“Kalemba” is one of the best-known pieces of electronic music recorded by African artists in the 2000s. Released in 2008, the track, with its unforgettable sound “wegue wegue” chorus was a dancefloor banger across Europe and the United States, and was part of the soundtrack for the 2010 FIFA video game.
It was not surprising to see the Angolan-Portuguese group Buraka Som System performing it a year later at Sonar, the Barcelona festival that today is one of the most renowned electronic music events in the world. Buraka was at the time the only one linked to Africa on the stages of Sónar. It was therefore quite surprising to see the same “wegue wegue” piece played last month at the same festival.
On the main stage of Sónar in 2022 there was pongo, the original singer of “Kalemba”. Not only was she delivering a healthy dose of nostalgia, but the 30-year-old artist was also launching some of his new singles to the crowded, open-minded audience at Sónar. This time, Pongo was not alone. Ten artists deeply connected to African music were lined up for this year’s festival. There was a new message echoing for 2022: African electronic music is the Western dancefloor soundtrack for the next decade – and African artists are taking the lead.
“It’s important to see African artists in festivals like this because the music comes from Africa,” says Pongo. “And from the very beginning, I see myself as an electronic music artist.” After a successful breakthrough in the late 2000s, Pongo went solo in an industry that cared about music radiating from African dance floors. Among several trends that are going on in the United States and Europe, Pongo’s Kuduro was a good choice of bets. But the following years showed that the road to the top was strewn with pitfalls. On both sides of the Atlantic, superstar/celebrity DJ phenoms have taken over the charts with EDM frenzy and the underground has sunk deeper into self-referential digital culture.
Photo: Vincent Ducard for Milgram Productions.
Of D’banjthe seminal afrobeats hit “Oliver Twist”, released in 2010, in Nyege Nyege first edition of the festival, held in 2015 in Uganda, African electronic music has opened a solid bridge to the West in recent years. Beyoncein 2019 Gift was one of the first records to draw inspiration from this massive wave of electronic music from Africa. That year, Pongo gathered the sounds that would build his next album, Sakidila, an afropop catalog that mixes reworking of Kuduro, melodious afrobeats vocals and notes of amapiano and baile funk. “Sakidila means ‘thank you’ in Kimbundo,” she says. “Africa as a whole is in my album.”
Born in Angola and raised in Portugal, Pongo found in France a pool of collaborators for the production of her album. Producer King Doudou and rapper Meryl are two of the artists who lent their musical skills to the singer during her solo debut. Connections like this are another important key to understanding the strength of African electronic music today. It is impossible to deny that the multi-million dollar industries based in Lagos or South Africa have been active beehives in providing a solid base for the growth of local electronic music groups. It’s also no surprise to see artists like DefJam and other related big names hitting the continent recently, once the hardest part of the job is done. But connecting the dots between Africa and the rest of the world has also propelled genres like Gqom or Kuduro onto the global dance floor.
Such an international enterprise is not uncommon today. This ranges from short-lived collaborations, such as Black coffee and Duckjoint work in the rapper’s latest album, Honestly it doesn’t matterto massive projects, such as Boddhi Satvafrom the trilogy—the album Demonstration released in June, sealed his ten-year oeuvre begun with his 2012 Invocation. More radical sounds also have their place in this sonic canvas. Nihiloxicaanother African electronic music group that performed at Sónar 2022,embodies this multinational entanglement on stage. The group is made up of Ugandan percussionists Isabirye Henry, Kasooma Henry and Mwanje Jamiru and British musicians Jacob Maskell-Key and pete jones. In Barcelona, they presented a set of feverish, genre-breaking sound pieces produced across the bridge between Uganda and the UK.
“Nyege Nyege has definitely created a scene in Kampala,” says Jones, who first landed in the Ugandan capital in 2017 with his friend Maskell-Key. Once there, the duo met the percussion group Nilotika Cultural Ensemble and launched the collective project. What could be a unique team has become a unique maelstrom of tangled drum cells, melodious synths and explosive Buganda percussion with a couple of EPs, an album out and another in the works. “We’re getting into a weird niche in electronic music festivals, that’s good,” Jones says. “And we have some tough songs, I watch the people in the crowd and sometimes they have a hard time dancing to our music!”
Bringing unusual and offbeat rhythms to the main stage is also a motivation for the Barcelona collective Yoko. In addition to closing one of the parties on the Boiler Room stage of the Primavera Sound 2022 festival, the five-year-old team also had a representative at the Sónar festival. This role was played by Mbodjan alias for Maguette Dieng, a Senegalese-educated Spanish DJ and one of the founders of Jokko. “When we created the collective, the music people were used to was traditional or modern African music, but nothing was up to date,” she explains. “We missed a place where we could listen to contemporary African music.”
In recent years, party collectives like the Spanish Jokko, the French The Creole or Canada Bootleg alcohol released the latest electronic music tracks created in African studios or throughout the Diaspora worldwide. While catering to younger audiences eager to find new music or connect to their roots, they also laid the groundwork for various black identities to set new club trends. “I think people are more open-minded to understand electronic music that‘s not made in Europe,” says Dieng. “And discovering new music is the most interesting thing about being in a club: the body learns different languages, different codes.”
Dieng believes that some bridges need to be crossed when it comes to merging African electronic music into the global club music landscape. A cultural agitator, she assumes that many European bookers cannot afford the visa and travel costs of African producers and DJs. At the end of the day, a party or a concert must also bring in money. On the other hand, there are those who see Africa’s leading club music artists as a temporary goose or exotic filler for more diverse line-ups. “Electronic music is a very lucrative industry right now,” says Nihiloxica drummer Jacob Maskell-Key. “And it’s still very hard to infiltrate these places, techno music, with our styles.”
With a decade-long career and several summer dates at festivals such as Afro-centric African Nights in Canada or the UK’s dancefloor-oriented Blue Dot, Pongo sees new horizons for African electronic music, but she’s not naïve. The artist recalls his performance during Portugal’s preliminary phase for the 2022 edition of the Eurovision music competition. With DJ marfox and singer Tristany, she performed the laced Kuduro song “DÉGRA.DÊ” and made it to the semi-finals. “It was great, we felt our music was included, it was part of Portugal,” she says. “But this is only the beginning. The question is: what next?”
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