By Seb Whyte
Glaswegian audiophile Brian D’Souza, aka Auntie Flo, has quickly established himself as a central figure in a strand of club music which fuses together electronic and world influences. His unique incorporation of multicultural sound is breathing new life into house and through his club night, ‘Highlife’, D’Souza has been educating the masses on the importance of cultural awareness.
His 2016 album ‘Theory of Flo’ was recently nominated for the Scottish Album of the Year award, a record which he describes as “a celebration of our differences – by culture, by religion and by language; by the traditional and the modern, by place – east, west, rich, poor. There are no borders only endless possibilities”
RCRD find him on a Friday afternoon at Shoreditch’s ‘Book Club’ for an in depth discussion on all things musical.
Starting from the beginning, can you tell us about how it all began?
I was interested in music and started collecting vinyl records when I was about 16. When I was 17, in my last year of school, I got more into the House and Techno club scene, going to Soma Records parties, The Arches and places like that and I got turntables around that time. I was interested in music but there wasn’t very many other people who were. There certainly weren’t any other DJs at my school for some reason, it’s crazy to think that, because obviously everyone’s a DJ now but at that time no one was. Literally, I only had two friends who were actually into left field kinds of music or exploring different music, so we’d go to festivals. I went to T in the Park three years in a row, when I was 15, 16 and 17 and I used to go to Barrowlands to see concerts like Massive Attack and The Field and people like that. That was kind of my introduction to loud electronic music.
So when I got to Edinburgh University I found loads of people that were also into dance music and into clubs and were budding bedroom djs. So, literally within a few days we’d formed a little crew, and after a month or so we started to put on small nights in different student areas and that was my first experience of DJing.
From those early days how did things transition into ‘Highlife’ and your involvement with Autonomous Africa and Huntley & Palmers, how did that all transpire?
So throughout University I was promoting a night called Pogo Vogue and we were pushing left-field Electronica. We were the first club night to book Ricardo Villalobos in the UK and we booked people like Four Tet, Manitoba/Caribou. That was some of the first things we did, back in the days when they were small.
Then I had to finish that at the end of my University days and move back to Glasgow. I got involved with a night called ‘Slabs of the Tabernacle’ with three other mates, we were pushing Detroit Techno, Chicago House, Disco, Italo Disco and proper Electro as well. We did that for 2 or 3 years and it’s still going on in a much more reduced format but that was quite intense. The nights we were doing were fun and as a DJ it was really fun to explore those genres of music, but, I just naturally found myself starting to explore more African or Latin American things, music that was out of that House/Techno kind of spectrum that we were playing at Slabs. I still loved those genres but I just found myself buying a lot more stuff that was outside of that.
So, a couple of years before that I’d met Andrew [Thomson], I didn’t really know him that well but I’d been aware of Huntley & Palmers and what he’d been doing with that, the lineups, the bookings and stuff like that, but I knew him well enough to say “Hi”. Then over a period we got into various conversations about how we were seeing really fresh and interesting music coming out that was of, what we thought, a unique style and we came up with the idea for Highlife off the back of those conversations. He was doing parties in London, regularly promoting Plastic People and loads of other stuff. He’d booked Rebolledo from Cómeme records, who was part of the Pachanga Boys at the time, to do a London show and I was like: “We should do a Glasgow show”. So we decided to come together to promote this Glasgow show and I said “Cool, what shall we call it? Shall we just do it as a one off or shall we do it as a club night?”. We decided to do it as a club night and we came up with the name Highlife, because I had a Soundway record that was called “Modern Highlife” in front of me at the time so I said “What about Highlife?”. That was how Highlife came together, in May 2010, around then we formed the idea of what it was and we’ve solidly stuck to that since and the Auntie Flo thing kind of happened at the same time…
The two ends sort of came about parallel, Auntie Flo basically was records that I felt I could play at Highlife, that was the original starting point, it’s quite varied stuff. I did Highlife and I got back into producing, because I was producing ages ago when I was a student and then after that I got more into experimental sound and sonic kind of electro acoustic stuff and other stuff outside of the club world. So I got back into doing stuff that was a lot more club focussed, stuff you could DJ with basically. I sent the early demos for Auntie Flo to Andy and he was really into them so we decided to release them and there’s how the Auntie Flo name came about.
You asked about Autonomous Africa, I think I actually had never met Keith from Optimo properly and I’d always been a fan of them. Before we started Highlife I got in touch with him, just out of the blue, random you know like: “Hi, I’ve fucking never met you but I’m a big fan, this is what we’re going to do and check out my mix”. It was great because Keith gets back to every single email and he got back to it saying: “I’ve been aware of what you’ve been doing, It’s courageous blah blah blah” so that was the start of our relationship there and obviously since then we’d see each other out and about at gigs and things and we’ve done gigs together.
Was there a specific record, album or moment that made you want to bridge the gap between Western Music and ‘World Music’, if so, what made you want to share that experience?
There wasn’t a specific record but what happened was, that Rebolledo night that I was talking about, Me and Andy were bonding over these early Cómeme records, which I still think are absolutely phenomenal, the first six releases on Cómeme really blew my mind. I was playing a lot of Chicago House at the time and they were basically like Chicago House but with this Latin feel, so I thought “Wow, that’s really fresh” but then it wasn’t just because of those records. It made me suddenly think, I mean you can talk about Cottam and his edit series, you can talk about some of the Ricardo Villalobos stuff that was sampling things like that, you can talk about a whole host of different things! Like Carl Craig was doing a lot of afro stuff, there’s a lot of artists that all of a sudden I realised “Ah, hang on there’s a lot of people that are doing this”. It wasn’t like they weren’t doing it before, it definitely wasn’t like I was discovering it for the first time. I think, I personally just joined a few dots together and just went “hang on, there’s something in this that I don’t feel like I’m getting in Glasgow, certainly in the nights I’m involved with.” I thought that maybe we could do something to explore and introduce people who are wanting to come out to nights to this new musical mix that we were into as well. So it was a combination of those things, I don’t think it was a specific record.
I was reading quite a lot at the time, which takes us over to the more academic side as well. I’m in no way an academic but there’s certain things that I’ve kind of gravitated towards. So I was reading ‘Sonic Warfare’ by Steve Goodman [aka. Kode9], that was interesting, in that he cites the Black Atlantic and a lot of Kodwo Eshun, who is a very insightful, intelligent thinker in terms of afro-futurism and black music in general. That was how I got introduced to Kodwo Eshun so I started to look into some of his stuff and then I got introduced to Paul Gilroy and the whole concept of Black Atlantic and I tried to work out what that was, and I realised it’s such a simple thing. It’s basically the route from slavery, into the Americas and up to North America, that has helped to influence African Musical culture coming in. You have all these different pockets, wherever that slave trade has spread to has had a big influence in terms of the music. So, for example, Zamba in Latin America is very African based, in Colombia there is a town that is almost like an African town, there is a massive ‘slave’ influence there. So you could trace it up and talk about Blues music, you can talk about Jazz, Soul, obviously, and then you go up to Chicago House, Detroit Techno, New York House, these are all black, African American, music and styles that have been influenced by basically this percussive, rhythm based music. Then that comes back around and obviously in the UK anything with a drum machine is like a rhythm based sort of song. So I realised that this basically means that I can kill a lot of birds with one stone, I can play a Chicago House record and a Disco record or whatever but I can also do that with an African record or a Zamba record or an Afrobeat record or whatever! I can put these all together and the skill, and what we try to do with Highlife, is put them together in a sort of way that works for the dancefloor. There’s nothing more than that, but I can break a boundary which is like; “This is a techno night and this is a house night”. Glasgow is very good for breaking these kinds of boundaries, first of all there’s Optimo and that’s what they’ve championed for years, but having talked to Keith, he was still held back on the world influenced type music. He felt like there was still a barrier up from an audience to connect with that music on a dancefloor. It has changed quite a lot in the last few years but certainly when we’re talking about 6 years ago that was still very much evident, whilst they could be as eclectic as they like it still didn’t feel like they could really explore that. Whereas, we thought we would fill that niche and that’s what we did and still try to do with Highlife.
Do you think the Western world undervalues music a bit? I used the term ‘World Music’ before and I know you probably hate that term as it’s quite restrictive, however, what’s your opinion on where music lies now?
The thing is… It’s super simple to just go “World Music is bad” and obviously, as a term it has very cynical, ‘marketing man’ type beginnings. It’s basically a way of packaging all of the music outside of the West into one neat little package that people can get involved in. So as to whether that devalues music outside the west? Of course it does, because it packages everything together. But it depends how much you want to get involved in this kind of thing, because if you’re open minded enough to listen to World Music maybe that means that you’re happy to listen to something from Cuba, something from Thailand or something from India that’s fine, great, good for you go and do that.
No musician likes to be pigeon holed and I almost feel like every genre is irrelevant these days because you very rarely get a band that just wants to say they are ‘a rock band’ or a DJ that just plays a certain genre. All genres come from a time in the 60s, 70s, 80s, or whatever where music was much more tribal and rigid in terms of what it is. Even then it was still difficult to categorise but you would base it on “these guys play guitar”, “these guys play saxophone” but nowadays you’ve got bands that basically do a mix of everything and obviously we’ve also got the computer at the core of most music production which gives you access to everything. This whole cross pollination of different styles is happening all over the place.
I understand the reasons for the “World Music” umbrella, it’s the same thing as any genre tagging. In some ways they’re really unhelpful but in other ways they are helpful because it’s easier for human beings to package them together. I think that we’ve got a real problem nowadays with the way that music is so intermeshed and mixed together because the genre tagging doesn’t really work. Also, not only that, but people’s listening habits don’t really help genres. We’re part of this playlist generation, people are well versed in Spotify and Apple Music and all these other ways in which you can discover music and they don’t want to just subscribe to one style of music. “I want to listen to something from the 60s followed by something from the modern day”, they want to mix and match music. It is all to do with how you combine these things together based on other factors like mood or energy levels, whatever works for you in that context and that could be all sorts of stuff so it’s really difficult: “I’m going to go for a run so I want high energy music” or “I’m going to cook, so I want something that’s chilled”, or “i’m going to go on a journey in my car”. Genres are coming up more and more obsolete.
So I’m going to ask about the Theory of Flo, your second album nominated for Scottish Album of The Year, can you tell us the story behind the process of that and why do you think it so acclaimed? Through maturity?… Just tell me about your process.
When we released “Future Rhythm Machine”, that was like the Third release I’d ever put out, the two before that was the start of Auntie Flo as a name. So naturally we were completely independent, we did that live so that was completely new, to play as an artist in that kind of way and I feel like we were very lucky to get out and be as visible as what we were because it’s hard, I’ve got friends that are struggling or finding it very difficult and I’m thinking we were very lucky that that stuff came about, so in a lot of ways I feel like Future Rhythm Machine went as well as what we could’ve hoped.
In terms of Theory of Flo, four years later, you basically have four years of releasing music, touring around, meeting people, introducing them to your sound…
… Am I right in saying that Theory of Flo uses less sampling and more recorded elements?
Yes. Future Rhythm Machine, is based on writings of Kodwo Eshun and is all to do with this Afrofuturist idea where you take stuff that is in the past and you regurgitate it into something new, so the decision I made was to take some samples and make it into something new and relevant to me. After having released a few records, kind of getting more of a name and doing these collaborations and stuff like that. I was in this position where I didn’t have to use samples because I could actually go and record stuff, so that’s a much better way of working. Sampling is one of these things, obviously it exists as a perfectly acceptable form of art, but I wanted to move away from that because if you are able to go record the real thing you may as well do that. Obviously in the Future Rhythm Machine days I couldn’t do that because I was just doing that in my bedroom… I’m still kind of doing that it my bedroom now but let’s say I have a bit more of a budget to play with.
So anyway, Theory of Flo again started in my bedroom,with a little hardware setup. I recorded for like two or three days and made the body of the tracks. The main album was done in like three days and then it was very much an editing process for a long time. I ripped it up three times and started again and eventually it came out as what it is and that took two years. A lot of this stuff is serendipitous when you’re getting yourself out there as an artist, a musician, a creative, whatever you’re doing opportunities seemingly might come your way. So for example, Shingai Shoniwai’s manager got in touch with me, because they were into my music or whatever, and they were like “Do you want to meet up with her? Maybe you can produce together?” because she was looking to go off in a solo direction. So that was just serendipitous – “okay, cool get on the album”. With Anbuley, I was playing out a record that was released on Wrong Island, which is another Glasgow connection, Teamy’s label. Teamy’s got Anbuley as a singer and I love this record I’ve played it out for Subclub and he was like, “Oh, I’ll link you up with the vocalist”. So I started speaking to her, she was really interested in getting involved, we flew her over and that’s when we recorded and why she’s the main voice of the album. There’s a couple of other connections, I wanted to do some live drums, I did a remix for Red Snapper, Richard Thair was the drummer he said he’d sort it out, I said instead of paying me for the remix could you do some drums. Poppy [Ackroyd, strings] I’d known from University, I really wanted a violinist on one of the tracks so I got her involved. So it was all just like who do you know in your network that you can get involved and you make these connections overtime and you just say come and get involved come and get involved. So that is how that all came about.
I heard that during those two years Ricky Stein gave you his thoughts on the album, how did you get in touch with him and what did he say? Was it early in the process?
Quite early, I mean it was so random, this day we were in Esa Williams’ studio and we were working with Shingai and we were kind of recording stuff with her and the way that it worked is that I had the track I’d made in my bedroom before and that was the body of the track and we had it in a loop, a four minute or five minute recording. Shingai listened to that and tried to come up with lyrics, she would go away and thinking about that and we’d just be hanging about all day and we were in the studio and all of a sudden this guy just walks in and I’m like, who’s this guy? We start just chatting and he’s a nice guy, we didn’t honestly have a clue who he was and Shingai, was like “Oh this is Ricky”. Okay cool, “Hi Ricky”, and that’s why he was there and she knows a lot of people, it was quite random we didn’t know… We were just like let’s roll with it. He just sat there and said do you mind if I stay and I’m like alright, cool. So he sat down and listened to us recording and then gets chatting, and eventually we work out, or he tells us, I don’t know but somehow we find out that he’s Fela Kuti’s manager. It was completely random I still don’t know how he managed to get into the house or the studio. Then he just spends his day telling us all kinds of stories about Fela so yeah he was just an inspiration he said he liked the tracks we were doing, I think he knew Shingai through ‘FELA!: The Musical’, or a Fela retrospective that she was involved with.
Throughout your time with Highlife you’ve always booked groundbreaking international artists most of which are quite unknown to your general music lover, is there anyone at the moment that you think you’d like to collaborate with in the future. Someone up and coming or someone already well established?
It’s a difficult one, someone that I’ve collaborated with before which is Eric Alejandro from Cuba. We worked together in Cuba and we released one record together, I would really like to do more stuff with him because he’s amazing. He was over in Europe recently and I was chatting to him and saying I really wanted to bring him to London but the problem was to get into London you needed a separate Visa. It just wasn’t going to be possible, it was going to be expensive, which is really frustrating because I even had some studio time lined up for him and now he’s gone back to Cuba.
Distance and proximity makes it very difficult to do these kinds of collaborations. I’ve been lucky to be able to travel to Cuba but that opportunity doesn’t come around that often. So extending that, finding out ways in which I could do that would be cool. So for example, I’d love to go to somewhere like Japan there’s a couple of people I know there. There is DJ Grount that we had on our Rinse FM show who’s doing some great stuff, there’s this guy Mystica Tribe I’ve talked to for a while we’ve always talked about collaborating he’s just released a really nice EP actually and they’re doing stuff which is again in line with the whole Highlife concept. There’s this cross pollinated sound but there’s still something in essence which is inherently Japanese about it and I’d love to go out and do something with them. But also maybe being able to do something with more traditional instruments would be amazing. I was up in the Arctic Circle where we did the Toms for ‘Sun Ritual’, even further north we have the Sami people who have an amazing type of music that is based on singing and it would be amazing to collaborate with these kinds of people. Anywhere you look at the indigenous or traditional music there is a culture there that should be preserved and these people are preserving it. I’m not saying that I would help in that kind of way but I would love to be able to collaborate with them, just to be able to explore and learn more about that kind of music and it’s history and traditions as well.
By Seb Whyte