Eight editions, three venues: Ranking the Nyege Nyege venues

Revellers at Nyege Nyege festival in 2023. 

What you need to know:

IRRESISTIBLE: It is post-Nyege Nyege Friday and for ardent festival goers, things were seen and analysed. Truth be told, the original Nyege vibe is gone and with the change of venues and trends, it looks like the festival might lose the old audience but find a new crowd, as Andrew Kaggwa reviews.

We shall not dare to retell the story of the Nyege Nyege International Music Festival. It was a passion project by expats Arlen Dilsizian and Derek Debru in 2013. But the festival did not start then; the two would throw parties in unorthodox places such as gardens, garages, and at times Tilapia, a then famous bar on Ggaba Road.

Like that, they had given birth to a Ugandan version of a rave. Nyege Nyege parties were wild, the music was different, and the party never stopped until the next day.

The energy and enthusiasm of the attendees were contagious, drawing in a diverse crowd of locals and foreigners alike. However, even when word spread about these unforgettable parties, the duo did not immediately jump on an opportunity to start a festival.

The festival is said to have taken shape when an opportunity presented itself. Many foreign artistes were going to be in Uganda for workshops and the team thought, instead of having them around doing only workshops, why not organise a festival?

Over the years, the festival has successfully carved out a niche as a place where outsiders’ music thrives. From electronic music subgenres to ethno music and now mainstream, the festival has seen it all.

When the first edition kicked off on October 16, 2015, it was held at a less known Nile Discovery Resort. The abandoned resort had most of its structures abandoned, visible burnt bricks and a few toilets. It was, however, a green park of sorts, with many flowers and grass.

Just like that, the festival had a home.

Since then, the festival has grown in popularity and now attracts music lovers from all over the world. With each passing year, it continues to showcase a diverse range of artists and genres, solidifying its reputation as a must-attend event for both established and emerging musicians. The festival’s unique setting was a charm, providing attendees with a picturesque backdrop to enjoy the music and create lasting memories.

Over the past two editions, the festival has moved homes to Itanda Falls in 2022 and Source of the Nile for the edition that ended on Monday morning. Everyone has a lot to say about Nyege Nyege, but we always have the final word: which of the three venues is the best, and why? 

Source of the Nile

This was the venue for the just-concluded edition of the festival. To say that the new venue was a hard sell would be an understatement. Much as it is easier to say the festival took place at the Source of the Nile, it indeed happened on a vast property that includes Nile Park, Jinja Golf Ground, and Jinja Agricultural Showground.

This is the first Nyege Nyege to happen in an already fully-structured venue - it has in the past been the ground for one of the Roast and Rhyme activations and has also hosted Vumbula.

The problem with this year’s venue started with the organisers intending to use much of it and thus spreading activities across a massive property. On the first day for instance, most of the revellers on arrival literally kept looking for the main stage in vain. Being told that it was about 20 minutes away got many of them demoralised.

The venue, unlike Itanda and Nile Discovery Resort, has a wide number of permanent buildings, some of which are offices, stores and restaurants. Throughout the festival, these buildings, as expected, were closed. The problem, however, at night, they became dark spots that seemed dangerous.

Why they did not think about lighting up the entire venue is hard to tell, but the lack of enough lighting, especially at night, dealt the vendors a big blow.

It was hard for vendors to catch your attention when you could not even see them to begin with.

Then, considering that the venue is already multi-purpose, it was hard for the organisers to turn it into whatever they deemed fit, yet this has been one of Nyege Nyege’s strengths over the years.

Turning an abandoned resort into an African Coachella or creating restaurant streets at a fall. Nyege Nyege operates with reckless abandon, yet at this venue, they were restricted. For instance, you are not going to let people walk over the golf course’s green.

Having to work with an established venue did not allow them to play with it the same way they had at their previous venues; the vendors were simply scattered, so that for most of the time, Nyege Nyege looked more like a trade fair than a festival.

The terror alerts by both the British and US did not help the situation; the place was already too big and the distance between the official festival parking and the first check point was already about 15 minutes in between. From there to the ticketing point, it was a very short distance. However, you needed at least 20 minutes to walk from the ticket area to the main stage and there was another security checkpoint in between.

Thus, someone who attended the festival at least spent one hour getting in and out of the venue on a daily basis.

Of course, there was an option of cutting the distance if one opted for a Safe Boda. As sponsors, there were parts they could access, but at the end of the day, we all walked to the main grounds.

