Reflections on Kilele - East Africa’s first music tech and innovation symposium

Thoughts on the inaugural Kilele Summit, by Santuri co-director David Tinning.

We had the idea to create a conference that wasn’t a conference, and a festival of music and tech that wasn’t a festival.  We landed on Kilele, a 7-day event that combined music tech workshops, cutting-edge presentations on the future of music, avant-garde showcases and installations, and some riotous parties. 

A note on the name - Kilele means summit or peak in Kiswahili, so although we were trying to avoid ‘summit summit’, it has kind of stuck. However, the idea of reaching a point of elevation for which to share a perspective is a nice one, and wholy in keeping with what Kilele proved to be.

Kilele was a product of Santuri East Africa collaborating with the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna's FWF-PEEK project "Études for Live-electronics", and in particular Bernt Isak - a Norwegian artist and educator who has worked on music projects in the region for 8 years. Santuri was turning 10 during the summit, so Kilele served as a marker of the past decade of East Africa’s musical development, and an opportunity to look at what might be ahead.  

Santuri has been at the forefront of progressive music education in the region, establishing the award-winning Santuri Electronic Music Academy (SEMA) in 2021, training over 200 artists in the past two years and connecting many of those to career advancing opportunities - from releases to collaborations and festivals and event opportunities.

Kilele is the last part of the puzzle in many ways - pulling together Santuri’s network of music friends, supporters and global partners to experience Nairobi’s underground creative scene first hand.  It was important for Santuri and the community here that we join the international conversation on music tech and culture - too often Africa is left as an exoticised footnote, with lip service paid to the ‘ingenuity’ and ‘resilience’ of practitioners here, but very little space given as actual pioneers and thought-leaders. To be able to host KMRU, Nyokabi Kariũki, Monrhea, Afrorack and DJ Raph in a variety of different formats at Kilele made a strong statement, and opened up avenues for the next generation of artists to connect with the global networks who joined to experience this.

Presentations and panels brought new perspectives to the fore - Astrid Bin’s ‘It’s Never Just a Slider’ set out to redefine the musical interface from the western classical trappings, and Nyokabi Kariũki’s meditation of electronic music originator Halim El Dabh expounded on how African artists have have been erased from electronic music history, and her own experiences of how global north critics expect an African experimental artist to sound. Other particular standouts included DJ Raph’s ‘It’s Not in the Manual’, and Sharon Onyango-Obbo’s Never’s Conduit - a dream-like audio visual trip through an African music library in Mainz through the eyes of a contemporary Ugandan artist. Elsewhere the Bomas of Kenya shared their SampleBar project - a folkloric preservation project masquerading as musical interface for remixing traditional instruments in real time. 

Workshops by global tech brands Ableton, FL Studio, Bitwig and Elektron were hugely popular, while the presentations and panels brought new perspectives to the fore. 

The event took place at The Mall, in the Westlands area of the city.  The Mall has become the epicentre of Nairobi’s blossoming music scene, thanks to the progressive mentality of its management team who have been supporting creative communities such as Santuri with cheap rents and plenty of spaces to utilise for parties, gatherings and workshops.  Nestled in the corner of the basement across the way from the Santuri Salon is The Mist - Nairobi’s most experimental club space, supporting and pushing the widest of sounds, thanks to DJ Raph and Shamina Rajab’s stewardship.  Kilele fully utilised this and many other of the spaces in the Mall - including the Fem Lab (established by the team from Goethe Institut), Black Rhino’s OUT Reality VR space, and the stunning rooftop car park that was dubbed Basscamp for the duration of the Kilele week - where delegates and artists gathered for sundown each evening to network and ‘prepare’ for the night program.   

Outside of the panels and workshops, it was here where new connections were made, collaborations forged and plots hatched. Soundtracked by various alums from Santuri’s DJ courses, the Basscamp framed the event and set people up for the showcase program that included performances from Afrorack and Feldermelder, vigliosoni, a live coding performance on Sonic Pii by BYTE Collective, as well as performances from coastal ‘zaire’ band Khonjo Kolio, changanya pioneer Nabalayo, and sets by the UK’s Funk Butcher and Kem Kem.  Friday night saw Mizizi Ensemble  - formed specifically for this event - perform in The Mist  - made up of Labdi Ommes, Alex Hofmann, Monrhea, Nyokabi and Bernt Isak with Tim Grund and Kostia Rapoport as special guests. The result was a mesmerising performance that utilised every space in the venue, with the focus shifting every while to another area and new sonic territories - from raw noise to operatic call and response, to wearable body percussion tech. The space was packed with people, the atmosphere veering between tense confusion and elation. An onlooker told me they were leaving immediately to go home and make new music.


“I have been to many music conferences, and this was by far the most inspiring and exciting one I've ever attended”. - feedback from speaker

The final showcase featured a killer line-up of KMRU, MC Yallah, Jim Chuchu and ¡AC!, Sonic Griot and the Santuri DJs - all powered by the Umojah Soundsystem - a Kenyan built rig sticking true to the Jamaican sound system culture.  The night encapsulated Santuri at 10 - a blend of experimental approaches, heartfelt expression, and bulldozing bass punctuated by the machine gun delivery of Ugandan/ Kenyan MC Yallah - revelling in a home town gig that saw bouts of slam dancing not usually associated with the Nairobi nightlife.

On a personal note, it was hard not to get emotional about the journey Santuri has been on and to see Kilele as the start of something new and fresh for the region. Working with the amazing team that makes up Santuri, it was extremely gratifying to feel that we contributed something vital to the city, and that as a result artists will find new ways to develop and grow. We are already looking forward to welcoming friends and collaborators back for 2025.

David Tinning, March 2024

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