Nyege Nyege eager to return after forced lull 

Revellers have fun in the rain at the 2015 Nyege Nyege festival. Photos / Daniel Ecwalu. 

What you need to know:

  • Organisers say the festival—built on love, resilience and passion for music—will this year have a special emphasis on visual art installations, writes Bamuturaki Musinguzi.

The organisers of the Nyege Nyege International Music Festival are in upbeat mood as Uganda’s top arts event prepares to return to the entertainment circuit after a pandemic-enforced two-year hiatus.

The festival is slated to run from September 15 to September 18 on the shores of River Nile in Jinja District.

Organisers say revellers will celebrate more than just music. Afro-fusion cuisines, local and international beverages, as well as fashion displays will be on the cards.

According to a statement issued by the organisers, the festival—built on love, resilience and passion for music—will this year have a special emphasis on visual art installations.

There will also be an innovative stage design, a luxurious camping experience, and new tourism activities—such as rafting the Nile rapids all the way to the shores of the festival—to go along with.

The festival also will, for the first time, be staged on the shores of the River Nile, with a breathtaking forest opposite the majestic Itanda Falls.

By upgrading to a brand new site, Nyege Nyege is confident it will be able to offer revellers a more comfortable and safe experience while also putting Itanda on the map as one of East Africa’s most exciting tourism destinations.

The festival will also explore a hybrid combination of digital and in-person experiences.

There will be digital art exhibitions and augmented reality experiences, drawing on the festival’s Covid hybrid edition of 2020.

The highly-acclaimed edition brought together 40-plus collectives and was followed by over eight million people.

Conscious of the environmental impact of the festival, Nyege Nyege will partner with Bamboo Uganda to advocate for the use of bamboo and offset its carbon footprint by planting bamboo.

The final lineup for this year’s edition will be announced soon.

Derek Debru, the festival co-director, told Sunday Monitor that this year’s lineup will also be a showcase of the most exciting East African acts, along a pan African line up of the highest standard.

“This year, we will also integrate new activities such as rafting, quad bikes, workshops, sunset cruises and most importantly, improve drastically on our camping facilities, because remember, all the biggest festivals in the world [such as Tomorrowland, Coachella and Glastonbury] are all camping festivals,” he said, adding, “So if we want the festival to grow beyond Jinja’s accommodation capacity, we must bring a top-rated, safe and comfortable camping experience to our guests.”

This year’s ticket sales started on May 16 from the festival’s website—www.nyegenyege.com. For the early birds, a ticket for East African citizens (Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania) is going for Shs130,000. Elsewhere, non-East African citizens have to fork out $95 (about Shs354,000). The ticket is valid from September 15 to September 19.

Dress rehearsal

Nyege Nyege and Pan African Music will present the pre-festival roundup at Le Point Fort d’Aubervilliers in Paris, France, on July 16, as an appetiser to this year’s festivities in Uganda and a window into the full spectrum of the Nyege universe. Hibotep, Otim Alpha, DJ Diaki, Turkana, Singeli Sound System (Jay Mitta and Friends) and R3igndrops will be playing at the Nyege Nyege Festival Paris.

Commenting on the festival’s seven-year journey, Debru, says: “It’s been very hard is the least we can say, but also very rewarding. Many artistes have benefited from it, the amount of jobs created by the festival is very important. Uganda has gained a lot of visibility from it, and people from all walks of life have said it was a life-changing experience.”

He hastens to add: “Of course, not being a commercially-driven festival, it’s been hard to make ends meet. But we feel we are on the right path, and we look forward to the next 10 years.”

Debru laments the poor funding of the cultural sector and the fact that most Ugandans cannot buy tickets.

He notes: “I think our biggest problem is that most people can’t afford tickets. So, now we are reaching out to other Ugandans to discover the festival and alternative East African music. It is part of the conversation.”

“There is no money put into culture in Uganda, so culture becomes a luxury for the middle class. At the core of our business vision is to consider culture and the arts as an impetus to the economy. If we can create a base for employment then that is great,” he adds.

To show how competitive the pricing is, Debru says Nyege Nyege tickets go for the same asking rate as an evening Blankets and Wine experience. He also adds that the pricing accounts for a third of what white water rafting costs.

South African rapper Maya Christinah Xichavo Wegerif, known professionally as Sho Madjozi, performs at a Nyege Nyege festival

“The number of people who are interested in this kind of festival experience are very few. But we try to bring on board a new market of people who can afford to buy tickets. Somebody has to contribute so that the artistes and organisers get paid for this experience,” Debru says, adding, “When people buy tickets, they want the festival to continue and things can’t be given to them for free.”

Bigger, better

Ali Don, who has attended the festival four times since 2016, told Sunday Monitor, thus: “Every year, this festival gets bigger and there are different changes and settings. The toilets and showers are better this year than last year, although it has become more expensive as well. But if you have come out of the city for fun, why not? Why not refresh your mind by spending Shs1m for three nights and four days? That is okay. Leisure has to be paid for.”

Davis Kana, aka Rasta Kana, who has also attended the festival four times since 2016 said: “The first and second editions were not well promoted, but the entertainment and fun was good. There were no good toilets and showers then, but with the third, fourth and the fifth editions, they were better. The good thing is that the people are themselves and carefree and stress-free.”

