Music: Auntie Flo’s Future Rhythm Machine

African Influence: Auntie Flo

African Influence: Auntie Flo

It’s another rainy weekday evening in Glasgow, but somewhere in Pollokshields a micro-climate is developing.

Esa Williams is cooking boerewors, South African sausages, and the air is flavoured with cloves, cinnamon and allspice. The buzzer goes and Brian D’Souza welcomes in Dr John Lwanda, who is carrying several bags of cassettes, vinyl and CDs representing half a century of music from across sub-Saharan Africa.

Over dinner, they discuss their various routes to Glasgow: Lwanda arrived from Malawi in 1970 to study medicine; Williams left Cape Town in 2004 to take a job in Aberdeen; D’Souza is born and bred, courtesy of Idi Amin deporting his Goan mother from Uganda in the early 1970s. They are assembled here out of a typical journalistic conceit: to bring together the archivist – Lwanda has one of the world’s largest collections of Malawian music, a PhD on the topic, and authored the Malawi chapter in the Rough Guide to World Music – and the innovators – D’Souza and Williams run Highlife, a club night and radio show that regularly exploits the genetic match between house and African music to sublime effect. D’Souza also records as Auntie Flo (his first mini-album, Future Rhythm Machine, was awarded 5/5 in Q Magazine), while Williams DJs in his own right as Esa Marvin Granger Williams and runs the Rememory record label.

Of course it’s not as simple as that. The music in Lwanda’s carrier bags doesn’t bear a simple genealogy and nor does the post-“world music” created by D’Souza as Auntie Flo. African polyrhythms have been slipping in and out of the Western musical mainstream over the past few years, with artists including Vampire Weekend, Beyonce and Dirty Projectors, while UK-based labels such as Soundway and Lwanda’s own Pamtondo have gathered and re-released tracks from across the continent. Meanwhile, African-influenced tracks such as Jackie McLean and Michael Carvin’s De I Comahlee A, from 1975, have found favour with DJs including Four Tet and the recent Daphni (of Caribou) album features a remix of Togolese Cos-Ber-Zam’s Ne Noya. Similarly, Western music has been drifting to Africa for decades via colonisers and cargo ships. But for now, it’s all about the cassette player.

“This tape player has been in my cupboard for years,” says D’Souza, 30, indicating a two-deck machine assembled beside a turntable, CD player and mixer. “Then we had Awesome Tapes From Africa [Highlife guest, Brian Shimkovitz, who plays cassette-only DJ sets and blogs at www.awesometapes.com] then you. This is brilliant.”

The cassette stalls in African towns and cities were discussed over dinner – it’s the most popular, affordable format for recorded music. There’s a moment of tension when Lwanda hesitates to play a cassette first, but he eventually settles on a track by Songa Mbele on the cassette compilation Kenyan Classics Vol 2, from the 1970s. As the bassline and drums kick in, Williams and D’Souza immediately spot its potential; Williams begins to beatbox over the top of it and D’Souza’s expression suggests the part of the brain that controls afro beat has lit up.

Lwanda says to listen carefully for the fade-outs every three minutes – the song is a good example of reel-to-reel recordings of the time, where only three minutes could be recorded before the tape needed to be manually changed. This evening each track is lucky to make it to three minutes before it’s whisked off to make way for another country, another decade, another style. Lwanda guides us through Pepe Kalle’s 1970s pop from the Congo (then Zaire) to a Zimbawean football song on vinyl pressed in Paris and Nigerian Prince Nico Mbarga’s Sweet Mother.

“You haven’t got Sweet Mother?” he asks D’Souza and Williams, tutting. “You don’t play African weddings, then. If you do, you have to play Sweet Mother. You have Brenda Fassie?”

“Yeah, I love her,” says Williams. “I love her sound. I like to play her tracks from time to time. She was amazing. She was this mix of divas, like Tina Turner, very synth-poppy. Miriam Makeba. Lucky Dube. Hugh Masekela, but he wasn’t a big name when I was younger.”

“He was a big name in my generation,” says Lwanda.

The Malawi Police Orchestra is up next, with a track recorded when Malawi was a one-party state that uses a football metaphor to make a veiled request for democracy: “leave them alone/it’s their team”. It’s one example of the various roles music has played – and continues to play – in Africa’s political history. While Free Nelson Mandela by the Special AKA may be the lasting musical memory of the apartheid era, Williams explains that for many the time was soundtracked by an altogether deeper sound.

“The Rhythm Syndicate was the big music store and it imported all the Chicago and Detroit house,” says the 28-year-old, whose father, Marvin Granger, ran a mobile disco specialising in underground house. “People would stand up to the government by having illegal parties. They used the parties to set up meetings and talk about how to change things, then if the police came they would think it was just a party and break it up.”

D’Souza and Williams regularly play political tracks – one of the regulars from their Highlife nights being a remix of former Sudanese child soldier Emmanuel Jal’s Kuar – but admit the music precedes the message.

“I think of music as being like a language,” says D’Souza, whose Rituals EP was recently released on legendary German label Kompact. “I delve into different musical scenes, the language and culture, then move on. Music allows you to do that. It’s one reason I became a DJ after starting out as a record collector, because DJing is more about the performance and having a platform to introduce different forms of music. Lots of DJs have their style and will stick with it for the rest of their life, but me, I’ll always look further afield.”

“Like Tony Blackburn,” says Lwanda.

Auntie Flo’s Future Rhythm Machine is on the long list for this year’s Scottish Album of the Year award. They play City of Stars festival launch party at the Arches, Glasgow, on May 30. Highlife radio show on Radio Cómeme on Soundcloud. Visit pamtondo.com and huntleyspalmers.com.

Source: Herald Scotland

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