Johannes Hossfeld-Etyang, Joyce Nyairo, and Florian Sievers Interview

I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. If you’re not familiar with the newsletter already, click here to find out more.

Johannes Hossfeld-Etyang, Dr. Joyce Nyairo, and Florian Sievers are the team behind the new book Ten Cities: Clubbing in Nairobi, Cairo, Kyiv, Johannesburg, Berlin, Naples, Luanda, Lagos, Bristol, Lisbon, 1960–PresentThe book is a massive international project that explores the sounds of nightlife in cities previously been ignored in clubbing histories. For anyone into electronic music, it’s an essential read.

How did you get to where you are today, professionally?

Florian Sievers: Parallel to attending a school of journalism in Cologne, Germany, with a focus on economics and studying political science at university I have always been into music mags. And—next to writing about economics—I always also wanted to be a music writer. I published my first music writings on German hip-hop and hardcore punk fanzines in the mid-90s and later moved on to the huge for-free independent magazine, Intro. My dream came true when in 2001 I got an invite to join the author team of the legendary Spex, to me the most forward thinking and edgy magazine in German language of all time (sadly deceased in print format 2018, online 2020).

From there on I got involved in all kinds of projects, from curating events at Berlin’s prestigious venue, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (house of the world cultures) and writing a script for a documentary movie about an Azmari singer in Ethiopia (to be released soon), to putting together a compilation with electronic music from the GDR (Mandarinenträume – Electronic Escapes from the Deutsche Demokratische Republik 1981-1989, released 2010 on the label Permanent Vacation) and from 2007-2012 being one of three editors at Groove magazine, where we seriously delved into electronic music and club culture. I have also co-edited the book Pop 16 – 100 Jahre produzierte Musik (in German) about the impact that the advent of recording technology had on music around the world.

Being a hip-hop and techno fan, I quickly developed a deep fascination for urban African cultures when I worked half a year in Cape Town/South Africa in 2006, including extensive trips through the country and neighbouring Namibia. In the following years I started to explore African urban club cultures with trips to, among others, Nairobi/Kenya, Luanda/Angola, Lagos/Nigeria, Dakar/Senegal, Abidjan/Ivory Coast, Addis Ababa/Ethiopia or the Cabo Verde islands. I am still fascinated by the people as well as the creative energy in the rising urban centres around the continent, which is my dearest focus point of music writing—with the explicit aim of providing a positive and optimistic counterpoint to the sadly still prevalent reports on crises and catastrophes from the African continent in the global North. There is much more and much more up-and-coming going on between Cairo and Cape Town.

Joyce Nyairo: My current immersion in memory work stems from decades as an academic, helping undergraduate students learn how to read stories, how to unpack the layers of creative writing. The more I encountered students who were tentative about poetry, whose knee-jerk response was “poetry is hard,” the more I sought to understand their creative impetus. 

My PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand helped me explore the cultural essence of modern Kenya. I used the concept of intertextuality to unpack the referents in Kenyan popular music and argue for the validity of urban identity as legitimate African identity. After a couple more years teaching at Moi University, I began to worry that academic publishing simply preaches to the choir and does not transform in direct ways, the quality of work produced by creatives. I wanted to propel creativity beyond this understanding of how it works to deal with the actual making of various texts—music, the visual arts, creative (non-fiction) writing etc, so I left the university to do programmatic work—as a grant-maker for the Ford Foundation. 

Today, I help people tell stories—of their lives, of their passions, of the institutions that they built. Turning to this kind of writing and some publishing is teaching me how to advance excellence in yet another critical rung in the production of the arts.

Johannes Hossfeld-Etyang: I worked in the film industry in Germany for ten years. After that, I went on to study philosophy, literature and art history in Italy. In 2005 I joined the Goethe-Institut, Germany’s cultural institute, which was perfect for me, as I was always interested in the broad field of arts and culture: music, film, literature, art, academia—everything. 

I worked for a short while in Johannesburg and then took over as the institute’s director in Nairobi where I worked from 2007 to 2013, organising projects in all cultural fields, often pan-African projects. Among those were a couple of music projects and music productions, with, for example, Sven Kacirek, Ogoya Nengo, Modeselektor, Gebrüder Teichmann, Just A Band, Jahcoozi, Hauschka and Ukoo Flani, Stefan Schneider and Ayub Ogada. 

