Afrodeutsche at the Pace event space in Railtown, 520 Alexander St., Vancouver, Sunday, Sept. 29, 12:30 a.m. (newformsfestival.com/program).
Manchester DJ Afrodeutsche, on her first visit to North America, is playing a set this weekend in Vancouver as part of the New Forms Festival.
The annual audio-visual festival showcases independent artists and musicians from around the world, performing alongside local and emerging talent. The Japanese Language School & Hall and the neighbouring Pace event space will be hosting the majority of the festival’s events starting Sept. 25 and running through Sept. 29, with other shows taking place at various venues around Vancouver.
Henrietta Smith-Rolla (a.k.a. Afrodeutsche) has been building a massive buzz for her music on the Manchester scene for several years now first playing in bands and then moving out front as an electronic musician/producer and DJ.
Last year she released her debut album, Break Before Make, on Skam Records and also began a monthly residency on Saturday nights streaming globally over the internet from the NTS Radio studios in Manchester.
The nom de plume of the British-born Ghanaian/Russian/German musicmaker is loaded with signifiers and meaning. Not only does the name Afrodeutsche zero in on some of her musical obsessions it also taps into her family DNA and the search for a father she has never met.
Afrodeutsche’s dramatic, cinematic electronic music explores sound in the same way Smith-Rolla researches her family history with deep dives into archival data. She takes everything into a personal realm in both the Break Before Make compositional process and in her DJ sessions.
Over the past decade Afrodeutsche has established a presence within Manchester’s underground electronic scene – at one point she was in a band with 808 State’s Graham Massey, and like him has an ongoing fascination with analog hardware set-ups.
On her debut album she used a Yamaha DX7 and a Korg MS2000, with other synths filtered through amps to get more “analog warmth,” she told Josie Roberts in a Red Bull Academy interview.
As a DJ she builds her sound with a fierce love for the Detroit techno esthetics of the Underground Resistance collective mixed with a myriad of U.K. techno styles exemplified by the likes of Claro Intelecto and Randomer.
Resident Advisor’s Breaking Through describes a live set-up Afrodeutsche recently used for a show as an “Ableton mapped to two controllers and a Novation X-Station synth.”
On Sept. 14, Aphex Twin played his first gig in London in over a decade and chose Afrodeutsche to close out his special night with her own set.
Smith-Rolla arrived on the East Coast earlier this week for shows in Montreal and Toronto before heading out to Vancouver to perform this weekend. She spoke to the North Shore News before playing live on a bill with electronic artist Marie Davidson in Montreal at the Red Bull Music Festival.
North Shore News: Your stage name fits your musical persona perfectly. How did you come up with it?
Afrodeutsche: I started looking for my dad and I found out that he was actually born in Ghana but he left for Germany in the late ’40s, early ’50s. He was on a scholarship, He was an artist and through the research and looking for him and delving into German and Ghanaian history I found out that Germany and Russia had colonized Germany from the 1500s.
Russia and Germany have this huge connection with Ghana and they were the words that kept on coming up while I was doing this research – Afro Deutsche – and it just kind of dawned on me that it made sense. It had these links to the music I was listening to growing up and things like Underground Resistance and Afro Germanic and never really understanding that at the time when it came round but then realizing there was a massive connection.
I’ve been obsessed with Germany all my life so I ended up calling all my German friends and asking them what this word meant and if it had any connotations or history and everyone just said it’s an historical word and nobody uses it. There was like a moment in bed where I just realized OK this makes a lot of sense for me.
North Shore News: What was it like growing up in the English countryside in Devon?
Afrodeutsche: Devon is a beautiful, beautiful place. It was my reality, so it was challenging. It was all I knew. I have amazing friends and I had my mom with me but it was quite a severely racist part of the U.K. in the ’80s you know. It was very complex but I wouldn’t have wished to have lived anywhere else as a child. I have that love for it.
North Shore News: Manchester has a rich musical history. Why did you decide to move there and how did you connect with it?
Afrodeutsche: I fell in love with a jazz musician who lived in Manchester. There was one point on the train coming back to London where I was living at the time – I used to cry every time I had to leave – and it just struck me maybe I shouldn’t live in London anymore maybe I should move to Manchester and be there. It was love. Love brought me to Manchester. I fell in love with someone – it ended up not working out but I couldn’t leave Manchester after that. It’s very much my second home. The only place besides Devon where I’ve felt like it’s really home.
North Shore News: How did you get established in Manchester as a musician?
Afrodeutsche: It was over a really long time. Manchester is very small, music scene-wise, and luckily there’s a lot of amazing musicians there and amazing nurturing, too. They would simply ask me to do something, you know, “Play drums on this track or play live for me here or sing on this thing.” I really enjoyed saying yes to things I didn’t know I could do. It was a combination of basically being very adventurous and saying, “Yes I’ll play on your radio show and play keys – I can’t read music but I’m going to have a go,” and then it moved to me teaching myself how to play certain instruments. They’re all friends, you know. It’s like a family. There’s a lot of nurturing musicians in Manchester. There’s a lot of different scenes music-wise but they all seem to connect.
