Last weekend, The National made the short hop down to Jinja, southern Uganda, to attend the third annual Nyege Nyege Festival – a joyful, sometimes dizzying whirl of African, Western and other music that goes down in a jaw-dropping setting on the banks of the River Nile. While I was there I was pleasantly surprised to discover I wasn’t alone in my Scottishness: Samedia Shebeen, an Afrobeat and Latin music crew from Edinburgh that I’ve been following for a while, had been enlisted to design, build and appear on what turned out to be my favourite of the festival’s four stages, the Nile-adjacent Electro Stage.

The National:
The Samedia Shebeen crew during construction of the Electro Stage (Photograph: Stevie Powers)

On Monday, after four days of wildly colourful music, fabulous costumes, even better dancing and endless smiles, I finally managed to catch up with Samedia Shebeen co-founder Chris Knight to talk about the development of his night and crew back in Scotland, and how they came to be anchoring a vital part of a festival over 4,000 miles from home. Knight has been a fixture on Edinburgh’s clubbing scene for over 20 years now, most notably as promoter of Departure Lounge, which brought Gilles Peterson, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Bonobo, Bass Clef, Floating Points and many others to The Caves venue during its decade of existence.

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“There was such a vibe at The Caves,” he begins. “We discovered the place and were the first people to run a night there – the appetite for Afrobeat in Edinburgh is really amazing actually, so it was a big success. ‘‘After 10 years I decided I wanted to do something else though, and that’s when Samedia Shebeen started. The idea was that it would be an immersive clubbing experience with really good décor and set design and a focus on Latin music, but room for sounds from all over the world. We have a team of 19 working on it in total, and everyone’s just really committed and keen. It’s like a family thing rather than a formal team.”

The National:
Nyege Nyege: 'Dance floors full of the coolest people you'll ever see'

Samedia Shebeen was always intended to be a travelling festival tent as well as a regular event in Edinburgh, and the two became a reality in tandem with each other. As the festival's music programmer, Knight has taken the Shebeen to Kelburn Garden Party in Largs for the last several years, but these days it is regularly booked for many other festivals and events too. Of particular note for the past several summers has been their involvement in Boomtown Fair, near Winchester, a 50,000-capacity event focused (loosely) on reggae, bass music, drum’n’bass and techno, that Knight describes as one of the most remarkable festivals anywhere right now. “They’re going after Glastonbury, honestly,” he laughs.

The Shebeen’s original hookup with Nyege Nyege (which roughly means “the irresistible urge to dance” in the local language, and something far ruder in the Kenyan tongue) came via a familiar source: Glasgow’s long-standing, much-loved Mungo’s Hi Fi collective. They worked with a local team of Ugandan people to design and build their stage, which had a pleasingly den-like, intimate feel, fantastic sound, and an amazing cross-section of locals in attendance as well as visitors from Europe and beyond. “We learned from each other during the process,” Knight says. “We learned a lot from them about how to stay calm no matter what, which they are incredibly good at, and I guess they learned stuff about design and building from us.

The National:
Nyege Nyege Festival co-founder Derek Debru (left) and Samedia Shebeen's Chris Knight at the Electro Stage at Nyege Nyege Festival (Photograph: Stevie Powers)

“When we started the Shebeen we were kind of aiming to create a very pale imitation of what the stage at Nyege Nyege turned out to be,” Knight continues. “I looked out from the stage at Nyege Nyege and it was just all there – guys selling Ugandan rolexes (a ubiquitous, addictive snack typically comprising a chapati with an omelette, avocado and more rolled into it), incredible scenery and a dance floor full of the coolest people you’ll ever lay eyes on. When we started in Edinburgh all I was concerned with was creating the best vibe, and this here is the real deal. Africa and Nyege Nyege has such an amazing attitude to it, especially among the girls. I noticed that particularly this year – for all that these countries are very patriarchal societies in many ways, when you look at the way people interact at a thing like this it’s the women who are wearing the trousers.”

As well as Nyege Nyege’s home near Jinja, Knight has spent time a couple of hours west in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, where Nyege Nyege (which also functions as a record label) has a recording studio. “I went to Capital,” he recalls, bringing up a dancehall-focused spot repeatedly mentioned to me during the trip, and that another friend informed me was the “oldest and grimiest club in the city. The moves of the people in there are just amazing, but if you go in there with a bit of attitude and get involved, people take to you.’’

Plans are already in place for the Shebeen to be involved in next year’s Nyege Nyege Festival, and Knight is thrilled at the prospect. “We definitely never thought when we started that we’d find ourselves taking part in something like this,” he says. “Everyone who has been here this weekend has heard the quality and variety of the music coming out of Africa at the moment. It’s crazy, and it’s unbelievable to be able to be a part of it.”