Album Review | FF by Nandele

The Maputo-based artist’s recently released EP is a vital seven-track offering that reveals a fresh form of minimalist, yet expansive, Mozambican techno dub.

There is a transcendent moment on Mozambican electronic artist Nandele’s song Virose, from his new FF EP. It happens a minute and 40 seconds into the track. Before this point, the song is driven by a minimalist trip-hop beat and what sounds like a field recording of call-and-response singing and ululation. But, suddenly, a profoundly understated yet exquisitely beautiful synth drops in. The bass follows, and what had been a very atmospheric breakbeat excursion morphs into something else, a form of minimalist, Mozambican techno dub that feels both vital and fresh.

Nandele is the stage name of 38-year-old Mozambican musician Nandele Maguni, a prominent feature in Maputo’s alternative music scene. He began his career as a drummer, then a rapper, a beatmaker and an events organiser in his country’s capital. He has since evolved into a producer with a fresh sound.

Nadele’s FF EP, which dropped in late October on Cotch International, is a mesmerising seven-track, 30-minute offering that fuses elements of trip-hop, dub, techno, grime, dubstep, acid house, field recordings and psychedelia into an expansive mind-bending whole.

23 October 2020: The cover of Nandele’s Final Fantasy EP features silkscreened artwork by Maputo-based visual artist João Roxo. (Image supplied by Cotch International)

Homegrown techno

In a recent interview, Nandele said that his new EP was generally inspired by the Final Fantasy VII video game, dystopian sci-fi movies like Equilibrium and by the genres of cyberpunk and anime.

“I actually made my FF EP imagining a time where being in love is forbidden by law,” he said. “The EP [is] about a couple, they are secretly dating, and whenever they meet, FF EP is their playlist.”

Nandele’s take on dub techno, though original, retains influences from some of the genre’s prominent practitioners. Kanhola sounds like Bristol trip-hoppers Massive Attack remixed by Sheffield techno-act The Black Dog. And the EP closer Impact 61+, feels like a rave banger from the Summer of Love, reduced to a come-down dub of itself – a ghost of last night’s party, reminiscent of UK dub-techno act Leftfield.

In some places on the EP, like the less than two minutes of O Processo, the music almost resembles the sound of groups like Cabaret Voltaire and Portion Control. In other places, like the magnificent Module, the bubbling bass and burbling synths hint at an acid-house influence, while the harsh-drum production is reminiscent of Adrian Sherwood’s work for his On-U Sound label in the 80s and early 90s.

With such a diverse sound, it is clear that Nandele’s new EP stacks up with the best electronic music to emerge from the African continent in 2020, and also signals that South Africa’s Gqom and Angola’s Kuduro genres have a new techno neighbour.

The South London-based Cotch International is a label whose focus is “globally-minded music”. And, a month after Nandele’s FF EP, the label dropped a new single Ngomso by South Africans Stiff Pap and Moonchild Sanelly.

Nandele said he is very happy to release the project under Cotch International as the label is doing an “amazing job of putting African electronic music out in the world”. Cotch International wasn’t his first musical home, however.

Psy hip-hop roots

Nandele emerged via Maputo’s Kongoloti Records, a label run by Lisbon-born Milton Gulli, who has been living in Mozambique since 2011.

“Milton and I are friends and we were band mates with the Azagaia project,” said Nandele. Azagaia is a mega hip-hop star in Mozambique and was one of Kongoloti Records’ early success stories. “So, when the Azagaia project was on a hiatus, I was working on my first EP and I spoke to Milton about how I wanted to take the first Mozambican to Planet Donut, he thought it was a good idea.”

“Planet Donut” is a reference to Donuts, the classic 2006 album by J Dilla, Detroit’s godfather of lo-fi hip-hop. Nandele’s debut EP Argolas Deliciosas was a tribute to Donuts. Translated as “Sweet Rings” and released under Kongoloti in February 2015, it featured elements of dubstep, trap and grime, all filtered through a haze of psychedelic dub production. At the time, Nandele described it as “an escape to the ethereal atmospheres” or “Planet Donut”.

Speaking about this experience in our interview, the artist explains that during this period he was exploring a lot of psychedelic music with his band, The Mute Band. This evolved into what they called “Psy hip-hop” – a blending of “hip-hop beats with psychedelic atmospheres” which gives the music a “cinematic vibe”. 

Opener Fin O Hmano (E O Regresso Do Boom Bap) was reminiscent of the more jazz-influenced, atmospheric work of early drum-and-bass producer LTJ Bukem, while the liquid dub of Emidio Macie, featuring Mozambican producer Embri0n, hinted at the influence of Bristol’s dub and trip-hop pioneers Smith & Mighty. The EP’s closing song Destination Planet Donut combined cosmic jazz, hip-hop and dub production into three minutes of sonic joy that wash over listeners.

Makonde’s electronica

Four years separated Argolas Deliciosas and Nandele’s debut album Likumbi, released in 2019. The album is a very different offering and appears, in hindsight, to be a precursor to his sound on 2020’s FF EP.

The album was based on Nandele’s experiences with Likumbi, the rite of initiation of the Makonde people of Cabo Delgado province on the Mueda plateau in Mozambique. Nandele said he felt fearful when his father first approached him about Likumbi, but taking part is something that had “profoundly marked” his life.

For his debut album, Nandele transposed the rhythms of the Makonde people to unexpected instruments, creating a mesmerising work of incredible depth. He said that whenever people speak of “African music” the first thing that comes to mind is “percussion or the drum”. The “Mapiko cadences” he grew up with sound like electronic music to him, and it was only natural to translate these rhythms through his work.

“When we have parties at home my mom plays bottles with a fork and makes some Mapiko cadences on it,” said Nandele. “That really opened a lot of options in mind, now I make interesting sound designs thanks to those moments.”

From the dub-funk of opener Intro to the fascinating uniqueness of songs like Sombras and Sono, Likumbi was the sound of Makonde dub techno being born. The album highlight was the shape-shifting Final Boss, an intricately arranged percussion-driven techno tune, with hard, droning bass and magnificent use of bells.

In March this year, Nandele told music website Resident Advisor that if you type “Makonde” into a search engine, the first thing you are going to find is either wooden statues or people with tattoos on their faces. “But the Makonde people make electronic music as well,” he said. “I’m one of them, I wanted to put my people on the map in a different way.”

Likumbi was just the sound of Nandele getting going, his new EP shows just how far his sound has progressed in the year since it was released. On the strength of the FF EP, Nandele is an artist, and will not remain hidden in the shadows of Maputo’s alternative scene for much longer.

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