Interview: Arlen Dilsizian, Nyege Nyege Festival Organiser (June 2016)


Uganda, in east Africa, is also known as ‘The Pearl of Africa’. The three day Nyege Nyege festival, this year on September 2nd-4th, is establishing itself as the new African home of global bass and contemporary world music.

Set in the lush, tropical environs of Jinja town, near the source of the Nile, an international conglomerate of organisers, DJs and musicians are collaborating with top labels and artists from all over the world to showcase the best in contemporary electronic music and worldbeat. International acts from Ghana, Mali, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Ethiopia and all across Africa will feature on an eclectic bill with artists from the USA, UK, Japan, Germany, Portugal and Trinidad & Tobago. The common denominator will be music of the African diaspora.

We caught up with festival organiser Arlen Dilsizian in Kampala in the middle of a studio session with Owiny Sigoma band member Jesse Hackett to ask what it’s all about.

RP: For people based in Europe and the “Western world”, what can they expect from the Nyege Nyege Experience?

Arlen: The most exciting new sounds boiling out of the African Continent on ten acres of lush tropical jungle on the River Nile. There will be new genres to dance too such as Balani from Mali, Hypco from Sierra Leone, Bacardi House from SA to name a few. People in Europe already following global bass music are likely to be familiar with some of our unique line-up. Although the festival scene is booming in Europe, partying in Uganda is a very different festival experience. The mood is reminiscent of the early days of Glastonbury, with a 3-day ticket under 40 euros and plane tickets also reasonably affordable.

This is also a chance for Europeans to meet their African brothers and sisters in a peaceful and happy setting, a way to build friendship and create a connection that lasts beyond the scope of the festival, and a great way to dispel some common misconceptions about Africa.

RP: What kind of people from what backgrounds are involved?

Arlen: The festival is run by a group of music aficionados who research and “dig” for new, exciting acts all year long. We are a group of Ugandans and Europeans who’ve been living here for many years. The festival runs a year-long residency program to foster collaborations and trainings, as well as parties and specially curated events.

RP: What’s the contemporary electronic music scene like and how important is Uganda to this Pan-African movement?

A few years ago, Uganda was still on the periphery of Nairobi when it came to electronic music, but over the last few years this has drastically changed. Nyege Nyege and our regular club nights Boutiq Electroniq have been instrumental in developing the scene here, by facilitating collaborations with African electronic music producers. We produced two tracks with BATUK that feature on their latest album, with some of our Ugandan and Congolese artists, we also organised collaborations with Kenyan producers Alai K and Jinku, as well as promoting local electronic music scenes from Uganda such as the Northern Uganda electro-acholi scene that is just waiting to explode!

RP: Have you experienced any resistance from locals?

Arlen: Electronic music has strong origins from Africa and its diaspora (Chicago House and Detroit Techno to name a few). Across Africa and particularly in Uganda, it’s often labeled “white people’s music” by local audiences more tuned into dancehall and lingala rhythms. However, this is changing, with African electro music like Kuduros, Kwaito, Balani, Funana, Hypco, Electro Chaabi all getting worldwide attention. Africa is catching up very fast and putting its own stamp on the global electronic scene.

RP: How far do you want to take this?

Arlen: We hope to grow exponentially in audience and line-up size, by constantly curating and looking for new acts. We want Nyege Nyege to be the leading reference for anyone following music from the continent, but also to create a network of like-minded artists who come to Nyege Nyege to meet their contemporaries from other African countries. Simply put, to create a global community of Afrosonic explorers and fans who will use the festival as an ongoing platform to push the scene forward, thereby making Uganda a world-renowned festival destination.

We also run a small tape label called Nyege Nyege tapes. In the long term we want Nyege Nyege to be a recognized platform for the most exciting music acts coming from the continent.

RP: Why bother?

Arlen: Many of the critically acclaimed acts we showcase often play in the West but too rarely outside of their own countries in Africa. To be able to present the best music the continent has to showcase in East Africa under one three-day platform is important in and of itself. Uganda has the second youngest population in the world and music and the arts are too often overlooked as a means to peace and economic development. By engaging with local audiences and artists, we hope to create a strong base for future generations to tap in and develop their talent.

RP: Is it just about music?

Arlen: Nyege Nyege is more than music and all out dancing, there are pop up studios available to all the artists before, during and after the festival, we also have a cinema that showcases documentaries and films on music made in Africa and by the diaspora. We are also a giant film set for the Wakaliwood crew headed by the African Tarantino, Isaac Nabwana, who shoots low budget action-packed films, and who “killed” over 100 festival attendees in last year’s edition for the film Nyege Nyege Island.

Nyege Nyege is also a platform for photographers, fashion designers and visual artists who contribute to the overall design and look of the festival. Finally, we hope the festival can become a fundraiser for year-long activities that support emerging artists and global collaborations.

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