ANTI-MASS: From Uganda Into The Unknown
Electronic music has experienced something of a reckoning with the non-Western world. After so many years – decades, even – of imbalanced representation that favored US and European artists, globally networked communication and connectivity has helped certain regions and cultures enjoy more widespread exposure. These developments have in turn helped to energize local scenes and fuel new ideas. Uganda and East Africa is certainly one of the best examples of this phenomenon, with a huge upsurge in youthful, exuberant music which operates on its own terms. It’s impossible to mention this moment without referencing Nyege Nyege, the festival and label founded in Jinja, Uganda in 2015 which has helped provide a platform for many local artists while connecting them with the international scene. But from the foundations of that success have sprung individual artists and crews inspired and motivated to define their own creative visions, and principle amongst them is ANTI-MASS.
As a queer collective within a society still plagued by extremely hostile policies towards LGBTQIA+ people, ANTI-MASS fight to exist and hold events in Kampala and beyond. This urgency manifests in their music, which they produce and perform individually as well as collectively. It’s a sonic patchwork in which you can hear codes from established electronic music, traditional East African rhythms and explorations into noise, all fed into a fluid yet focused whole which reflects the spirit and energy of their parties. At the core of the collective are Authentically Plastic, Turkana and Nsasi, three friends bound by their appetite for new ideas in electronic music.
Turkana & Authentically Plastic’s “Diesel Femme” draws equally on industrial, techno and gqom and begins with the simulated revving of a motorcycle engine
Although ANTI-MASS are queer by nature, they don’t work in absolutes in terms of the crowd they reach out to. This has a dual purpose, both to promote a sense of openness at their events, but also to help divert attention from the authorities. Their parties have consistently needed to change venues every time to avoid being raided. “When we started, we wanted ANTI-MASS to be open to a mix of sexualities,” explains Authentically Plastic. “When straight friends of ours would come, it made it hard for the crowd to be categorized, which was a bit safer to the police. But a lot of the venues we used to gather around have closed since the pandemic.”
“The kind of people that come to our party is really a mix, because it's a community of music,” points out Turkana. “Because we work with Nyege Nyege, it’s not usually a straight-up queer party, but we try to be careful with security and get a really good person on the door in case the police come, and we pay attention to who we are sharing the news of the party with.”
While they have to operate with care given the context of repression in Uganda, declarations of identity are at the heart of ANTI-MASS and everything they do. Authentically Plastic in particular has a striking approach to fashion which defines their public persona, as brilliantly demonstrated on their performance from Nyege Nyege Festival 2019. As well as their outfit, they also glide through sounds with an instinct which doesn’t acknowledge genre barriers in the same way most Western audiences do, in turn creating a wholly unique demonstration of what club music can be through the Authentically Plastic lens. It’s a spirit which extends throughout the crew.
“When you book me I'll play something different from what [Authentically Plastic] will play, from what [Turkana] will play,” explains Nsasi. “In a way, you cater to almost everyone differently, but without having to lose your identity. We try to maintain a certain sound for a certain crowd, to communicate with our people, but we don't have to write on posters it's a gay party or something like this. With the social aspect, we've surrounded ourselves with people that understand our identity, and so we have a strong way of communicating this without having to say.”
“I think sometimes Western people get a bit confused listening to the way we play,” says Authentically Plastic. “In Nairobi one time, I had somebody from Europe comment that the music was really unusual for him because he was hearing very different things that in his mind should not go together. I think we come to electronic music right now with a kind of innocence, not knowing really what the categories are, we’re able to make connections between sounds that are not about the genre. When I play a jungle track and then a gqom track, those are different worlds but there are connections I'm picking up on, and I’m working out how to make those jumps between worlds and do it with style, basically.”
Of course the advent of internet communication brought all kinds of electronic music from around the world within reach as Authentically Plastic, Turkana and Nsasi developed their own individual interests in DJing and production. As well as a bedrock of South African gqom and kwaito, you can hear threads of jungle, techno, industrial, acid and other Western styles feeding into their sets, but of course there are more immediate influences which stem from closer to home.
For Authentically Plastic, it was seeing traditional concerts in school such as the larakaraka dance from Northern Uganda. “It's basically lots of different instruments coming in one by one and elements piled on to each other until it builds into this really intense sound. I consider that to be one of my first experiences of dance music,” they explain. Nsasi and Turkana mention lingala, a dance music originating in the 1940s in the Congo, and Arabic music from South Sudan, but ultimately they all agree on a shared commitment to entering unexplored realms within music rather than consciously channeling what has come before them.