During this time in Nairobi we started the Ten Cities project. In 2014 I took a break from the Goethe-Institut and was a fellow at the Bayreuth Academy of Advanced African Studies. In 2015 I returned to the Goethe-Institut, as the Head of the Department for Film, TV, and Radio at the headquarters in Germany, catching up with my past in film. Parallel to that I taught theory at university—academic research has always been a strong part of my life. I’m now back at the Goethe-Institut Nairobi since 2019, just in time for the book to come out. 

Can you please briefly describe the book? 

Joyce Nyairo: Ten Cities captures some of the stories about music and club cultures in cultural centres across Africa and Europe. The idea was to examine cities that have not dominated the global media on nightlife. Through 21 essays, playlists and photo sequences the book shows the pursuits and practices that assembling around and communing over music generated in the time before COVID-19. It is a retrospective testimony to the spirit of creative communities, a rhythmanalysis mediated by sound and night.

How did the book come to be?

Johannes Hossfeld-Etyang: A project always starts with an idea. The idea came from a certain perspective: from Nairobi almost ten years ago. We had done many music co-productions at the Goethe-Institut in Nairobi. We were just about to start a new one: Around 50 club music producers, DJs, and musicians selected by local curators from the ten cities would visit each other between 2012 and 2014 to produce new music together. While we were planning this project, we noticed that the club music history hadn’t been told or even documented for many cities, at least not at the same level as the histories of the well-known western music capital cities. And if it had been documented, then by the usual Western journalists as explorers, but not by the real experts in the scenes who actually have the knowledge and who have spent their lives participating in these scenes. That was the first starting point. That’s why we chose only authors from the scenes (or who, in one case, at least have a long research relationship with the scene).

In addition, at the Goethe-Institut Nairobi, we were engaged in several projects of urban research, as Nairobi is a fascinating city, and academic projects. The background questions of our projects were: How can we narrate cities and their societies? At a certain point, it seemed obvious to me to mix all those interests and say: let’s tell the histories of cities and societies by their music culture, their nightlife. An old interest of mine influenced this take: the relation between pop and politics. That was the second starting point.

In a practical perspective, I first bounced the idea off a lot of people, to test and verify it, which I do with all projects we start (see below, re: mentors). Among the very first people were Florian and Joyce. Florian and I were in contact because of an earlier project and we discovered we had similar interests. Joyce and I had already cooperated on many projects in Nairobi, when she ran the very influential cultural programme at the Ford Foundation in Nairobi. I thought we would complement each other well to edit the book: Joyce and I, coming more from the academic context and based in Nairobi, Florian, as a music journalist, based in Berlin. Then, of course, the project had to be accepted by the Goethe-Institut HQ and receive a certain budget. When the project got the go ahead, we were ready to start. That was around 2011-2012.

How did you come to work on this book?

Florian Sievers: I have met Johannes at the bar of a techno club in Berlin in 2010, after an introduction through mutual friends. We quickly got into a discussion about African cultures and electronic music. Back then Johannes as director of Goethe-Institut Nairobi was just about to start a bilateral electronic music cooperation project between Berlin and Nairobi under the title of BLNRB/NRBLN, involving artists such as Gebrüder Teichmann, Modeselektor, or Kenya’s superstars, Just A Band. He invited me to join the recording process in Nairobi as an embedded journalist, which resulted in a reportage for Groove magazine. 

After that Johannes kindly involved me in discussions to scale up this approach to ten cities in ten countries in Africa and Europe. So I became part of the Ten Cities organizational and conceptual team. Relying on the fantastic Goethe-Institut infrastructure and support from local institute directors I was able to travel to Lagos and Luanda to scout potential contributors to the book, followed by a joint conference meeting of all Ten Cities authors and editors at Lake Naivasha in Kenya in 2013. That was only the start for a looooong editorial process and for me also copywriting all texts which has finally come to a slow end before our publisher recently released the book. I will surely miss the regular work on this huge body of text!

Joyce Nyairo: I met Johannes while I was in charge of the Media, Arts and Culture portfolio at the Ford Foundation Office for Eastern Africa. We collaborated on several projects covering photography, visual arts and music and shared numerous conversations on urban culture as a legitimate part of Kenyan heritage and identity. I was, therefore, very excited when he raised this idea of exploring Nairobi’s character through music because it extended the work I did for my doctorate at the University of the Witwatersrand (2005) and it put Nairobi on the clubbing map, along with nine other cities which have not previously dominated the narrative of nightlife in Western media.

Tell me how the book came together.

Johannes Hossfeld-Etyang: After the idea was approved by the Goethe-Institut, the next steps were to identify the authors and find a publisher. When I met Spector Books in Leipzig, it was love at first sight. They produce beautiful books, have the international audience we wanted, and they were willing to take on such a complex project.

