On this highlight from the Nyege Nyege Tapes label, Bamba Pana takes a more abrasive approach to Tanzanian singeli music: drilling synths and tinny drum machines played at impossibly fast speeds.
At first glance, Kampala, Uganda’s Nyege Nyege Tapes is representative of a widespread phenomenon of small labels across Africa and the African diaspora surfacing local sounds for a global public. Launched in 2016 with Disco Vumbi’s Boutiq Electroniq, an EP of chakacha and benga fusions titled in tribute to a club night at the center of Kampala’s underground electronic scene, Nyege Nyege Tapes might be compared to Gqom Oh!, an imprint dedicated to Durban, South Africa’s percussive gqom sound, or Lisbon’s Príncipe, a laboratory for a nascent mix of Afro-Lusophone styles known as batida.
But from the beginning, Nyege Nyege Tapes has cast a wider net than some of its peers, with a regional, pan-stylistic focus that often reaches beyond East Africa. Otim Alpha’s Gulu City Anthems reimagined traditional Larakaraka wedding songs for an all-electronic context, not unlike what Omar Souleyman did for Syrian dabke; the Los Angeles producer Riddlore’s Afromutations melded field recordings from his three-month residency in Uganda with hip-hop and club beats. A recent anthology of the mbira master Ekuka Morris Sirikiti’s radio broadcasts envisioned the thumb piano as something like an accidental cousin to Western strains of noise music. With the Sounds of Sisso compilation, the label turned its focus to the Sisso studio in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, where a group of producers is building upon the rapid-fire sound known as singeli, pushing short loops of tightly syncopated keyboards and percussion to a stuttering, hyper-speed blur.
Bamba Pana (born Jumanne Ramadhani Zegge) is another Sisso affiliate, and his take on the music may be even more extreme than the sound showcased on the compilation. Singeli itself is not an underground style; rooted in poor communities, it has become a major force in Tanzanian pop music. Despite the breakneck tempos, sticky synths and Auto-Tuned choruses keep the mood light; singeli videos, some of which have a million views or more, offer a mix of aspirationalist flash, astonishing dance moves, and even the occasional dab. But Zegge takes an edgier approach, highlighting abrasive textures that are a world away from the comparatively dulcet sound of Msaga Sumu, the self-proclaimed “king of singeli.” Bamba Pana’s cadences are relentless, with the tempo often hovering at warp speed; the knotty, skipping rhythms have a way of making the pulse feel even faster. And the needling electronic tones and bright, faintly dissonant keys only heighten the intensity of the experience, like a dose of laughing gas that makes the whine of the dentist’s drill that much more shrill.
Opener “Agaba Kibati” barrels along at 160-odd beats per minute, roughly analogous with footwork or drum ‘n’ bass tempo, with drum-machine congas, shakers, and woodblocks bouncing atop tinny synth stabs. It sounds a little like a Casio preset with the tempo fader pushed all the way up—an effect that faintly recalls the Dominican Republic’s speedy mambo de calle (or merengue de calle) sound—and a helium-tinged MC reinforces the sense that the playback speed is wrong. But the minute-long intro is just a warm-up: With “Biti Three,” we plunge into a bewildering, quadruple-time fugue state strafed with garish synths and sped-up yelps, hurtling ahead at more than 200 beats per minute. At that speed, the results sound more like a fragment of EDM that’s been sped up dangerously fast and then looped almost without variation or dynamics for nearly six minutes. It’s such an extreme proposition—so unrelenting, so in your face—that it makes the “deconstructed trance” of Lorenzo Senni and his peers look almost tame in comparison.
Most of the rest of the album cruises at that same dizzy altitude, though the palette varies with each track. “Baria” rolls out comparatively placid marimba phrases over jagged keys and rolling percussion, sounding like an Awesome Tapes From Africa cassette played back with a finger on the fast-forward button; “Jpiya” incorporates synthesized funk horns; and the shuddering “Kusini” combines a loping, batida-like groove with North African trills and a squealing synth effect straight out of Daniel Bell’s minimal-techno playbook. The tracks that feel most successful tend to be the most complex ones, which go zig-zagging unpredictably through different rhythms, melodies, and sound sets, often changing course with no prior warning.
One song, “Linga Linga,” is included in both instrumental and vocal versions, and there’s no doubt that the one featuring the Tanzanian rapper Makaveli is a lot more fun to listen to: His nimble delivery brings some much-needed dynamism to a beat that’s about as flexible as a diving board. Still, when confronted with a sound this unusual, it can be hard to know how to judge it in the first place: Does the brick-in-the-face overload of “Biti Three” represent a lack of dynamics, or is that unyielding onslaught the whole point of the thing? The closing “Poaa Bama Rmx” is flat-out mind-boggling, arraying stuttering vocal samples over loops so hyperactive they feel cartoonish. One wonders if, a generation or two down the line, these beats will simply sound normal, the way a once-radical genre like jungle does to many people today. Is this the sound of the future or is popular music’s quest for speed reaching absurd levels? But even at its most haywire, Bamba Pana’s music is so utterly joyful, it’s hard not to get swept up in its momentum.