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: