Congo-born, Uganda-based artist Rey Sapienz has spent much of his career behind the scenes, teaching Ableton Live to new producers and running record label Hakuna Kulala. On Na Zala Zala, his debut album, Sapienz is an impactful artist in his own right, putting forth dark dancehall beats with sharp edges and emotional weight. A commanding leader, he fronts the Congo Techno Ensemble, consisting of rapper Fresh Dougis and percussionist, dancer, and vocalist Papalas Palata, both of whom are integral in driving each track forward.
Na Zala Zala is rife with growls, howls, and moments of dissonance, all of which come together in unrelentingly anxious soundscapes. It’s through these that Sapienz channels his experience growing up amid such events as the Second Congo War and further local conflicts, including the civil war that forced him to stay in Uganda. Fresh Dougis and Papalas Palata sling gritty lyrics on their feelings of powerlessness, pain, and surviving over Sapienz’s minimal rhythms, always coming together in evocative combinations.
It’s not an easy listen, to say the least, nor should it be. Within the rigid framework of Sapienz’s orderly techno beats, emotional chaos foments. On “Dancehall Pigme”, Palata wails over exclamatory synths, each sound piercing and immediate, a sonic portrait of pain. “Esala Rien” and “96” are cosmic in their use of open space, both broken up by verses that end in cries. Bordering on the psychedelic, “Posa Na Bika” calls to mind Shabazz Palaces while constantly threatening to rotate off its axis. Later, “Zuwa Ba Risk” boils, urgent vocal lines interspersed with screams over tightly wound beats. “Na Zala Zala” is slow and mournful, both vocalists dragging their syllables over wordless lamentations at an agonizingly slow pace. The album ends with “Minzoto”, each element pulled and layered in feverish futurism.
With nine tracks in total, Na Zala Zala makes time to explore a full gamut of rage and sorrow, emotions that fuel the Ensemble’s work in essential ways. Though often rough, every moment is laden with intent, every moment of harshness or distortion exactly where it belongs. Never, though, does the album truly reach catharsis; instead, it leaves its audience raw and the future open, though hardly hopeful. This is as it should be, DIY-style production and unsettling themes all coming together in a radical form to sound the terrifying potential inherent in the human-made world. Na Zala Zala is instability and inertia all at once, a duality Rey Sapienz’s style is uniquely tailored to capture.
Rey Sapienz and the Congo Techno Ensemble make visceral music on Na Zala Zala. Their jarring electronics and vocals are distressing by design, telling stories through multiple musical dimensions and flexing their skill for invention all the while. Though it takes a psychic toll on its audience to give it the deep listening it deserves, Na Zala Zala is worth that required energy for the embodied understanding it imparts of the aftermath of conflict. Moreover, Rey Sapienz stands out as an exciting artist for the courage of this wholly unique debut on the world stage.