Nihiloxica bring a raw hybrid clash of East African Ugandan traditional drums and Western electronic music. From the band's debut eponymous four-track project in 2017, the band (with the verve of the traditional Ugandan drummers from the Nilotika Cultural Ensemble) have bewitched and hypnotised with this fusion. In many ways, Nihiloxica are tantamount to a music epi-pen: administering adrenaline fuelled vibes straight through the chest wall-think Pulp Fiction (1994) and Uma Thurman.
Fired up by that first project the band (founded by Jacob Maskell-Key and Peter Jones) went on to drop another four-track project Biiri (2019). With cuts like the aurally expansive Baksimba the ep whet the appetite further. It was only a matter of time before the band released an album.
In 2020 and Kaloli is that debut album. From the get-go (with the intro cut Supuki) “dark” “sinister” undertones and rolling traditional drum sequences are underpinned by electronic sensibilities. It's an eleven track soundscape taking us on a journey of discovery. In turn we absorb the musical depths of Uganda: from the East-Busoga, from the North-Bwola, from central Uganda-Gunjula and from the West-Buganda. Immersed into Nihiloxica, far from being overwhelmed by the enormity of the energy, you find yourself wanting to stay in this afro-futuristic world.
With twenty tour dates lined up for this year abruptly postponed by that she-devil ‘Rona' it undoubtedly has put the proverbial spanner in the works: we wait in anticipation to hear that opening drum salvo. In the meantime, #itchysilk spent Skype time with Jacob Maskell-Key (aka Spooky-J holed up in Amsterdam) to discuss all things Nihiloxica.
In the beginning……….
……. before the band, the foundations for Nihiloxica had already begun with Boutique Electronic which started in Kampala. Boutique used to hold the Nyege Festival in this house. Before I got there, Ugandan drummers (as part of the Nilotika Cultural Ensemble) had been playing drums alongside the djs at the parties. That was the drummers first introduction into electronic music. When I first came to Uganda, I met Spyda, Jally, Isa and prince at the parties.
For me, while it was great having the drummers play alongside the djs, I felt uncomfortable. Producing something or djing and then asking some guys to put some drums down-it felt very sterile.
I came up with this idea for the project [Nihiloxica] after met up with Arlen who runs the Nyege Festival. We spent all night chatting about this idea and then it materialised from there. Eventually I started the band alongside Pete [aka pq] who plays synths. We brought our influences from electronic music and I brought my experiences in jazz and other music. Somethings can be hard to start but Nihloxica naturally seemed to work.
Jajja: sewing things together for a creative ensemble
The Nilotika Cultural Ensemble is run (and was created) by a guy called Jajja. He set it up initially as way to teach street kids tailoring. The hope being that these street kids could then set-up their own businesses.
Jajja is very much the mentor for these guys and I have a lot of respect for him. When I have had trouble with people, he is the one who can help sort it out. He was the one talking and helping to set up Nihiloxica in the beginning. All the guys in the band came up through that initiative and we as a band still donate some of our tour money to the ensemble. We also try and sell some of the tailored products while on tour.
Englishman in Uganda…….?
I grew up in China and I started playing the drums when I was nine. At the time I also played the West African drum, the djembe. At some point I moved to Shanghai (which has an amazing jazz scene) where I met this jazz drummer. In that period of time, I really did not like jazz but through him I changed my views on jazz and really saw what made it such a great sound and then I started playing it. Eventually I started to play jazz when I was fourteen and playing for the Beijing Philharmonic. I would not say I was a strict jazz player. I was not obsessed with jazz. It was a way to improve the way I played. My interests lay in African music and South American music.
Ultimately, I have had an interest in African music from a young age. As a kid, I studied West African music and djembe rhythms. The djembe is a serious instrument in West Africa, and you can go very deep into it. At the time however I did not know much of the East African music. When an opportunity came up to go to Uganda I decided to start looking into the music. From there I really developed a love for East African music.
Click, click, click…….
When I started the band, I really did not want the click-track [metronome]. I have worked on many different hybrid electronic projects and I have always hated the click track because of the rigidity. I was worried that our drummers (who had not used the click before) would find that regimented way of creating music difficult. Through working with the djs at Nyege however, they had already got used to that thing of keeping that slightly regimented timing. In the end, it was not a problem when we started recording.
For the first ep [Nihiloxica] we had to keep it anyway. We had written many complicated sequences and needed the click track to bring everyone back to the source. In the first ep, there are three tracks with auto click and one without which is Kadodi.
In the second ep we became more thoughtful in terms of using a click track. I think we learnt in the second project to distinguish clearly, when it was advantageous to have the click and when it was not. Now, I am the only one who has the click to keep everyone on time and my hatred of the click has decreased.
The pursuit of perfection….
I think there is a constant pursuit of improving. We started this project on a very simple premise: performing live percussion/acoustic instruments with electronic music in the most natural way. This happened on the first ep. Since then we have become more of a band and we write more together. We also bring many different ideas to the table. There are a lot of traditional rhythms but then Pete has brought in (for example) more metal type ideas. I think it adds dimension. The sound could get tired with the same sound set-up and palette. What keeps it interesting is just changing little parts from rhythm to sound textures. Of course, we don't want to change too much because the beauty of the band is its relative simplicity.
Knocking heads while creating bangers…
It is tough touring. We are on the road for two months, so we invariably knock heads and disagree on various shit. We have had some big arguments. Before we get on stage, we will be pissed off with each other. When we get on stage though we are all smiles and then all the prior issues are forgot. I imagine that is the way for loads of bands particularly when touring. I think the more we have been together, the better we have become at ‘getting along'.
A path of intensity leads to recording Kaloli in Bradford!
It was funny in fact. That whole first week was nuts. We did the Nyege Festival the week before. That was crazy. It was a draining experience. We had a few days off and then we flew to Spain to perform in the middle of this medieval town. Next day we woke up super early to fly to london. We went straight to sound check to do Print Works with Aphex. Then the next day drove straight to Bradford and went to the studios to start recording. It was not the happiest experience doing the Aphex performance because we were just so tired and stressed. It was a big show and the production was stressful. I think it was one of our worst performance (even though people liked it). I just felt we could have played better. You know we were tired……. then ending up in Bradford!
Finding sounds from the detritus…….
The new album features a split of brand new songs we wrote before the last tour-in fact, we performed them on our last tour. Then there are songs we have been performing for the last two years. Some of those older songs we wrote in our first meeting but had never got around to finishing them. Those songs have been road tested a lot.
It was helpful because we were able to see what worked and did not work. The other four songs -we started a tour (we did like two shows) and then we went into the studio. By the end of the tour, the songs were probably better. As a band, we practice a lot but much of our learning comes from performing the songs live. It really does strengthen the material. This year, we were looking forward to road testing material and then recording it for our next album.
Embracing the dark and sinister for joy…….
A lot of the music I write is dark and sinister. I lean to darker vibes. When I started the band that was the palette. You can say that many of the chords they use in Ugandan music are quite happy. They are usually used for celebration. I quite like turning that energy on its head and bringing that darker edge. Busoga in fact is a track which has a happier energy. It is nice because it is a nod to the more traditional energy of Uganda.
And a new album…….