The Forum: Auntie Flo

The Forum: Auntie Flo

Since founding the influential Highlife parties in Glasgow a decade ago, Auntie Flo has existed on the boundary between experimental, international music and the UK dance scene. Also closely associated with the label Huntleys & Palmers, Auntie Flo, real name Brian D’Souza has shifted to Giles Peterson’s Brownswood imprint for his latest, most ambitious album, ‘Radio Highlife’. The result of seven years travelling across the world and collaborating with a broad range of artists, ‘Radio Highlife’ is a diary of sound that tastefully flirts with pop and dance arrangements, establishing D’Souza’s nous as an excellent, open-minded collaborator.

Guests on the record include fellow Glaswegians, Golden Teacher, as well as Cuban percussionist Yissy Garcia, Theo Parrish favourite and protege, Andrew Ashong and the Sengalese multi-instrumentalist, Mame ndiack.

For the latest edition of The Forum, D’Souza caught up with John Thorp for an extensive chat regarding the album’s gradual development, the ever-evolving debates around cultural appropriation, the spiritual power of his Mum’s garden, and much more beside.

The press release notes that one of the tracks on the LP was inspired by a trip to see the Northern Lights, which subsequently did not appear. So, first off, what was it like, not seeing the Northern Lights?

Well, the trip wasn’t actually to see the Northern Lights. I’d been asked by DJ/Producer and Tromsø native Charlotte Bendiks to present the Sun Ritual club night that we do every year in Glasgow on the day they celebrate the first light after the winter of darkness in Tromsø. We hire all these big festival lights and put it in a small club to create an amazing light show and give the crowd a fake Vitamin D rush! I’d hoped to see the real Northern Lights when I was there too, but unfortunately, they didn’t play ball, so you could consider this track inspired by my quest to see them, or by the lights we hired for the party!

There are a lot of collaborators on this record, and it ambitiously spans the last seven years of your life. You have a new live show coming up. How are you planning to replicate the record in that context?

We have Mame, whose on the record quite a bit, he's a vocalist I met in Uganda and subsequently in Amsterdam by absolute chance. The album has a lot of these serendipitous characters I happened to meet along the way, and he was certainly one of them. I just bumped into him at this festival. He's quite a spiritual person and he told me, “I can see, in the future, that we are going to do stuff together.” And I was like, “Alright mate, yeah.” But then he was proved correct as we properly connected after that and he ended up being a big voice on the record and part of the live show. The other member of the live show is Yohan Kedebe, who I was introduced to via the extended Brownswood family. He’s a virtuoso keys player who’s uncle happens to be Ethiopian jazz legend Mulatu!

How does the earthy, light-hearted Glaswegian thing you've got going on work with those more earnest, spiritually-minded collaborators you tend to gravitate towards? Has your mindset and perspective towards the world developed accordingly over the past seven years?

Glasgow is very much a no-nonsense place. If you start to talk about anything a bit too fluffy, it will get beaten out of you. Literally, beaten out of you. So, there's not really much space to find your emotional or your spiritual side on the harder streets of Glasgow, when you're struggling to find the money to buy your roll and sausage and your paper. It's very 'real', in that sort of sense. But I've always been very interested in learning about people. And I'm very much a people person, and I'll speak to anyone so when I travel, if I speak to someone and they want to talk about spirituality then I'm interested.

Right, it's like that you don't have to attend an Ashra ceremony to appreciate the music of Alice Coltrane, you can still understand the context.

Absolutely, and music is spiritual whether you like it or not. House music is spiritual: Iff you go to Sub Club, it's can be spiritual if you let it be. I always found seeing a DJ play to a room of people is an introspective experience and I like that about it, but we just don't tend to talk or think about it in those terms. I think that's a lot to do with the reason that many people in the mainstream don't understand club culture or house or techno. And then, to make things worse, EDM comes along and cannibalises the true house music with its cold, clinical commerciality. Within dance music, you've got a massive gulf with these two extreme ends, but I do get worried when I see even the underground techno scene moving to something much more commercialised – it loses the spiritual connection that I once had.

I think you've managed to present what would have been patronisingly referred to as 'world music' in a conscientious manner. It's been eight years since you founded the Highlife parties in Glasgow. How do you think the public response to your music has changed since then, especially in regards to lingering questions about appropriation?

It's evolving all the time, which is something people maybe miss or readily forget in the world of Twitter and globalised appropriation politics - the debate is constantly maturing as people talk and the narrative evolves. A lot of stuff we did in the early days of Highlife was purely aimed locally to Glasgow - it was just presenting this music that we wanted to hear, in Glasgow, to Glaswegians. Then, by virtue of the internet and our early releases, the sounds and concepts we were pushing started to be consumed by different people around the world. Some were inspired, and started getting interested in the same kinds of music we were playing, although we weren't the only ones leading that charge, for sure. And eight years later, every festival has the so-called 'world music' represented in one form or another, which is a good thing – but has to be done in the right way. The way I justify my space as a DJ, is just to listen to lots of music, to discover music that I think nobody else is playing, and present it to whatever audience I'm booked to play to. So that means that I'll inevitably play lots of different styles, mix and match lots of music from lots of different countries, and it's hopefully different to anyone else but done in a way that’s respectful to the artists.

Sure, but Djing is a different discipline to making a record with international artists. I had in mind the moment on 'One Guitar' in which the artist quite literally has the space to tell his story.

One Guitar was narrated by Dan Mugula, who’s a Ugandan musician in his 70s. We interviewed him as part of the Santuri activity in Bayimba festival in 2015, where I spent a week collaborating. I was fascinated by his story around the music he makes, but didn’t want it to be just about him entirely, so used a field recording I made in Bali and then created a track around that with his vocal.

One of the starting points of the album was realising that I personally don’t have one place, and that my ears are always open to something that's just unusual or interesting. I've met a few DJs who turn up for a gig, and they don't explore the place, they just go to the hotel, perform and get the flight home. And they would say, “I'm really depressed, with all the travelling.” But they never really take a look around to try and get at least a sense of a place. 

So when I’ve got an opportunity to stay a few days in a place, I’ll try to take it and that’s what often leads to the collaborations you’ll hear on the album. It’s probably a longer and more arduous career path than packing in as many gigs as possible but ultimately I think it’s more rewarding. Other DJs might want to follow a different path and pack as many gigs in as many places in as possible.

I think there's the fear of what they will happen if they take their foot off the gas. Not to mention, we're in 'the visibility industry' now, as Mat Dryhurt so eloquently puts it.

That's a great term, isn't it? You have to try and not get too depressed about it, but being a creative nowadays and having a creative outlet, be that an album, a radio show, Djing, whatever, but actually, what it boils down to is how good you are at Instagram! Are that you also good at Twitter! Are you really good at networking with the right people? And it becomes more than ever before about those things… with the actual music almost an afterthought.

You have visited and played in Cuba in recent years, which I know is a very different environment, musically, socially and politically. How did that alter your creative process?

I've been twice now, and the first trip was especially good, simply as it was such a culture shock to go there. It's really hard to put your finger on - given the different systems in place, there's just a totally different atmosphere. It seemed like everyone was making a different form of music, and it seemed like everyone was really good at it. There was also, unfortunately, a taint of the dark side of EDM culture from America. Obviously, it's quite close geographically and Major Lazer played a big, sponsored gig while we were there, which was having a big influence on the music the kids were making. To us as westerners, there was an innocence and openness that seemed foreign but very welcome at first, but then you talk to a lot of people and they just hate the political system there and want desperately to get away from it. They were often poor, and felt that they didn't have the same rights that they see in the rest of the world. And they do see it now, as access to the internet is possible. This, along with the government relaxing its stance on trade means that modern Cuban is changing really fast, and that includes modern Cuban music too.

Part of this record was recorded in your Mum's garden. What did you utilise in the garden to establish such a succinct rhythm?

The stones! The track you're referring to is 'Magic Stones Skit'. My Mum's got quite a nice garden now. She's retired and spends a lot of time tending to it and doing it up, so it's very nice. So we've got Mame nDiack over with us to perform at the Edinburgh Festival, for the BBC World Service, in front of this live TV audience. At that time, I didn't have a band or a live show, but they started putting the pressure on me. I'd just met this guy for the second time, and said I'd love to bring this guy over, he's a great personality and it will cover the fact that I can't play anything. Then we got into the ridiculous Visa situation, relying on the kindness of strangers and letters from the BBC to pick up the Visa from Amsterdam to get him in. I didn't know if he was going to make it, but he did get it at the last minute, although he didn't have his passport. He chased it to Dusseldorf and it wasn't there! He got in about half-an-hour before this live, televised thing. It was a great experience, and he smashed it. On the back of that, we'd also arranged this mini-Scottish tour for him to join us, and we got some studio time. The track Mame's Story is actually just him recounting trying to get that visa, which is obviously an issue for a lot of artists who want to perform in the UK these days.

