecrow – Jigsaw African

Dimitri and the Scarecrow was created by Zimbabwean artist Dimitri D. Kwenda and Crass Roots Raps, released earlier this year on EAR is a deep, introspective and powerful release, that has gained more traction since the growing BLM movement.

Jigsaw African highlights the overarching themes of the album, ‘addressing African matters as an observer, victim, idealist, realist, critic & the privileged’. The track deals with the duality and self-analysis of being within a privilege position in a country and continent with huge class and social divide.

Often time a difficult and raw listen, but you will struggle to find a rapper in Africa challenging the social norms in such a way.

Control – Ecko Bazz, Blessed San and Black Badana

Kampala meets New York in this bouncy track featuring some of the biggest names associated with EAR, whilst production comes from the founder of the label David Cecil.

The video takes the viewer on a trip around the streets of Kampala surrounding Boutiq Studios, which each rapper taking their tune to spit their verse, reminiscent of classic Wu Tang Clan songs.  Maybe this super group can return for more tracks in the future, but as an experimental one off it’s one of the most addictively brilliant tracks from EAR.

Byg Ben Sukula – Ba Kuka (For the Ancestors)

Ugandan hip hop artist Byg Ben Sukuya launched his debut album ‘Imbuka Eyi’Yange  (This Is My Time)’  back in 2018. The album is a perfect slice of Kidandali, meaning “local party” or “celebration” and that’s what that track Ba Kuka (For the Ancestors) is about.

This track is made for the dance floor, with an up-tempo, impossible not to shake along rhythm. The only break you get is a bridge where Byg Ben shows off his impressive vocal flow, before the party starts back up again. Listen here if you need a good pick me up.

MC Yallah – Ting Badi Malo

Over the last few months, you can’t go anywhere without seeing MC Yallah. Resident Advisor, Wire Magazine & 6 music are raving about the prolific Ugandan MC . However she’s been perfecting her craft for 20 years now and East African Records were one of the first to promote her music, with ‘Ting Badi Malo’ releasing back in 2018.

You could argue this was where the seeds were sown for the MC Yallah of today through this track, spoken in her Luo (her native language) flow, with a call for unity in the midst of crisis. A year after when Kubali with Debmaster was released, arguably sending MC Yallah into the stratosphere but Ting Badi Malo was the Launchpad for that success.

 [MONRHEA] – I & [I]

[MONRHEA] was one of the first East African artists that we featured on our show back in early 2019 and her long awaited debut album has finally arrived on Youth Sounds records. Her [ART] sees [MONRHEA] divulging into the dark corners of techno and bass, in vast contrast to a lot of the party style music often seen from her East African contemporaries.

Stand out track I & [I] builds a sonic range of heavy bass, clattering kicks and alien instrumentation, making us long for a return to the dark night club floors that have been shuttered since March. African techno has a bright future.

Blaq Bandana – Kikubamutwe 

Blaq Bandana’s first solo project ‘Motoka Yange’ was premiered on our Maracuya Soundsystem East African Records takeover show and is out this Friday 31st July.

Taking the reins in co-production is Kenyan super producer Slikback, who worked with Blaq Bandana on previous track Kikubamutwe. Slikback’s music always captures a warped style of tradition and futuristic and with Blaq Bandana’s vocals on top, brings a new and formidable duo that could soon shake up the African underground hip hop scene.        

“He reads his mind and I read his too,” he told us about the musical process the pair share. “He makes a beat that defines a real Blaq Bandana”.

Listen to our East African Records takeover on Maracuya Soundsystem:

Our Top 5 Lockdown World Music Livestreams (so far)

Features

Although we’re understandably gutted that clubs and venues are closed for the foreseeable (thanks COVID-19), the rise of the livestream, and more unexpectedly the Zoom party phenomenon, have restored our faith in live music – just a little tiny bit. The amount of streams out there can be a little overwhelming, so here’s our top 5 recent streams broadcasted from all over the world, to check out on replay.

1. Gabber Modus Operandi at Club Matryoshka: Infinite Summer 2020

A lot of venues have naturally struggled with the COVID outbreak, having to remain closed until god knows when, with often little to no help from their local government. However, Manila-based Club Matryoshka actually have it quite good, because due to the nature of their space, they are one of the only clubs in the world still hosting events.

By space, I’m referring to their virtual club created entirely in a private Minecraft server. The level of detail is off the scale – a remote otherwordly location set on the top of a mountain, complete with a swimming pool, a museum, a ring of fire – and of course, the all-important DJ booth.

In true underground club fashion, there is a certain level of exclusivity. To get “inside” the club yourself and chat with other attendees, you have to get past Club Matryoshka’s application form, which includes questions such as answering why you want to be a part of the club in Pig Latin, and writing a haiku. Once you get past this though, you’re all good to go, rave and drink some potions.

