African political techno

The evolution of techno, from within Detroit’s African-American community to Kampala, Uganda.

Indigenous Resistance mini-album cover. Design credit Dubzaine.

In the African futuristic track “Wire Cutter” by Sankara Future Dub Resurgence (SFDR), a group of musicians from Uganda inspired by the philosophy of the Burkina Faso revolutionary, Thomas Sankara, sing: “Yes I seek to inspire / Yes I move with guile / Underground Resistance my style.”

With their love of dub and experimental music, they decided to create a futuristic style of music that draws equally on ancient African knowledge. The video for “Wire Cutter” video was filmed in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. It’s a live recording, but it’s also more than that. “Wire Cutter” is a piece that calls viewers to look closely and notice the images layered throughout the performance space. It’s also important to take note of the space—the one and only Dub Museum.

For example, when the lyrics mentioned above are heard in the video, the camera zooms in on images of Detroit techno artists Underground Resistance (UR). The shot ends with a close-up of Cornelius Harris, a key member of the group. At another point in the track, where the lyrics state “We only fear fear itself, we only fear the collapse of the imagination,” an image of UR’s founder, Mad Mike, is foregrounded.

Images of other experimental musicians and socially conscious visionaries are also featured, such as Laraaji, Turiya Alice Coltrane, Cedric “Im” Brooks, and Audre Lorde. They coexist alongside photographs of ancestral shrines in Uganda, as well as Zar spiritual trance ceremonies in Ethiopia. Lastly, there is a special wall devoted to the West Papua liberation struggle.

The sonic anchor of “Wire Cutter” is as much about sound as it is about dub poetry and powerful visuals. Driving this narrative is an assemblage of minimalistic electronic noise and non-metric rhythms generated by Dhangsha. In between these sounds, one hears deliberate moments of deep meditative silence, raw and at times distorted African dub poetry vocals, and djembe-driven, percussive grooves created by SFDR.

When the djembe rises to the surface, it reveals acoustic drum patterns that are actually hand -to-skin translations of Dhangsha’s digital rhythms. This is more than simply a moment of “fusion;” it signals the completion of a musical cycle.

When enslaved Africans were forcibly transported to the Americas, they brought their music with them. During the course of almost 500 years, this music continued to change in response to the reality of violent oppression and social survival. For future generations, this music symbolized—and continues to symbolize—resistance, creativity, and the triumph of the human spirit.

The evolution of techno from within Detroit’s African-American community is an overlooked chapter in that story of resistance, but in “Wire Cutter,” a critical exchange takes place as this music returns to the African continent and is reunited with a group of African youth who naturally embrace their ancestral traditions, while looking clearly to the future with outernational vision.

Aniruddha Das, the creative force behind Dhangsha, explains this cycle further:

The flow of the same energy between Detroit and Uganda [gets] filtered by the diaspora currently based in Europe, [transforming] pain and searching and yearning into positive vibrations and frequencies and texts of resistance… Another SFDR track, “Two Thousand Seasons Dub“, really shows how Detroit vibes—specifically UR—are echoing now in Uganda to create an African political techno. It is also lyrically influenced by the anti-colonialism tome by Ayi Kwei Armah.

The first time I watched “Wire Cutter” and “Perfect Black Light” (also by SFDR), it felt like a work of science fiction, especially because of the setting. When you look at the settings of the videos, you see a community of people at the outer limits. They’re not connected to any scene because they are their own scene, and unlike the club scenes that most of us frequent, this is a scene that people actually live in. It’s not self-conscious. You can’t be self-conscious when you’re trying to get on with the routines of everyday life.

The sci-fi sense also comes from the fact that these are African people in settings that are neither metropolitan or rural. Again, they’re at the outer limits where no one—no tourists, that is—are likely to go. And here they are using technology, experimenting with it, having fun, being creative, and it’s obviously for themselves, and not for some festival-size crowd or even for the internet. But like I said: outer limits + technology = creativity. And that’s Afro-futurism.

Re wild
Re define
Re design
Thoughts from a Black anarchist mind

– “Perfect Black Light” (Sankofa Future Dub Resurgence)

The world of the Dub Museum, as captured in these two videos, is far removed from the downtown nightclubs, EDM festivals, and other places we usually associate with underground and experimental electronic music. These videos take you deep into the Kireka neighborhood in Kampala, the location where the SFDR music was recorded. This is a neighborhood with a food market, corner shops, plots where people plant food, a school for the children. A simple place of day-to-day living, and of struggle and survival in this African city.

The manner in which the Dub Museum was created—independently, and autonomous of NGO or political party support—certainly makes it flow with the ideals of Thomas Sankara and beyond. Filmmaker Eyi Safi, in the liner notes to a Sankara Future Dub Resurgence album, describes a typical day at the Dub Museum:

In one corner of the yard people were sitting around a fire that was going, listening to the music that was playing and chatting among themselves. Coming from the speakers one heard the Sankara Future Dub Resurgence track, then a roots reggae track by Gregory Isaacs was put on and this was followed by a heavy instrumental dub track by Augustus Pablo and then experimental beatless noise track from the Dhangsha cassette “Future Tense,” and throughout the evening this musical cycle would be repeated. Different musical styles from roots to experimental noise music played as a soundtrack to daily living as people prepared and cooked food, laughed, chatted and most importantly enjoyed music. Throughout the afternoon and night, various Dhangsha tracks were played …

During the rehearsals for the filming of the SFDR video, a beautiful scene was witnessed in the Dub Museum yard. An eight-year-old girl, whose mother makes and sells banana pancakes in the space adjoining the yard, was watching rehearsals. People said that she came to rehearsals every day because she just loved the music. The mix for “Perfect Black Light” was put on the sound system speakers that were set up in the yard. Out of the corner of our eye, we saw the little girl start dancing in perfect timing to this experimental music track! Whereas it might be possible that many adults would have difficulty and hesitancy on how to dance to this track, she had no such problem. She found her groove in the music and she was dancing, raptured in own journey with the track.

Not only had the music returned back to the African continent, but also it was now passed to the next generation or, as the Ugandan musicians say in the track “Perfect Black Light”:

In perfect black light
We see the dub seedlings grow
Apachita generation
the next generation
Jah know

Prasad Bidaye would like to acknowledge the dub guidance and resources of the Indigenous Resistance collective.

About the Author

Prasad Bidaye is Professor of English at Humber College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Toronto.

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