The most annoying part was that unlike the past, where the Nyege Nyege approach has always been eat, drink, party, sleep, wake up, and repeat, this year’s edition changed all this. With camping off the festival grounds, it meant that at one point, when people were tired, they walked a whole 30-something minutes to catch a nap in a tent somewhere or a hotel. At venues such as Itanda and Nile Discovery, people would wake up and come back to the party. At the Source of the Nile, most people went back to hotels and later went to bars in Jinja when they woke up.

Thus, Jinja’s night scene past midnight had more Nyege Nyege wrist-banded people than the festival grounds.

Itanda Falls

This has since been the furthest the festival has been held. It is said it was only referred to as Jinja because the district stretches as far as the Itanda Falls.

But in reality, the venue was about two hours away from Jinja City. Yes, a whole two of them.

Before the event, the fear was that revellers would drown, but this had been managed by the organisers, who fenced off the entire area.

Just like the Nile Discovery Resort, Itanda Falls only existed as a tourist site. The festival had to reimagine the whole place and light it up to get it ready for the picture-ready backdrops.

Being two hours away from Jinja City, the Itanda Falls venue was perfect for people who come to the festival without intentions of leaving the grounds.

Itanda was so vast that walking between the stages was hectic as well. There was a whole detoxing staircase into what was the Bell Lager stage; it was long, and those that had taken more than enough liquor ended up sitting on them instead of climbing them.

Itanda Falls had only one entrance; the other was via the Nile and this made manning security a bit easy.

But what made Itanda gold was the business side of things; the place was two hours away from Jinja City, which meant that people were going to drink and feed entirely on the ground.

For many service providers, Itanda was heaven sent, for instance, its remoteness kept transport service providers in business with little talking and convincing. The fact that many people slept on the festival grounds meant that everyone was bound to run out of battery at one time or another. Charging services made a killing, and there was more money made from food and drinks.

But Itanda had a security crisis within; even when there was a heavy deployment, the number of thieves that managed to access the grounds and later terrorised revellers was overwhelming. Additionally, the lack of proper lighting along the stretch between the festival ground gates and the parking area made it easier for thieves to target unsuspecting individuals. This unfortunate situation created a sense of unease and insecurity among festivalgoers, overshadowing the overall experience of the event.

Nile Discovery Resort

When the festival started, it was tailored around the Electronica Boutiq nights that both Debru and Dilsizian used to host.

Nile Discovery embodied the DNA of Nyege Nyege, never so serious, half built structures, bare bricks, and urinals that cut out empty water cans. The place embodied creativity in ways that could only be imagined from lighting, set up and stage curation, as well as decoration.

Nile Discovery made you feel like a party was about to start; it made you feel happy and being a smaller space than the other two venues, walking from one stage to the next was never a commitment.

With the stage placed in a valley, experiencing acts on the mainstage never called for one to be near the stage; all you needed was to face it. The venue was close to the water, but never at any time was that side of the river barricaded; apparently, it was not deep enough to cause trouble. So many times on Saturday and Sunday, revellers sat on those stones in the river with their feet soaked in water. It was a vibe.

Nile Discovery Resort is actually not in Jinja; it is in Njeru, a bit hidden from the active part of the town but not so far to bar one from returning to Kampala even past midnight. It was easy to access because it was near, yet when one got there, they felt like they were hidden from the city hustles.

Every memorable piece of Nyege Nyege has a Nile Discovery thing to it, all the venues that have followed have been compared to the resort and even two editions after the festival left, its reputation is still with them.

Take the example of the Nyege Nyege girl whose picture was snapped in 2017. She was screaming with one hand in the air and another one raising a beer cup. The famous picture was recreated multiple times at Nile Discovery and guess what? Uganda Waragi’s Lemon and Ginger Nyege Nyege edition features branding that seems to have been inspired by the Nyege Nyege girl. 

And of course, Nile Discovery Resort was also the perfect definition of party, eat, drink, sleep, wake up, and repeat.

Its only shortcoming is that it could be too small for the numbers the festival attracts today.

The verdict

There are a few things we are sure of here. Talent Africa’s Ally Alybai, Debru and Dilsizian are reading this story.

Out of the three spaces that have hosted the festival, it is clear Nile Discovery Resort stands out for emotional, sentimental and artistic reasons. The place holds Nyege Nyege’s best memories, it was a festival ground long before it became a content creation avenue.

Nile Discovery Resort last hosted Nyege Nyege in 2019. After five editions, many had geared for the 2020 edition only for Covid-19 to strike. If you asked any Nyege Nyege ardent, this is one venue they would at least want a last dance with. This space was Nyege Nyege and Nyege Nyege was it, that makes it hard not to rank it above everything there has been.

Itanda Falls was rough on the edges but good for business, then there is the Source of the Nile. It may have been a good location, in Jinja on the source but has a lot of trade fair vibes.