Kenya's Slikback is defying genre with his forward-thinking club music

Africa has been getting a lot of attention within the Western dance music sphere over the last few years, with the rise of reissue labels such as Awesome Tapes From Africa, the homegrown gqom phenomenon and superstars like Black Coffee. In East Africa, Uganda’s Nyege Nyege festival has been a driving force for new artists with wholly unique sounds — a description which couldn’t be more apt for Freddy Njau, aka Slikback.

“I would say it was the only place I could have truly flourished,” he says of the festival. “They’re so open-minded and so free and willing to try out everything. Like in the same festival, you would see a super-traditional band of super old guys playing and people are going hard at it, and at the same time on another stage some dancehall MC is dropping the heaviest shit; it’s such a mashup of different ideas.”

Njau’s own style is similarly wide-ranging and undefinable. Originally producing house and trap after becoming a fan via radio, at university he met Nyege Nyege founders Derek Debru and Arlen Dilsizian, who introduced him to “more experimental, leftfield, bassy kind of music that I didn’t know existed”. The sound he’s developed is genreless, but rich with influences. “I ended up just taking the best elements of what I thought sounded cool to me... like the snares in gqom or the 808s in trap music, or the weird drum patterns in footwork, just everything altogether, and it kinda just became what I do now,” says Freddy, beaming a smile that we see often throughout our chat.

And he’s right to be happy; his fresh take, which also encompasses elements of grime, halftime and techno, has been a huge hit. Freddy’s European debut at Poland’s Unsound festival last year caught many discerning ears, and his EPs for Hakuna Kulala — 2018’s ‘Lasakaneku’, which featured the mindwarping chopped vox of ‘Ascension’, and this February’s 160-heavy six-tracker ‘Tomo’ — have solidified his talent both behind the decks and in the studio. Though the latter shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone who’s heard a Slikback mix, as he says shorter performances are primarily made up of his own productions.

“I would say that it’s way harder back home than it is in Europe,” he says when we discuss that fateful Unsound set. Freddy starts talking about the difficulties of DJing backhome; outside of the Nyege crew he admits it can be hard to find appreciation for his sound while playing local clubs. “Sometimes they just sort of fade you out slowly as you’re playing your music,” he laughs, “or someone comes and offers you a USB stick and they’re like, ‘Hey, I have some songs on here, just play this’.” At experimental haven Unsound he found a more receptive audience, however: “I started playing the first song, everyone just started really jumping. It was super cool.”

In fact, when we chat Freddy is back in Poland; Krakow has become his base of operations for a two-month stay in Europe that’s already seen him play CTM festival in Berlin, before heading to fests in Amsterdam, Barcelona and Graz in Austria. Next he’s off to China for a mini-tour and to collab with some producers out there who he says have been a major influence. The rest of the year also sees Freddy at Dekmantel, Unsound and, of course, Nyege Nyege. “I’m just figuring things out as I go along at this point, cos I really don’t know what will happen tomorrow, cos every day it’s a new plan,” he says. There’s that smile again...