Africa’s pioneer DIY modular synth builder goes to SMEM

Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, Musica

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Ugandan multidisciplinary artist and DIY modular synth builder Brian Bamanya was supported on a research trip to spend time at the Swiss Museum for Electronic Music Instruments (SMEM).

Brian Bamanya’s artist moniker Afrorack is a play on Eurorack, the commercial format of modular synthesizers. Brian has always been fascinated by music and the process of its creation, but quickly realized that the equipment required to make it was prohibitively expensive. So he set about learning how to make his own.

“This set me on a journey to teach myself about electronics, computer programming, working with wood, metal and other materials. I started searching through internet forums and Youtube to see if it was possible to build my own synthesizers,” he explains. “Slowly but surely, I started building my ideas into musical instruments and over time I got more experience in building the instruments that I wanted.”

Today, Brian is known as a pioneer DIY modular synth builder and has gained a following in the international electronic music community via his YouTube channel where he publishes videos about his ingenious homebuilt contraptions.

Where better in the world for Brian to gain inspiration and deepen his knowledge in the field than at SMEM, which houses the world’s largest living archive of synthesizers and thousands of other electronic music instruments. It also has an extensive library of books on synthesis and carries out workshops and lectures exploring the history and future of electronic instrument craft. 

During his time at SMEM in July 2022, Brian gave a performance and talk about his work with DIY synths. He also began exploring ideas for a collaboration with his host, Manuel Oberholzer (who performs as Feldermelder).

This took shape as the collaborative project “Rolex”, an album of new material bring together their distinct musical and cultural worlds. The project was supported by a Confluences grant from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, aimed at supporting a shared space for collaboration, creation, and documentation of new work between musicians who have an existing creative relationship.

The project is inspired by their conversations about the different realities of life in Switzerland and Uganda. In Uganda there is a saying “We don’t wear Rolex, we eat them” (referring to the popular cheap street food of that name made of fried eggs rolled inside chapatis). “Rolex” – with its starkly different association in each of their contexts – suggesting an apt title for their project.

Brian and Manuel have been invited to share insights from this collaboration as well as their individual work in Nairobi, Kenya during the Kilele music tech symposium in February 2024 organised by Santuri East Africa.

A selfie by Brian Bamanya. In the background Manuel Oberholzer can be seen working on an array of electronic musical instruments.
Two artists Brian Bamanya and Manuel Oberholzer pose inside a music studio. There are many synthesizers, instruments and speakers around them.
Brian and Manuel working on their collaborative project Rolex

About

Brian Bamanya is an experimental multidisciplinary artist from Uganda who performs and records under the moniker Afrorack. He has done projects in sound art, electronic music, experimental visuals, renewable energy and kinetic sculptures.

More on research trips

Applications for research trips can be submitted on an ongoing basis

  • Research trip in Switzerland (for cultural practitioners from West, Central, East and Southern Africa)