“For me, being interested in electronic music began when I went to Nyege Nyege and ANTI-MASS, before I was a DJ,” explains Turkana. “I was really mind-blown because the music is really free thinking. To go out to those spaces, I could feel there was freedom in expression of sound, it wasn't compromised. I just found that space made it comfortable for me to be creative.”
Turkana first engaged with DJing during a one-day workshop, and spurred on by words of encouragement, she proceeded to explore the potential of Live and making her own music. She and the others all readily credit Rey Sapienz as a vital force in teaching production techniques to the underground electronic music community in Kampala. Sapienz is himself a self-taught producer, having immersed himself in Live from 2017 and now passing on his knowledge through workshops and offering a platform in the Hakuna Kulala label he helped establish. While developing her own approach, Turkana also met Authentically Plastic and Nsasi out and about in Kampala, and the three realized their shared vision for the music they wanted to make.
ANTI-MASS released their first individual tracks on a Nyege Nyege Tapes compilation in 2020, and just this year Authentically Plastic released their debut solo album Raw Space on Hakuna Kulala, but crucially they’ve presented themselves as a collective with the DOXA EP, marking the start of ANTI-MASS as a public entity beyond the color and chaos of their parties. Working solo and in tandem with each other, the tracks on DOXA emerged from the extended pause of lockdown, when they sat down and listened to each other’s music extensively and realized they could help each other grow through unity. What’s most noticeable is that, for artists relatively early in their journey as music-makers, everything sounds incredibly intentional and clear-sighted.
Download a selection of loops and samples from ANTI-MASS’ DOXA EP
Please note: this material is for educational use only and cannot be used for commercial purposes.
“It was super organic,” says Nsasi about the decision to develop the collective and pull DOXA together. “We were pretty much already hanging out in the same spaces, going to the same parties, and we understood the need to grow as artists and contribute to each other's growth. So this led to conversations like, ‘wow, maybe from these listening sessions and what we've worked on together we could also introduce our sound to the world.’”
Authentically Plastic & Nsasi - “Galiba”, the lead-off track from their DOXA EP
Across the six tracks, we get an insight into the sonic values ANTI-MASS hold dear. Each piece has its own unique quirks, and the logic binding them together is a natural reflection of their DJ sets and live performances. At all times, the rhythms keep you on your toes, sometimes running in two directions at once or ready to switch up unexpectedly. That’s especially true of opening track ‘Galiba’ by Authentically Plastic & Nsasi, which manages to be both searingly intense and light footed in the same instance.
“That track we worked on together was inspired by an intense psychedelic experience we had on the lake,” says Authentically Plastic. “It was like a ritualistic experience,” continues Nsasi. “We were trying to bring out that intensity that comes with these different traditional drum patterns for rituals and celebrations. It can be interesting how a sound from Eastern Uganda works together with a sound from central Buganda. There is an interesting character which comes out when the sounds work together. “I actually played ‘Galiba’ at a few parties in Nairobi around the release of the album,” they add, “to just look at how the crowd reacts to that track, and it always brought out an intense energy. Everyone relates, because we're working with different tribal, traditional sounds, and they mean different things depending on where you come from.”
Percussion is the primary focus of the ANTI-MASS sound, and greater control over drum manipulation in the heat of a party is always desirable. To that end, Nsasi has been exploring the expressive potential of hybrid live-DJ sets at ANTI-MASS and elsewhere. Their set-up involves running Traktor Pro for the more typical DJing part of their performance, which is synced to Live running a project of individual production stems. These stems come out of the DJ mixer through their own channel, giving Nsasi a chance to blend particular sounds from their projects into the other tracks they are playing.
“It’s just about wanting the freedom to work with any kind of sound when I want it,” they explain. “Sometimes when you're playing there is some sound you want to hear amidst a transition. It gives me freedom to play around and explore how I am inspired in the moment. I feel it's easier to also connect with crowds.”
For Authentically Plastic, the chance to experiment with polymetric rhythms is a fundamental part of the production process – one which you can hear throughout Raw Space, as well as on their solo and collaborative tracks on DOXA. In particular, discovering they could change the time signature within a Live project and layer up parts with different meters was a major breakthrough.
“I don't remember when I first discovered you could do this,” they explain. “I think it was from our friend Rey Sapienz, who is always the one who teaches us all this stuff. I came from the perspective of wanting a rhythm that feels like it's loose and constantly changing, similar to the way lots of the rhythms from back home are. Any musical device that's going to allow me to jump from one rhythm into the next one is something I really want to explore. So it’s something I do a lot, changing time signatures, and also just layering different rhythms on top of each other.”