Unique festival

As to what makes this festival different from the others, Debru, says: “Its programming and the venue makes it special because the source of the Nile is the main artery of the continent. It is a source of hope, ideas and inspiration.

“The festival goers who understand what we are about come to recharge and get new ideas, to feel happy and alive, and make memories.”

As to the public’s reaction to this festival so far, Debru, observed: “It started with a lot of rumours and fake news about what was really happening at Nyege Nyege, maybe because of the name and its sexual connotation in certain languages, but every time someone came at Nyege Nyege, they realised it wasn’t what they thought, and most of them actually had the best times of their life...”

According to Debru, the most important milestone of the festival is the touring acts from East Africa.

This is purely as a result of them performing at this festival.

The acts include DJ Kampire and Alpha Otim from Uganda, as well as DJ Slickback from Kenya, among others.

Finding middle ground

One day, before the fourth edition in 2018, the then Ethics and Integrity junior minister, Simon Lokodo (RIP), banned the annual festival. He alleged that it was “promoting homosexuality and immoral behaviour” in Uganda.

The ban was later rescinded after a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between Uganda Police Force and the organisers of the festival.

Under the MoU, the government prohibited any kind of ‘immoral’ behaviour at the festival. Police officers also have unfettered access to the venue and facilities. 

Recalling Lokodo’s attempt to ban the festival, Debru said: “It had a positive impact because of the negative publicity. The problem is that it created a lot of problems and confusion among the people who had never come here. They thought it was a place full of naked people.”

Unesco holds that festivals are vitally important in any community since they showcase culture and creativity. The UN body also notes that festivals are the cornerstone of economic development strategies to attract tourists. But governments often lack the tools necessary to measure the full impact of such multi-faceted events.

African governments have particularly come under criticism for not supporting the cultural and creative industries, preferring to concentrate on other development priorities.

“It really depends from one country to another, but in East Africa, leaders have yet to understand the enormous economic impact of festivals,” Debru said, adding, “Nyege Nyege alone brings back an estimated $3m (about Shs11.2b) to the economy, directly and indirectly. Countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and Egypt have a history of supporting the arts and that is why we see the creative industries being much more developed there.”

Costly undertaking

Asked if Nyege Nyege has received support from the government and what form this support should take, Debru replied: “We have never received support, other than being awarded the tourism event of the year, and with helping to facilitate security by helping us liaising with the ad-hoc authorities. The first step should be for the government to offer official support to the festival and acknowledge its benefits.”

He added: “If the government were to include boosting the creative economy as part of its economic development policy, I think it would change everything. Uganda could be prime for welcoming festivals from all around the world looking to expand, but also support festival entrepreneurs locally.  Supporting education is also important, having modern music, film and design schools, for example. Including stakeholders in developing the right kind of policy is important and developing infrastructures that can help many creatives at once.”

In its five years of existence, Nyege Nyege has consequently never managed to break even five years since its inception.

“The main challenge is liquidity because your ticket income comes in late and your sponsors often pay very close to the event, or even after the event is done, but there are a lot of expenses that come in early,” Debru says, referring to booking flights, hotels, building infrastructure, website, among others.

He adds: “Plus, you need to make the ticket somehow affordable because there are additional costs to the attendees [such as travel, accommodation, drinks and food, which make festivals generally a relatively expensive event.”

Future plans

Derek Debru (pictured), the festival co-director, lists artiste fees, security, production (stage and light) and generators as the items consuming most of the revenue generated for the Nyege Nyege festival.

On the sustainability plan for the festival, Debru says: “Ideally, it would be great to own your own land the way Bushfire has done in E-swatini, developing infrastructure over the years rather than spending every year. It’s also important to be able to do more than one event a year so that a festival can keep staff all year long and leverage its expertise. Right now, we are in talks of doing a Nyege Nyege in Cameroon and in another East African country.”

He adds: “Adding revenue streams such as merchandise is also important. In our case, the festival is part of a larger ecosystem that supports emerging artistes by inviting more than 40 festival programmers and bookers from all around the world. We guarantee artistes a level of opportunity that other smaller events cannot offer. This way, we are able to utilise the festival as a launch platform for artistes.”

Asked about the future plans for the festival, Debru says: “We have big plans, first of all, coming back after a two-year hiatus with a completely new site, new stages, and new experiences, keeping Nyege Nyege on top of festival goers’ bucket list. Nyege Nyege currently also curates stages at festivals around the world, and the Ugandan edition will be soaring again. We would like to offer a similar experience to different African countries, as well as bringing the festival outside the continent in order to give artists new opportunities. Building a strong and reliable team and solid lasting partnerships will also help us grow.”

About the festival

Started in 2015, the Nyege Nyege Festival is now considered the most important international music fete in East Africa. It is renowned for having a semblance of curation and the unique East African party vibe.

With more than 200 shows internationally, the festival and its associated labels and collective have defined the vanguard of new sounds emerging from the African continent. Fest300, a San Francisco-based company that publishes an annual list of the 300 top festivals, named Nyege Nyege among the top 30 new festivals in the world for 2019. Fact Magazine described the festival as “the world’s best electronic music festival.”