Kicking things off with Pharmakon‘s wickedly twisted version of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)“, Gabber Modus Operandi weren’t holding back. This slowly descended into their signature sound of heavy metal, with a visual accompaniment that can only be described as zooming down a glorious 8-bit k-hole.

The k-hole

Image source: Club Matryoshka on Twitch

If you’ve listened to Gabber Modus Operandi before, you would know that their music isn’t gabber in the traditional European gabber sense, but rather a soundclash of abrasive hardcore mixed with traditional Indonesian gamelan sounds. The idyllic visual setting of the club, particularly its mountaintop temple, complemented this manic fusion of traditional and contemporary sounds immaculately, transporting our minds over to Bali or Java.

The highlight of their set for me has to be when they dropped the tune ‘Manunggaling Kawulo Gusti‘, an Indonesian gothic metal track from artist Syeh Siti Jenar, accompanied by a shot of the DJ booth – a gigantic fire-breathing skull complete with 8-bit CDJs inside its mouth. Who knew that Minecraft could be this cool.

Watch the stream here

Find more Gabber Modus Operandi tunes on their SoundCloud

2. Turkana on Boiler Room: Streaming from Isolation with ANTI-MASS

If you’ve listened to our show on Reform Radio, you’ll be well informed that Uganda is pretty much the world’s epicentre of the most cutting-edge electronic music at the moment. Boiler Room seem to have caught onto that fact as well, hosting Kampala-based queer feminist collective ANTI-MASS for a showcase last week, blessing the streaming platform with a hefty dose of riotous electronic noise.

Taking part in the stream was label Hakuna Kulala‘s co-founder Rey Sapienz, Authentically Plastic, who blends vogue and ballroom with GQOM, Decay with sounds ranging from kwaito to techno, and Bonaventure with her melting pot of European rave and African percussion.

However the star of the show was definitely Turkana, a South Sudanese DJ who doesn’t let genres hold her back one bit. Flying between Tanzanian genre singeli (which comes in at 190bpm+), psytrance and a flurry of polyrhythms, her confidence and intuition behind the decks was inspiring.

Particular highlights have to be her dropping Zutzut’s unearthly remix of Shanghai-based 33EMBYW’s ‘Golem’, and introducing us to Tommy Kid’s ‘Psyqom’, a GQOM track laced with horror movie FX.

Her set was a breath of fresh air – worlds ahead of the often stagnant 4/4 beats which are still a mainstay at the majority of clubs around the globe.

Image Source: Dan Medhurst

Check out our latest Maracuya Soundsystem radio show with Turkana here.

3. Soichi Terada at Rainbow Disco Club (livestream and Zoom party)

After realising in late February that their festival would inevitably be cancelled due to the COVID outbreak, the team behind Japan’s Rainbow Disco Club took the plunge and joined forces with Zaiko (a Tokyo-based e-ticketing platform) to set up their first ever ticketed festival livestream.

Gathering as many local artists as they could from the original line up, RDC rushed to the site to recreate the event before there was a chance for lockdown rules to change. Choosing only to have the minimalist skeletal frame of the main stage as their setting, revealing the stunning Higashi-Izu Cross Country course behind, this ensured full emphasis on the music. With a stacked line up though, featuring RDC allstars like Sauce81, Wata Igarashi, DJ Nobu and of course Soichi Terada, it was clear that the music would be first class no matter what.

We knew we could count on Rainbow Disco Club to put 110% of their efforts into this stream – they provided a merch shop selling incredibly thoughtful merch for example, from wine to candles, to raise money for their events in years to come. But the standout thing for us has to be the official Zoom party that the festival organised for attendees, as it made the experience much more interactive, and was just bloody good fun dancing with people from all corners of the world.

Soichi with his board detailing that all-important hygiene advice! Alongside with the official Zoom party.

GIF source: E-Vela

In true Soichi Terada style, his set was definitely one of the most heartwarming performances to come out of this lockdown. If seeing his adorable smiling face whilst playing Japanese house bangers on his Kaos pad doesn’t make you happy, you’re inhuman.

Soichi kicked things off with a new collaboration with Shinichiro Yokota, under their new pseudonym Syst., called ‘Personal Hygiene Management‘. It’s a kooky little track reminding us to wash our hands, reduce touching our faces and of course, to not “hamster shop” – I mean, he’s got a point as all pet shops are closed!

From this, he of course jumped right into his classic house style with that infectious Eastern groove, slamming out his own classic productions from ‘Tokyo XXX‘ to ‘CPM‘, with the latter sampling the absolute classic Raw Silk track ‘Do It To The Music‘.