Identifying the authors fell to Florian in Berlin and Joyce and me in Nairobi. My colleagues at the Goethe-Institutes in Lagos, Luanda, Johannesburg and Cairo suggested authors they had worked with, which made it very easy for us. In addition, Florian and I went to Lagos, Florian to Luanda and I went to Jo’burg, to confirm the suggested authors. The European cities turned out to be a bit more difficult. I had to do longer research trips to Kyiv, Lisbon, Naples and Bristol to identify the European authors. 

Then we, the editors, organised a seminar in Nairobi and in Naivasha, a beautiful small town close to Nairobi, in 2013, where we brought all the authors from the ten cities together. Here, we agreed on the shared framework of the project, shared our experiences and approaches, and formed as a group of authors and editors. I think it was great for Joyce and I to welcome everybody to Nairobi.

Following the seminar, the authors wrote their texts, coordinating with the fellow authors in their cities, and the editors tried to bind it all together. Parallel to this process, the publisher Spector Books worked on the photo sequences and the design of the book, and worked with us on the editing and copy editing of the texts. It was a very cooperative project. It was also a massive undertaking. Now, we are delighted that the book is out. 

What was one thing that was unexpectedly great about putting the book together?

Joyce Nyairo: First, meeting all the authors in Naivasha in 2013 was a great moment of validating the ideas that Johannes, Florian and I had previously discussed—not just validating, but scrutinizing those ideas to understand what we were missing. So that learning moment was exceptionally fulfilling even if that gain wasn’t necessarily unexpected. It's stunning to see what a huge book Ten Cities is and what a stellar job Spector Books have done in producing a beautiful tome that is surprisingly light, with the feel of a magazine and the depth of a thesis – or two.

What was one thing that was unexpectedly hard about putting the book together?

Florian Sievers:Ten Cities has a rather rigid structure of two essays, mostly from two or more different writers, on each of the ten cities. That means we were not able to react flexibly to writers running super late on any given deadline or disappearing completely from the radar, due to personal or sometimes even stalwart political crises and turmoil in their hometowns. We had to drag each and everybody along if we wanted to avoid ugly holes in our table of contents. Therefore deadlines, schedules and overall timing of the project was unexpectedly hard and we have to be extremely thankful to our publisher, Spector Books, for being endlessly patient with us throughout. 

Apart from this when it comes to working with the authors on their texts we always had to make sure that readers in other cities, countries, cultures or on other continents would be able to understand and comprehend the scenes, genres, developments that were described. This meant that we all had to write and edit keeping multiple perspectives and backgrounds (cultural, informational) in mind since our intended audience is decidedly diverse. That made the work a bit more demanding than usual such jobs, but was also part of the fun and provided some great learnings for everybody involved.

What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the topic?

Florian Sievers: While I love a lot of club music from the European cities we have covered (e.g. Lisbon’s Príncipe Discos or Bristol’s drum’n’bass and, of course, my hometown Berlin’s techno) my main focus as a journalist is electronic club music from African cities. That in itself is so varied and voluminous that I am struggling with hinting to any single tracks, videos or even whole scenes. But certainly the latest developments in South African Gqom—to my knowledge the first downright electronic sounding club music from Africa—are still worth checking out. And at the moment the East of the continent is catching up when it comes to electronic music with the Ugandan Nyege Nyege Tapes label and associated festival, which is gathering avant-gardist contributions from all over the region and beyond.

But, honestly, I do not know of any other books that cover club music and music clubs from most of the cities we have included in Ten Cities. One exception apart from Bristol is of course the widely covered Berlin. And next to standard books about the city’s electronic music traditions/scenes like (both available in English) Felix Denk’s and Sven von Thülen’s Der Klang der Familie or Lost & Sound by Tobias Rapp, who has also contributed a text to Ten Cities, I would like to strongly recommend Théo Lessour’s Berlin Sampler: From Cabaret to Techno. 1904-1912, A Century of Berlin Music (published in 2012 in French and in English) which is a fantastic, but unfortunately a bit overlooked, resource book.

Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?