North Shore News: In your music you have a lot of different influences including Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Alfred Hitchcock’s films.
Afrodeutsche: I have a real love for film scores. Music that is meant for the moving image. A lot of Herrmann’s music is processing emotion. It’s translating the emotion that’s going on either in the moving image or something separate. There’s so much feeling through the music – that’s why I think I love Bernard Herrmann so much. He’s so dark. I think it’s really interesting when someone is able to translate that darkness but always with optimism. There’s always a way out – it’s not the end. He can make the sounds of darkness but you’re not necessarily processing that darkness and I think that’s something he’s so good at. It helps me make sense of stuff.
North Shore News: Music journalist Kamila Rymajdo has written an article for Dazed about the history of women DJ’s in Manchester, or rather the lack of them until the mid-’90s, “The women who’ve been written out of Manchester clubbing history” – How did you find the scene when you arrived?
Afrodeutsche: It’s a difficult question to answer that because again my reality was I didn’t face any direct challenges that I was aware of. To DJ it was like you just did it you know you did what you wanted. I used to do a night, called Clap Trap, with my friend Jackie. We used to DJ as The Clap because it was our favourite sound on the drum machine and it also sounds like something you might catch. Clap Trap means ‘nonsense’ so we basically called it that so we could play whatever we wanted. Sometimes we did just hip-hop and then we’d do retro stuff and then we’d just do really jacking house stuff. I didn’t face any challenges in that way in Manchester. I’m not dismissing other people’s experiences. I didn’t focus mainly on DJing – I was in bands, things like that, so it might have been different if I was only DJing. It was great – I love playing in Manchester.
North Shore News: On Break Before Make you use a selection of analog synths – are you always on the lookout for new hardware?
Afrodeutsche: I am always looking at stuff but I never buy stuff. I just look and I like to see how much things cost. They go down, they go up, I quite like watching the trends on that stuff but I tend to try and keep things quite minimal. I like to keep my tools quite narrow so I can just work within my space. If I have too much gear on the go I get a bit lost. I have a few things and they will work for me that time. I will usually sell something and buy something new or old. I’m a bit of a hoarder so it could get really, really terrible.
North Shore News: Your label Skam Records is part of that rich Manchester music history – how has it been working with them on your debut release?
Afrodeutsche: It’s been a complete dream. Being a fan of Skam since late teens it was like a dream – is this really happening? I love Andy (Maddocks) deeply he’s a very special human. He never goes out, or he does, but you never see him. I felt very lucky that he came to the Aphex show last week and we almost had like a Manchester reunion. The label is just legendary and I just feel very lucky that I’m part of it.
North Shore News: Your monthly NTS Radio residency Black Forest has a global reach with very local roots. What’s it like on the ground in the studio?
Afrodeutsche: Black Forest is really a way of me telling another story. I don’t know if you noticed but last year the theme was Blade Runner, so I ended up doing lots of edits of the film music and adding [dialogue] in between tracks. I come from the world of hip-hop and very much from that world of skits in between album tracks. Last year was a Blade Runner theme and this year has been ’80s and ‘90s television ads. I’m always going back into my history, I’m always going back into things I loved as a teenager. When I DJ it’s music that I listened to when I was younger and I like to play with that. It’s just a nice opportunity for me to talk again with music but also get that TV, film element in there.
North Shore News: How do you put it together? What’s the vibe like? Do you have an audience?
Afrodeutsche: When I go into the studio, yea, I usually invite friends down and it’s kind of like a social thing. I usually record with my friend’s CDJ and I just do the set all the way through and then I will edit anything I’ve made or created into that. It’s basically a combination of going into the studio having a good time and then sometimes because I’m away a lot I’ll record the whole thing on CDJ, do the whole mix and then do some editing afterwards, so there’s a few processes to it.
North Shore News: Have you been to North America before?
Afrodeutsche: No, this is my first time. It’s amazing.
North Shore News: You mentioned you like to keep it minimalist - are you travelling with much stuff?
Afrodeutsche: I travel with as little as I can. One of those tricks I’ve learned is pack lightly with things that are essential that I need. I don’t carry records anymore, so it’s USB.
Afrodeutsche’s debut album, Break Before Make, is available on Skam Records.
She is also the first artist featured on DJ Eclair Fifi’s new label, River Rapid. A four-track EP, RR001, came out in June, 2019.
For her Black Forest NTS Radio shows, live from Manchester, visit nts.live/shows/afrodeutsche.
soundcloud.com/afrodeutsche-ad has archived Black Forest shows and other extended sets.