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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

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MAY 2021 Issue
Music

Duma and their Doom-Overload Nairobi-Kampala Electro-Metal Maelstrom

Duma. Photo by Chrisman, courtesy of  Nyege Nyege.
Duma. Photo by Chrisman, courtesy of Nyege Nyege.

Trawling for Kenyan metal, the listener will soon find that almost all of that land’s striking bands-of-heaviness feature the presence of Martin Khanja and/or Sam Karuga. We’re talking Lust Of A Dying Breed, Irony Destroyed, and The Seeds Of Datura. The majority of Nairobi metal bands operate within a classic heavy metal perimeter, but Khanja and Karuga are set on heading out so far that they no longer recognize the “rules” of rocking.

Singer Khanja is sometimes known as Lord Spike Heart. Karuga marshals extreme frequencies via bass, guitars, and electronics, with Khanja also adding to the spread of the latter. This pair have lately been performing and recording as Duma, releasing their eponymously titled debut album on the Ugandan label Nyege Nyege Tapes.

Nyege Nyege is mostly renowned for its catalogue of innovative electronic music, whether beat-orientated or aggressively abstract. Duma crouches well among the roster of this Kampala imprint, as the pair now specialize in a form of extreme rock that doesn’t sound like it’s grown from strings. Khanja may well deliver his most terrifying subterranean growl as if fronting a combo of riff-flooding guitarists, but Duma’s actual sound-palette arrives more from the realms of industrial black noise, any actual axeman origins coated with extreme effects, sounding like a minefield tabletop of knob-twiddling menace rather than a fuzzed-string Marshall-skyscraper outpouring. Even so, the structural vocabulary is mostly descended from that of trad metal doomcore. Duma means “darkness” in the Kikuyu language of the Kenyan Bantu people.

“I first met Sam in early 2010, at rock shows in Nairobi,” Khanja recalls. “He was always hanging around in bands, playing the bass, or in the mosh pit of the crowd, way back in the day. Then we ended up being in different bands, but we all met at our friend’s studio in Tigoni.” That’s a verdant area in the Nairobi suburbs, outside the built-up density of the city.

“We formed Seeds Of Datura together,” Khanja continues. “He was doing bass, I was doing vocals, and trying to do some synth stuff. We were supposed to go to Botswana for its Winter Metal Mania Festival, but some of them didn’t have visas in time, so I ended up getting this call from Nyege Nyege to do this kind of sound from my previous single that I’d released in 2016, called “What The Hell.” It was electronics, heavy with metal vocals, a collaboration with Layzy Murk.” Murk plays with Lust Of A Dying Breed.

“We ended up coming to Uganda. At that point, we were not doing anything musical at all, so we had time, and ended up in Kampala because of Nyege Nyege. It was a deliberate effort,” says Khanja, outlining their newfound emphasis on electronics.

“It’s really difficult to form a proper metal band in Kenya. You need to be always talking to musicians, dealing with band dynamics. Sometimes they wouldn’t be available, or you wouldn’t be available. It also happened by chance, because we wanted to do everything in a certain way. It was mostly deliberate, but the main thing was the vibe, y’know, to just make metal with the little we have. The music scene in Nairobi is a bit conservative compared to Kampala, where it doesn’t stop, and it supports local artists. Each city has a different vibe.”

On the 2020 debut album, Khanja surfs an oppressive blast during “Corners In Nihil” switching his range as a line demands, steadily attaining a throat-singing, multi-stacked variance, Karuga’s electro-beats and riffs becoming almost a single entity. Certain textures arrive from dance music, but are scarred almost beyond recognition. If a lone Khanja isn’t deemed sufficiently intense, he’ll overdub an even more evil twin, voices racing along ridged and decaying wind-tunnel interiors. There’s a strangely malformed ragga underbelly to “Omni.” Khanja sometimes has a loose, spontaneous aspect, but once the fast-grind launches, as with “Kill Yourself Before They Kill You,” he heads out on a targeted larynx-missile mission. Speeds vary, as stuttering beats take on a mechanoid hysteria, with Khanja often contrasting the pace of his own delivery, setting up slowing tensions, on the run.

Duma also have a song, “Cape To Cairo," on L’Esprit De Nyege, the label’s epic 48-track double-cassette sampler from 2020, operating in the duo’s more electronic zone.

Khanja talks about Duma’s method of songwriting: “It just happens on its own. I wouldn’t say there’s one way of construction, it’s by us collecting sounds, the brainstorming of a concept, even conversations that happen in our lives, the soundtracks of our lives. We just make it happen the way we feel at the time. We get different vibes one day and then the next day, different moods. We make the track from scratch and keep growing it and growing it. Improvisation comes into play, to make it more expressive. We are not robots, we are sentient beings. We morph and change.”


Contributor

Martin Longley

Martin Longley is frequently immersed in a stinking mire of dense guitar treacle, trembling across the bedsit floorboards, rifling through a curvatured stack of gleaming laptoppery, picking up a mold-speckled avant jazz platter on the way, all the while attempting to translate these worrying eardrum vibrations into semi-coherent sentences. Right now he pens for the Guardian, Jazzwise, and Songlines.

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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2021

All Issues