But to go back to your original question; he's a very spiritual guy, so the rest of us, the unenlightened ones, we just saw a load of stones in my Mum's garden. But he saw magic stones! And he picks them up and starts playing them against the plant pot, as you do. And of course, I had to record that moment. We might have to take a bit of my Mum's garden on tour to recreate it.

I've recently been reading 'The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity' by Kwame Appiah. It basically argues that we're each a lot more fluid and contradictory than the current template for thinking about the politics of identity would allow, and I must admit, I thought of you as a bit of a case study. I primarily think of you as Brian from Glasgow, then the DJ and producer Auntie Flo, but of course, you're also a person of colour. You couldn't possibly speak for the lived experiences of every collaborator on the record, but do you think being a POC you get a pass on those questions of appropriation?

That's an interesting question. I would agree with the sentiment you describe, in the sense that it seems to me we're at a turning point, although I'm no historian. It seems to me that we're at this stage when there are so many elements to our culture that our binary and that is problematic - what really worries me is that seems to be not only from a right-wing perspective, but from also from a left-wing one.

I'm mixed-race, my Mother is from Goa in India – growing up, that had absolutely no bearing on who I was as a person (aside from the odd minor racism that I had to put up with at school), and my Mum was at pains to stress that I was, as you put it, “Brian from Glasgow.” And when she was asked where she was from, she would always say, “I'm British.” She has lived in Britain longer than anywhere else, although she was actually born in Kenya. I would say I was British with Kenyan heritage. Then, someone at school told me, “No, you're not half-Kenyan, your Mum's heritage is Indian/Goan.” The point is, growing up, it really didn’t matter that much what my heritage was in the formation of my personal identity. Now, more than ever before, people seem to think this is important.

To be defined based on your identity in terms of race or gender, I abhor that. But I also see the other side of the coin, in which things need to be equalised, and there's a terrible history of racism and discrimination which is still ongoing. But whether we achieve that through the current means of telling people to shut up because they're this or that meaning  we can’t have an honest discussion about things and give people some benefit of the doubt, this is worrying. I also think that it's depressing how this has infiltrated the mainstream narrative of dance music now, and I think there are people out there cynically using it to their advantage – I see plenty of people who’d never been that vocal or passionate about identity politics using it to further their own careers. On one side this is fair enough, but on the other its really depressing. Having said that, I’m prob a little guilty of that too!

I'm increasingly suspicious of 'wokeness' as currency. Brands, too, trying to sell you products with a concern for mental health, feminism or equality. I'm not particularly radical on these matters, but I'm amazed at how people lap this shit up when it seems so transparent.

Well, you always assume that you or I, or anyone in the so-called 'underground' can see right through it, because it's packaged for a mainstream audience. In our capitalist society, corportations are by definition doing what they're doing to make money. Now, more than ever, they are dominant in every aspect of culture, meaning they can take ownership of the debate and start to direct it in a way that suits them.

As I said before, I’m guilty too – for example, when we were doing the press release, I said, “Look, instead of me just being a bloke from Glasgow who lives in London, why don't we mention I have Goan-Kenyan heritage?”. I'd never have done that in the past, but being aware that identity is more important to people I asked for it to be included. Maybe it’s become more important to me too or maybe that’s the capitalist in me!

On a lighter note, I really enjoy your Worldwide FM show, and I love that you play in front of a lovely looking quilt. I also like how you'll sometimes play a few tracks from one artist. Nobody really does that!

You'll notice I only do it at the start of the show, when I'm worried I'm going to run out of music, and never at the end. Often, I'm listening to the radio show myself as I do it, and I've only heard the track once before, but I'll think, “Wow this is good, I'll play another by them.” I'd like to think the show can introduce people to artists and music that are new to them, so if they're good, why not do two or three tracks from an album? Hopefully that's an alright service.

Given your taste as a DJ and producer, being signed to Brownswood and broadcasting on Worldwide seems like an obvious spot for you. When you began developing your taste as a younger man, was Giles an influence?

Kind of, but not in the way you might think. When we started Highlife, we actually thought, “Who's doing something similar?” And we obviously thought of Giles Peterson. But Giles can’t ever play all the music in the world so we actually kind of established Highlife as being a party where we play stuff that Giles Peterson probably wouldn't play! (Laughs.)

Don't worry, there are probably kids out there who are desperate to do a party where they play everything Auntie Flo doesn't...

Hah, yes! That would be a dream come true.

John Thorp, October 2018.

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