Florian Sievers: Even though I like the idea of learning from the elders or at least from a more experienced professional I never really followed that approach. But for sure have I been a fan of some music writers whose texts I have read religiously. Next to Kodwo Eshun’s inspirational 1998 book More Brilliant Than The Sun those were mostly authors and editors at Spex magazine, which I have followed closely from the early 1990s on, namely people like Tobias Thomas, Hans Nieswandt, Oliver von Felbert, Clara Drechsler, or Mark Sikora. But also writers like Martin Pesch and Bleed/Sascha Kösch and others contributing to legendary and now passed away electronic music print publications like Frontpage, House Attack, or De:Bug as well as the still continuing (online) magazine Groove. As discourse-oriented German language music writing of this format seems to have largely perished, the good old British Wire magazine does the job for me as a fan boy now.

Joyce Nyairo: I find mentors in everything I read, even when I don’t agree with it because that helps me sharpen my own ideas. There is a deluge of new writing about Nairobi—fiction and non-fiction that has really strengthened my understanding of urban identities and I keep going back to the writing of Christine Mungai, for instance, but I also fall back on the space-clearing work of Atieno-Odhiambo, Mamadou Diawara and Karin Barber. Working on this particular project, I took a lot of inspiration from talking to DJ Kareez (Peter Kariuki Ngaara) and observing the work of DJ D-Lite (David Muriithi) and seeing how reading is a part of the community-building work that DJs do.

Johannes Hossfeld-Etyang: I think my mentors were always quite virtual as I’m such a book worm. For this project, I would pick out Paul Gilroy (The Black Atlantic) first of all. I otherwise have more colleagues than mentors. I cherish collaborative processes and am usually in touch with many people, with whom we bounce off ideas between ourselves. I usually make it a point to check out new project ideas with knowledgeable people in order to make sure that I’m not starting something that only I personally find interesting. For the Ten Cities book, in addition to Joyce and Florian, I bounced off the idea on people like my colleague at the music department of the Goethe-Institut’s HQ, Jörg Süssenbach, our musician friends Andi and Hannes Teichmann who co-organised the Ten Cities music project, radio legend Francis Gay, music curator Detlef Diederichsen, label bosses Jay Routledge and Georg Milz from the music label Outhere, and my friends in the Nairobi music scene.

What’s one tip that you’d give someone looking to write a music book right now?

Florian Sievers: I feel unfit to give anybody tips who intends to write or is actually working on a proper music book about a genre or artist right now. But me personally, since these are interesting if not bumpy times, I am mostly interested in reading books that aim to detect the inmost force which binds the world. Which means that explicitly politically and socially conscious books, music or otherwise, are definitely more appealing to me lately than just entertaining books. And I have the feeling that many people feel and think so at the moment.

Johannes Hossfeld-Etyang: I would encourage them to ensure that they still publish books, with real publishers. To my mind, a book is still the best medium to engage with substantial content and to make sure it is archived. 

Joyce Nyairo: Read widely and collaborate with other writers (that’s two tips, not one)!

What’s next for you?

Florian Sievers: I would like to continue my party series “Bomayé” in Berlin’s club Acud with electronic music from African cities after the long club lockdown is finally over. I would like to check out more African cities as soon as that is possible again. And I am thinking about compiling my music and culture reportages from African cities into a book. But these developments are so fast that a three or four year old piece reads like it has been written decades ago. Anybody interested anyways?

Johannes Hossfeld-Etyang: Back in Nairobi, at the Goethe-Institut, our focus at the moment is on something very different. While Corona has disrupted our plans, we have the chance to renovate and reinvent the space of our premises. Our premises are on the second floor in a 18-storey building in central Nairobi, with a small art space on the ground floor. Now, we are renovating the spaces and, this is the crucial part, we are building a terrace on this second floor, which we intend to use for functions. We want to build this into an urban garden in the concrete jungle of downtown Nairobi and hope to offer the Nairobi scene a new space to use. As soon as the terrace is ready (hopefully at the end of 2021), we will run a series of DJ sets for more experimental producers who are usually not featured in the Nairobi clubs. I am totally looking forward to that.

Joyce Nyairo: I remain committed to memory work so I have a couple of memoirs I am working on with my team at Santuri Media and I still need to finish my book on Death and Funerary Practice in Modern Kenya—and yes: it features lots of music!

Anything you want to plug?

Florian Sievers: If you come from the global North, visit a city in Africa, go out and have fun there! You will find most of your prejudices shattered. Of course often there are still many problems to address—but in many places a relatively long phase of political stability, good internet connections, other technological inventions, and a rising middle class have changed things a lot. And for the better.

Joyce Nyairo: One of the most exciting literary voices to come out of Nairobi in 2020 was Makena Maganjo and her debut novel South B’s Finest. It’s a must read for anyone keen on urban culture and childhood in Africa. I am really looking forward to the publication of her second novel, Everything Waits For Us.

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