Why heavy metal now tingles Africa’s spine

Members of Metal bands - Last Years Tragedy (LYT) in a performance. Formed by friends who met at university and had a passion for heavy music, LYT has been in the game for a decade now. PHOTOS / COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Although the heavy metal music genre is still perceived as a White man’s (muzungu) thing in Africa, it is slowly gaining popularity, with several bands and labels cropping up around the continent.

The mention of “Metal music” conjures images of American and European band members dressed up in their typical heavy metal fashion made of black clothes, long hair, leather jackets and vests, with band patches and logos, T-shirts with band names, spiked wristbands, combat boots, studded belts and bracelets, bullet belts, spiked gauntlets, and tattoos, among others.

Although the heavy metal music genre is still perceived as a White man’s (muzungu) thing in Africa, it is slowly gaining popularity, with several bands and labels cropping up around the continent.

Harvey Herr— the director of Obsydian Media/Bin Khalid Sonic Pollution (BKSP)—says the genre is more popular in Botswana, Tunisia, Kenya, South Africa, Angola, and Mozambique.

Some of the prominent African bands are Duma, RISH (Njeri Muchai), and Last Year’s Tragedy from Kenya, Vale of Amonition (Uganda), Overthrust (Botswana), and Dor Fantasma and Before Crush from Angola.

Under his BKSP label and studio (Realm of Mist), Herr has been releasing metal and other hard rock music from Kenya for a while. He is behind one of the bands currently making a splash worldwide—Duma (before they got picked up by Nyege Nyege Tapes).

The other labels on the African continent are Andromeda Records based in Kenya, and Mongrel Records based in South Africa.

Nyege Nyege Tapes based in Kampala, is a multi-genre label exploring, producing and releasing outsider music from around the region and beyond.

Duma—currently based in Kampala—has had a fully booked itinerary in Europe and North America this year, making them the most touring band in East Africa.

In effect mode

Martin Khanja (aka Lord Spike Heart) and Sam Karugu emerge from Nairobi’s flourishing underground metal scene as former members of the bands Lust of a Dying Breed and Seeds of Datura. Together, they formed Duma (Darkness in Kikuyu) in 2019 with Sam abandoning bass for production and guitars and Lord Spike Heart providing extreme vocals to the project.

Recorded at Nyege Nyege Studios in Kampala over three months in mid-2019, their self-titled debut album—Duma—fuses the frenetic euphoria, unrelenting physicality and rebellious attitude of hardcore punk and trash metal with bone-crunching breakcore and raw, nihilist industrial noise through a claustrophobic vortex of visceral screams.

The album, which was released in 2020, received positive reviews. The Guardian’s Ammar Kalia awarded the album four out of five stars, saying it birthed “an intriguing picture … that is challenging yet full of a depth that promises an exciting future for this nascent Kenyan scene.”

According to Nyege Nyege Studios, the savant mix of brutally adrenalised drums, caustic industrial trap, shredding grindcore inspired guitars and abrupt speed changes create a darkly atmospheric menace and is lethal on tracks like the opener Angels and Abysses, Omni or Uganda with Sam.

Nyege Nyege adds that the gruelling slow techno dirges and monolithic vocals on Pembe 666 or Sin Nature add a pinch of dramatic inevitability, bringing a new sense of theatricality and terrifying fate awaiting into the record’s progression.

“A sinister sonic aggression of feral intensity with disregard for styles, Duma promises to impact the burgeoning African metal scene, moving it into totally new, boundary-challenging experimental territories,” says Nyege Nyege Studios.

“I would describe the metal music that we play as experimental music. We experiment with electronic music sounds from industrial, breakcore and noise and also traditional African percussion and sounds with metal music, while also experimenting with themes in African folklore and Christian ties to it,” the producer and guitarist of Duma band, Karugu says.

Khanja, the band’s lead singer, says the music they produce embodies different moods “depend[ing] on the listener and the audience that receives it.” He adds that “for some it’s totally calming and ordelry, for others it’s pure chaos.”

LYT speaks out

Formed by friends who met at university and had a passion for heavy music, Last Year’s Tragedy (LYT) is a band that has been in the game for a decade now. The band members are Mahia Mutua (bass guitar), David Mburu (vocalist), George Atsula (drummer), Joseph Wangonya (lead guitarist), Ruto Kipkulei (keyboard player), and Ted Ngure (vocalist).

In a country where there are very few rock bands, not to mention heavy ones, it was initially difficult for the band to break through. LYT kept practicing and playing in various small shows and band battles, and in the end inspired other heavy bands to form and join the scene.

With lyrics that reflect their struggle with the human condition (everything from battling addiction to the scars of grief), LYT has consistently pushed a message of hope and resilience in these trying times. 

Amongst Lions is the first full length album from LYT and was recorded in Machakos, Kenya, and released in January 2021. It was produced by Andromeda Music. It includes tracks like 47, In Medias Res, Mammoth, and Pounds For Flesh.

The Powerslide metal band at a performance in Kenya recently. Photo | Courtesy

According to Djae Aroni, Amongst Lions is a testament to the band’s sheer quality when it comes to songwriting and performance. It also highlights the clarity of the direction of the band’s music, which—Aroni adds—“allows them to stand out from all the white noise.”