Soichi also treated us to a couple of new tracks including a forthcoming collab with Masalo coming soon on Rush Hour Music. Preview below:

Unfortunately, the Rainbow Disco Club stream is not available to listen again (you had to be there…!). Although don’t fret – you can check out more of Soichi’s tunes on Spotify.

4. june as (Frequent Defect) on Boiler Room: Streaming from Isolation with Ma3azef

With a spellbinding panoramic view of a misty Beirut sunrise, june as may just steal the crown from Rainbow Disco Club for the coolest stream location.

As part of the Frequent Defect collective, alongside fellow DJs Renata and h.w.g.a, he hosts parties showcasing the outer fringes of club music, ranging from experimental live ambient to grime and UKG infused with Arabic sounds. With their previous line ups including heavyweights such as Elvin Brandhi and 1127, it makes us want to flock to Beirut (after lockdown, of course). They even host meet ups for electronic musicians and sound artists, encouraging attendees to bring along their synthesisers to discuss their creative processes, which is awesome.

For this Boiler Room, both june as and Renata teamed up with Arabic Ma3azef magazine, alongside Cairo artists ZULI, Rama and EL Kontessa. Of course, with ZULI headlining we knew things would be a bit crazy and experimental (see his insanely mental tune ‘Trigger Finger‘, a favourite of the one and only Aphex Twin), but june as and Renata repping Lebanon were the two artists that impressed us the most.

The Beirut skyline waking up behind june as

Image source: Boiler Room/YouTube

Beginning with 15 minutes of beautiful, yet disconcerting ambient, I didn’t know which direction june as was going to head into at first. Things did turn out to be pretty heavy, but organic sounds were also prevalent throughout, dipping between beatless songs with strings and harder-hitting percussive techno with a clear Arabic influence.

As we moved into the second half of the mix, as the imminent Lebanese sunrise lit up june as’s apartment, things heated up quite a lot, with him dropping Drastik Adhesive Force’s drum workout ‘Blow’, and later ramping up the tempo with the galloping electro-shaabi of Amor Satyr and Siu Mata’s ‘Tachyon Particles’.

Our highlight though has to be him dropping a possessed edit of 90s dance classic ‘You Sure Do’, originally by Strike, which was deconstructed into oblivion.

5. Slikback at Club Quarantäne no. 2

Resident Advisor’s Club Quarantäne is arguably lockdown’s closest experience to the true clubbing experience so far. Their first event, held in week one of the UK’s quarantine, was a roaring success, hosting mostly techno DJs such as Bassiani resident Héctor Oaks, Randomer and Hamburg’s very own electro queen Helena Hauff. The experience was great, but the new and improved second edition brought even more to the table.

A virtual bathroom for which you had to wait in a queue for a virtual piss, a virtual bar and the all-important Zoom party were just a few new additions to the new event. I even managed to make the Resident Advisor Twitter and Instagram on a screenshot of the Zoom party…see the second pic below (my name is Katie Hughes for those who don’t know). Lol

The all-important Zoom party…the backbone of online clubbing!

The best improvement was the line up though, which included artists such as Medellín-based Julianna, REEF founder Darwin and one of our absolute fave producers and DJs at the moment, Nairobi-based and Nyege Nyege/Hakuna Kulala affiliate Slikback.

Slikback has been making huge waves recently, shaking up the festival scene last year playing everywhere from one of the circuit’s giants, Dekmantel, to Turin’s leftfield event Club to Club. His most recent release, a split 12″ with Soda Plains on Berlin’s PAN label, saw him unleashing a GQOM/gabber amalgamation alongside a chopped up dancehall/acid cut, blowing minds across different scenes.

The Kenyan DJ’s set was suitably deranged, being by far the most deconstructed set of the 42-hour marathon. Taking no prisoners, he stormed between his own productions (a hybrid of the darkest grime, trap and footwork you could possibly imagine) with songs such as ‘Kyokai’, COUCOU CHLOE‘s unhinged ‘Doom’ and a myriad of tunes from Shanghai-based label SVBKVLT taking centre stage, amongst other oddities.

The second half saw him dropping Italian artist Sethu‘s ‘Butterfly Knife’, a delirously twisted metal/trap fusion, into a flurry of indiscernable drums, causing some uninitiated Zoom party attendees to question whether to join another stream. Just in the nick of time though, a sneaky drop of DJ Rashad brought us all back together, as he always does (RIP, legend). Slipping in ‘Everybody’ (sampling the classic meme video ‘Best Cry Ever’) just before the end was a genius move.

Unfortunately, similarly to Rainbow Disco Club, Club Quarantäne isn’t available to watch again, but fear not as the next edition has been announced. You can catch it here on June 12th, 13th and 14th (line up TBA).

In the meantime, get your Slikback fix by listening to his tunes and mixes on his Soundcloud