In Nakibembe, a small village in Uganda's Busoga kingdom (one of the country's four remaining constitutional monarchies), locals have long reserved a communal area for musical performances and social events. In the middle of this space lies a deep pit that serves a single purpose: to amplify the embaire, an immense xylophone made up of between 15 and 25 wooden keys that stretches across the trench. Log xylophones are common throughout East Africa, but the way the music is played by the Basoga - an Eastern Bantu ethnic group - is specific and unique, with its own tuning, dances and supplemental instrumentation. Up to eight players can surround the embaire and play simultaneously, overlaying hypnotic polyrhythms while additional members of the ensemble add vocals or play shakers and drums.
Nakibembe Xylophone Group are one of the last remaining groups that perform with the embaire, and as anyone who's caught their live performances will know, they create a complex and layered wall of sound that's completely transfixing wherever it's presented. The band are a regular fixture at Nyege Nyege festival, and in 2020 appeared in Berlin at the legendary Berghain nightclub alongside Jakarta-based vanguards Gabber Modus Operandi and Harsya Wahono. On the group's debut album, they present five tracks as an ensemble and three tracks in collaboration with Indonesian trio. Heard together the music demonstrates not only the remarkable sound of Nakibembe's own kinetic interaction, but sonic ripples that correlate with more distant forms, from Indonesia's metallophone-led gamelan music to the heady digital processes of the sound art sphere.
Undulating eight-minute epic 'Omukazi Iwe Ongeyengula Nguli Zna Ntyo Bwenkola' draws us into the album, offering the perfect introduction to Basoga musical traditions. Triplet-led melodic percussive phrases provide an ever-fluxing backbone, leaving space for call-and-response vocals in Lusoga and shakers for rhythmic clarity. 'Omulangira Mpango' develops the scope even further, pushing up the tempo so the notes and patterns almost blur into clouds of bubbling harmony. It's not difficult to notice how these sounds have seeped into the framework of Western experimental and electronic music, and hearing them presented without corruption only serves to confirm how rare it is to connect with the source. And when Nakibembe do correspond with outside influences, the bond is mutual and synergistic.
The group needed to work out a way to combine their techniques with GMO and Wahono's own musical approaches, so they fitted the embaire's keys with audio-to-MIDI triggers that allowed them to capture the instrument's swing without drowning out the sound itself. Then, Nakibembe recorded a series of freestyle performances that would demonstrate the range of the instrument; Wahono and GMO took these recordings and the MIDI data and used digital processes to distort and shift the sounds into dangerous new places, adding vocal improvisations from GMO's Ican Harem. The Indonesian trio wanted to explore a more minimalist approach with Nakibembe, and on '140' do exactly that, slowing down the whir of embaire clunks to a crawl and adding sporadic squeals and punctuating bumps. '160' is even more unexpected, losing the embaire completely and feeding the raw drum data into synthesizers that pop and squeak with the same unmistakable energy.
But it's the final track '133' that really seals the deal, opening on a sober narrative from Ican Harem that addresses the parallels between Indonesian and Ugandan folk traditions before exploding into a trance-like fusion of serpentine polyrhythms and disorienting vocals. Listening to the album is like hearing the past, present and future aligned; dance music is neither static nor bound to its contemporary apparatus, and conversation rather than colonization can stretch concepts beyond phony borders.