“Rock and metal have a more raw way of tackling subjects, feelings, vocals and instrumentation, which adds up to a one of a kind experience that most other genres lack,” Mutua says, adding, “Good music is good at the end of the day regardless of genre, though. We all came from different musical backgrounds—some classical music, others self-taught, others fans of various genres of bands and music and our shared interest in this music brought us together.”

Mutua also cites “different places” as sources of the band’s inspiration. These sit between “mostly metalcore and post hardcore.” The band members, he further reveals, “write music that we love and that speaks to us … we come from a point of positivity and honesty.”

As regards song writing, the best output is when they do it together “building off each other’s energy and ideas.”

“We bounce around ideas from themes or sounds from any instrument we have at the time or lyrics, then we flesh it out,” Karugu chips in, adding, “I produce it, and we polish it up into a finish song and find out how to play it live, then we release it either live or as a record release.”

What is heavy metal?

In his article titled “The History of heavy metal – origins, bands, and early influences”, Brian Clark opines that while heavy metal music “officially” teed off in the late 1960s, some earlier works of music were the main driver behind the birth of this genre. These songs included heavy guitar riffs and distorted sounds that led the heavy metal genre to evolve dramatically throughout its existence. It’s a pretty diverse genre with dozens of subgenres that continued to pop up well into the mid-1990s.

Metal music is characterised by fast tempo, heavy distortion, powerful rhythms, and dense guitar and bass sounds. The instruments used in heavy metal music include electric guitars, bass guitars, and drums. In some metal subgenres, bands may use organs, electronic keyboards, or other instruments, Clark adds. 

“The current state of metal in Africa is in a transition into entering the ‘music industry’ proper. Over the past decade there has been the start of investment from record labels, promoters, and advertisers,” Herr observes, adding that “in an odd way the pandemic helped many bands reach much larger audiences because suddenly there were more people listening and searching for music they had not come across, and it also opened the possibility of live streaming to a wider audience.”

Herr also cites “a second home-grown innovation” of Duma and specifically its producer Sam Karugu “who has managed to somehow produce the sound of a metal band out of his laptop … bring[ing] the cost of producing metal on par with any other genre.”

Karugu left Herr in awe not least because such an undertaking can end up producing a product that “sound[s] too much like electronic music.”

“Metal music in Africa has nowhere to go but up,” says Mutua, adding, “The potential is immense. There are bands bringing a new sound and feel to the scene and the stories that African metal have to tell are endless.”

Karugu told Sunday Monitor that he believes heavy metal in Africa is in a good place, with “bands like Vulvodynia … driving the genre to greater heights.”

Bottlenecks

On the flip side, Khanja says that there aren’t enough platforms, venues and events for metal bands to perform in Africa compared to Europe and the Americas.

“I’m from Kenya and we have regular clubs that host shows in rotation,” he notes, adding, “There’s a general need for this and I’d ask people to get involved and get active as there is demand for it.”

While Herr disagrees about the platforms and venues, he’s not in doubt about the scarcity of events. Kenya, he adds, has “one internationally organised event, Nairobi Metal Fest and a handful of self-organised small concerts.” This, he reckons, is down to the fact that the “production costs are very high to put a rock band on stage and few event promoters are willing to invest the required amount.”

“It’s really quite a complex affair to mix a metal band live and it requires a lot of instruments and equipment,” Herr reveals, adding, “It costs at least $600 to produce a metal show in Kenya, not including any fees incurred from the venue or the bands. So in most cases the revenue from the show will be on parity with the cost…”

When asked why metal music is not very popular across Africa, Herr replied: “I believe we won’t be asking this question in two or three years. There has always been an appreciation and participation of Africa in the global metal scene. Since its inception with Black Sabbath you had the co-incidence of Heavy Metal in Africa with W.I.T.C.H. (known as the African Black Sabbath) and Mosi-O-Tunya (who recorded in Kenya) from Zambia. It’s just been growing organically since then and now it is taken seriously by our musical brethren and sisters.”

The road ahead

The chief executive officer and festival director of Sauti za Busara, Yusuf Mahmoud, said: “I believe metal already has a growing following in several countries, including South Africa, Morocco, Kenya and Benin. As it stands presently, I doubt if this style of music will resonate with large audiences in other African countries such as Tanzania.”

On his part the managing director of the Kampala-based digital music distributor East African Records (EAR), David Cecil, said: “Metal is unlikely to grow to the extent it did in Europe or the US, as it has deep musical and cultural roots in those territories, connected to long-standing traditions of rock music as a form of rebellion. If it continues to develop in Africa, I think it will be mainly popular with middle-class music nerds who closely follow alternative European music and like breaking boundaries.”

On whether African metal bands should fuse this genre with local sounds in order to make it more appealing to their potential audiences on the continent, Mahmoud, says, “I believe if African metal bands were to fuse this genre with local sounds, it would be more unique and appealing to audiences across this and other continents.”

Herr says “bands like Arka’n Asrafokor from Togo and The Seeds of Datura from Kenya” long smelt the coffee and have consequently “been successful in reaching a large local and international fan base.”

Cecil, however, wants to particularly see “African metal and punk using African languages, instruments and rhythms.” While he doubts whether “this would turn it into a popular genre on the continent”, it is hoped that this “could create a new musical sub-culture attracting fans from abroad who would love to see African musicians breathing new life into the genre.”

Mutua agrees that “fusion of metal or hard rock with local sounds, be they traditional or modern can definitely open doors to new listeners and fans.” He nevertheless insists that the key goal of his band is “to make music that is most authentic.”

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