Nihiloxica change what the average European associates with the conceptual couple »drums« and »Africa« 

29.09.2023
Foto: © Marco Maezza lores (Crammed Discs)
The intercontinental band Nihiloxica combines rhythms from Uganda with Techno and Meshuggah. We bridged three time zones to talk with members Jacob Maskell-Key, Pete Jones, and Isabirye Henry.

If you had to pitch Nihiloxica (pronounced: Nii-lox-ee-ca) to someone in an elevator, you’d say: a drumming circle from Uganda meets broody UK-Techno. However, that would leave the other person ill-prepared for the vital energy the intercontinental ensemble has been spreading for six years. Nihiloxica’s heart beats for the kind of dance music that can flatten buildings. »Technical Metal is one of the most interesting places to find cool rhythms, especially Meshuggah. On the last albums, I’ve literally copied their style of rhythm«, Pete Jones expounds. Raving to polymeters? Yes, please! 

The traditions of Uganda provide Nihiloxica’s rhythmical scaffold. The band emphasize that their East African influences are intercultural in themselves – even before encountering Europe. For example, the quintet uses drums from the kingdom of Buganda to play rhythms of other cultures. On their first LP, the song »Bwola« is named after a dance of the Acholi people from the north of Uganda. This adoption secularizes. Following the 1966 Mengo Crisis, drums have been bowled out from public life, Isabirye Henry tells us. » Even in today’s Uganda, when you play the drum, some people say drums are spiritual or that you should only play the drums in a shrine. But we are applying things from our own culture to a new culture.« Jacob Maskell-Key adds: »If you hear >African Drums< people think of the Djembe. Or people say >Bongos<, even though they are not from Africa. I think Ugandan percussion is unique. But it’s not well known outside Uganda and Kenya.« 

Thick soundscapes, dense occident 

This view was made possible by the now legendary label Nyege Nyege. In 2016, it invited the Britons Jacob Maskell-Key (Spooky-J) and Pete Jones (pq) to jam with percussionists of the Nilotika Cultural Ensemble. A live performance evolved into an EP. »Nihiloxica« (2017) turned heads internationally. However, they have changed their approach since then. »In the beginning, we wanted this to be a live band. The recording should sound exactly as it would live. But then we were like: Maybe the album could sound better«, Jacob recounts with a laugh. 

»If we want to go to Uganda, it’s completely fine. But for Isa, Jally and Prince, coming to Europe is basically impossible.«

Pete Jones

Since their first full-length »Kaloli« (2020), the band banked onto adventurous sound design. They’ve only amplified those tendencies on their latest album »Source of Denial« (2023). Pete admits: »Some songs we produced beyond our ability of performing them live. It makes for a better album.« Compared to previous releases, the sound of »Source of Denial« is, indeed, thicker and more diverse. While the album contains several explosive dance tracks, Nihiloxica increasingly play with intermezzi and slow burners. The pacing of »Source of Denial« always feels intentional. 

Yet, the story of Nihiloxica isn’t merely one of coming up strong and successful internationalism. It’s also one of being limited by borders. Especially restrictive visa regulations »drive a spike« between the members. »If we want to go to Uganda«, UK citizen Pete elaborates, »it’s completely fine. But for Isa, Jally and Prince, coming to Europe is basically impossible.« Jacob adds: »We are pissed about this situation. Because it keeps getting in the way of us, our friends, our work, and lives. You have to make people aware that the governmental systems that handle these things are not really fair. The West is not as open-minded as you might think.« Not that this could get them down. Nihiloxica demonstrate the potential of bringing things together.