Authentically Plastic’s “Sabula” – overlapping time signatures produce a constant sense of movement
Look no further than Sabula for proof, as the initial 4/4 thrust of the kick gradually gives way to fluttering triplets and industrial formations falling in their own time signatures, elegantly moving the focus of the groove in different directions for a disorienting end result. “I think ‘Sabula’ was jumping between a three by four and four by four rhythm, and at some points they're laid on top of each other,” they explain. “I don't have any classic music education. I think it just comes out of experimenting and going with what sounds good for me.”
As well as in their productions, the tension as time signatures slip and collide in Authentically Plastic’s sets is equally part of the thrill, sometimes teetering on the edge of chaos and adding a sense of unpredictability to the situation. “I think for me, creating that tension between these four by four rhythms and something else on the dance floor is really interesting because you're playing with what is familiar to most people and also pulling them a bit into the unknown. I like that tension a lot. One of my ultimate goals is for the audience to go there with me, because I guess it can be a bit challenging for most people who are used to four by four rhythms.”
Turkana’s “Influencer Convention”
Turkana equally displays her own affinity for angular rhythms in her productions, but one of the most immediate qualities that comes through on tracks like ‘Influencer Convention’ is the constant presence of moody pads and textural work holding the tracks together behind the beats. Even if they are subtly buried deep down in the mix, these elements are a vital tool in setting the atmosphere around her tracks.
“I’m really interested in drones,” she admits. “Usually when I'm working, I like stretching drone sounds from, let's say Reaktor or Maschine, and then working with it in Live and trying to get a bit of a rhythm to it. I’m into the idea of opening up sounds in Live and creating in free-flow without expectations. I tend towards layering sounds with a darkness to them, sometimes industrial or heavy,” she adds. “Like the kind of motorbike sound at the beginning of my track with [Authentically Plastic], I don't know why but I'm drawn to these harder, more intense sounds.”
It’s worth noting this tendency towards harsh tones and textures in the ANTI-MASS sound isn’t one-dimensional, and there’s equal space for playful flamboyance in reflection of that aspect of their respective personalities. “If something is dark, it doesn't mean that you can’t be playful also,” says Authentically Plastic. “There's also room for humor within dark sounds, and I like when people walk that line.”
“Grind” by Nsasi - intentionally messy, dark and playful
“I think that's what I always try to relate with whenever I'm doing my production,” agrees Nsasi, whose own outwardly spooky ‘Grind’ track on DOXA has an unmistakable playful energy. “I don't want to be intentionally neat. I want to break some rules and have fun.”
There is a sense the music ANTI-MASS make has a necessary edge due to the pressure on their very lifestyle in the context of an oppressive society. They’re hesitant to brand their music political – it doesn’t come through explicitly in any kind of messaging, lyrics or track titles – but when their very identities become an act of defiance against the state, it’s hard to remove a sense of protest from any act of self-expression. “Your whole existence is political, if you live in a space where things are messy,” points out Turkana.
“I wouldn't say we represent our political ideologies intentionally, but you will find something that has been communicated that way,” adds Nsasi. “For me, personally, I cannot really separate the music itself from politics and the feeling of restlessness I have when I'm in Kampala,” argues Authentically Plastic. “Just wanting things to change or accelerate rapidly.”
“Your whole existence is political, if you live in a space where things are messy”
ANTI-MASS can’t help but be shaped by the environment they come from, and that is as much about the socio-political context in Uganda as their place amongst the contemporary electronic music community in East Africa. Each of them is cautious about overstating the influence of the more deeply rooted traditional music of the area, given their committed focus on heading into new territory with the sounds they make themselves.
“In a way we are part of a movement, but I also think there is something so individual about our work,” says Turkana. “I’ve worked with South Sudanese traditional instrumentalists, sampling their music, but I lean into the idea of freeness, because I want to be able to go in two different directions and not feel like I’m supposed to represent a certain sound. There are rhythms that are within you, maybe you've been listening to them over and over, but never paid attention to them, and when you're producing, it just comes out naturally.”
“I am not so much trying to represent our geographical location,” adds Authentically Plastic. “I recently read a book by Kodwo Eshun where he said something like, ‘engaging with these sounds and rhythms is not so much to ground us in our roots, but to aerialize us for takeoff.’ For me, traditional rhythms and sounds are tools to jump off into new territory. In doing that, you take a bit from the traditional culture with you, but then you might land somewhere that is completely unfamiliar.”
Follow ANTI-MASS on their website, Instagram, and Bandcamp
Text and interview: Oli Warwick
Photos: Guilla Gomez, Drago Xie, Tim Turyahikayo, Nsasi