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Ekuka Morris Sirikiti - Ekuka Music Album Reviews

In a departure from its typically cutting-edge electronics, the Ugandan label Nyege Nyege Tapes unearths vintage recordings of an mbira master whose lo-fi sonics are every bit as arresting.

If you’ve ever thumbed a metal comb, flicked the tab atop a Coke can, or run a stick along a wrought-iron fence, you know the visceral pleasures of making metal sing. It’s a sound that has long fascinated musicians, children on playgrounds, and even our ancestors: Early metal-tined lamellophones found in Africa can date back 1,300 years. The buzz of those instruments, and its inharmonic overtones, carry an especially hypnotic charge. You can hear thumb pianos, mbiras, or kalimbas—the name varies, but the principles are the same—plink and twinkle through the music of Björk, Earth, Wind & Fire, Pharoah Sanders, Konono No°1, and Four Tet, to name a few.

The instrument can be heard in most field recordings made in Uganda spanning the 1950s through the 1970s, but this collection of radio sessions from Ekuka Morris Sirikiti, a legendary griot in Northern Uganda, presents his mbira in far scruffier yet mirthful settings. Originally broadcast on Ugandan radio circa 1978-2006, Ekuka is a rare vinyl release from the upstart Nyege Nyege Tapes, which has so far released just over a half-dozen tapes documenting the modern scene in Kampala, and it also marks the label’s first archival release. Just what connects the gabber-speed frenzy of their Sounds of Sisso compilation and the Spartan synth tessellations of Jako Maron to these mbira performances might not be evident at first, but Ekuka is a paterfamilias to the new wave of rappers and producers hailing from Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya.

With the reign of General Idi Amin in the ’70s and the civil unrest that has erupted in the country in the decades since (most recently with the brutal beating of parliament member and musician Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine), that Ekuka didn’t have access to proper recording studios isn’t so surprising. While the set says the recordings are taken from radio broadcasts, that’s not quite true; the tapes don’t originate from any station’s archives but rather from recordings made by listeners at home. Which means that the cycling rhythms and percolating twangs of Ekuka drift through an array of radio static, lo-fi hiss, and distortion. “Pwan En Obalo Gum Waa” arrives submerged in sludge: Ekuka’s growls disintegrating in the red, the wind brushes against the mic like white noise gauze, yet his nimble mbira lines bob up like quicksilver in pea soup. Same goes for the melodic distortion of “Pwoc Bot Lira Dpi Miyo Pikipiki,” Ekuka’s voice muffled and the mbira galloping, blurry as a watercolor.

Distorted thumb piano is nothing new, as the mighty Konono No°1 and their audience well know, but this set doesn’t quite belong in that category. If anything, it feels of a piece with the other artists on Nyege Nyege Tapes, who utilize whatever gear they have at hand to push the sound somewhere new and undetermined, rolling with the grit and the glitches. Another important aspect of Ekuka’s performances sets them apart from contemporary releases on the label with a more heavily electronic bent. As the liner notes explain, Ekuka’s nonstop patter could cover an array of topics: Be a good husband, take your kids to school, and whatever you do, don’t upset your son’s wife. He also set government PSAs to music, whether they be about preventing the spread of venereal diseases, not drinking alcohol to excess, or paying taxes. The metallic flutters of “In Balonyo for Ayinet” are dizzying enough; then, near the song’s end, Ekuka’s punchlines land, setting off a crowd that bursts into wild laughter—a sound that adds yet another visceral thrill to the music.

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