Auntie Flo: Radio Highlife

Brian d’Souza a.k.a Auntie Flo is a guy with his fingers in lots of pies! International DJ and Producer, with three albums and numerous singles under his belt, promoter of Glasgow based party ‘Highlife’ and Radio Show Host on Giles Peterson’s Worldwide FM; his career to date has been one of unwavering success.

Spreading groovy uplifting rhythms to all through his productions and the airwaves of his Worldwide FM show ‘Radio Highlife’, under the same name, Auntie Flo proudly reveals his stunning 14-track album Radio Highlife. A project laced with heart-warming stories a plenty, we sat down with Brian to delve deeper into those tales and the roots of Auntie Flo.

With your music productions and DJing, you’re always channelling different influences. This is something you’re very passionate about. To start off, can you tell me about your early experiences with music?

Since I was a teenager, I was always a fan of music in the broadest sense. I realise looking back now, that all of my friends in school only had a passive interest in it. They would be into Pop stuff but it kind of ended there. Whereas, I would always want to explore deeper and wider. I guess that’s something that I’ve had built in from an early age, I don’t know how that happened. It all came from listening to music with my mates but also wondering, okay, what else is out there?

It wasn’t necessarily a specific style or genre, it was just whatever seemed interesting at the time. I think when you’re young and you’re just getting your first introduction to music, you can’t join those dots; it’s really difficult to understand which era, place or genre things come from. It’s just a massive inspiration like ‘WOW! This stuff exists’ – it all seems so overwhelming. I was just interested in all of it! My lifetime being involved with music is based on trying to join the dots. Even still, it’s like a lifelong quest, it never seems to end. The early stages were just exploring.

Your heritage traces back to Goa and Kenya. Was this something you were always aware of growing up? Have you always been surrounded by music from different parts of the world?

No actually. Absolutely not, in fact. Obviously, my parents would have different music on. I was actually talking about this with someone else, I think in this age of ‘identity politics’ that we live in, people are really obsessed with this question of where are you from? What’s your ethnicity or your race?

With my parents’ generation, my mum’s side is originally from Goa. She was born in Kenya and lived the first 20 years of her life there before moving here. My mum really painstakingly plays down that, because for her she feels British. She’s lived in Britain longer than she lived in Kenya, even though she did spend the first 20 years of her life there. When we were growing up, identity wasn’t really a thing for me and my sister.

Identity and things are obviously interesting, but they aren’t actually that relevant to me in terms of the music I was listening growing up. My parents would listen to western music, there was a few odd African things in there, but no more so than anyone else. At the time there was Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon – Graceland. There was some Hugh Masekela, I remember. My parents were music fans, but they weren’t big muso’s. They had a decent collection of Rock, Pop and World, but that wasn’t my entry point into the stuff I’m into now. My entry point was more in tackling this whole mass of music, that I was talking about before. Trying to decipher it and eventually get into little pockets of scenes and genres, that are taking place all around the world. That was my route.

You were born in Glasgow. You’ve grown up there through your teens and eventually started your ‘Highlife’ parties there. I’m just wondering what inspired you to start those parties? What was your situation at the time?

Highlife started in 2010. Glasgow is obviously a great city for music and it really helped me. It was amazing for me to part of the wider Glasgow music scene. There are so many people doing great things, it’s really inspirational. I think Glasgow has always been a very independent-minded city. There are a lot of people doing things for the city, for their friends and for the local community, which is great. Regardless of whatever might be going on internationally or in London, Glasgow seems to just do its own thing.

When we started Highlife, what we recognised was that there wasn’t a club night that was putting on the music, that myself and Andy Thomson were into at the time. We saw there was a space for it. We thought we would just give it a try and see what we could do. The music we were listening to was exploring different cultures and regions. We were especially interested in music that was being made by young, up-and-coming producers. They were using electronic production techniques but were more global in their approach, because they had the internet. They would be influenced by western culture as well as their own; fusing those two things together to make something new. We were finding loads of cool stuff and we made that our music policy for the club.

It’s done alright, it’s still pretty small. It’s something that we do for our friends and the local community in Glasgow, who want to go out. It’s served as a platform to launch a label with my stuff as Auntie Flo. Most of the early releases, I would try out in the club and that was a test bed for a lot of those early productions.

How do you think being from Glasgow may have influenced you as an artist now?

I think the strongest place I identify with is Glasgow. I live in London now and it’s pretty hard to identify with being in London because it’s so vast. Whereas, Glasgow is a really strong identity and I’m pretty proud of it as a city. It’s very much a DIY type of place. There is an independent spirit that runs through the veins of everyone, not just the creative community; it’s within everyone. I think that’s largely geared up from the working class, post-industrial time when Glasgow was very poor. This all came together under Thatcher government and policy, that really didn’t help the city in that post-industrial state. I think when you have a poor city, you have people who just have to make do with what they’ve got. That’s what I think has gotten this independent spirit going.

Then when you relate it to music. I remember when I was first starting to listen to music, Glasgow didn’t have the global attention that it has now. I was wondering why that was, because I could see there was some great music coming out. Then suddenly, things started happening. There was Soma Records, that was the first label I was into. Then Numbers and LuckyMe came along, Optimo got really massive and Sub Club got itself on the map. There were things in Glasgow that were just doing what they had been doing for a long time, and suddenly the world just started to take notice of it. I thought that was so fantastic. That’s the one thing about Glasgow, these things have always been there, so that’s always a bit of a reality check for Glasgow producers. It stops you getting too big for your boots, when you’re travelling around and you’re this international success. You go back to Glasgow and people bring you back down to earth, you’re back into this local thing for local people. It’s great to have that balance.

We are here to speak about your new album ‘Radio Highlife’. This is the culmination of seven years of travelling around the world and draws upon work that spans your entire career. Can you tell us where you started your travels? How did this place/experience feed into the album (if it did)?

The album concept was constructed retrospectively, it wasn’t like I started seven years ago and thought about making an album. The album idea came about because I got a new laptop and I was looking through my old audio file recordings. I realised ‘I’ve got a lot of stuff here’. Often, when I go to places I’ll record stuff that I think is interesting on my iPhone. Sometimes I do sessions with different people in different places, when I go out there because it’s good to collaborate. I’ve also been involved in a few projects where you go out and you’re put in a studio, you collaborate with some local musicians.

I was just looking through the hard drive, wondering what to transfer over and I saw there was quite a lot of stuff. It’s quite a good document of my travels, which have ended up being seven years. I’ve always been doing music but when I started to release as Auntie Flo, all of a sudden I was on the other side of the fence. I had always been the promoter or the local DJ in Glasgow. I wasn’t travelling internationally, I was doing the bookings for clubs, bringing DJs into Scotland that I wanted to see. Then as soon as I started getting records out, I was very lucky as I was able to get booked in different places. I felt it was such a privilege to be able to travel to different places, so I was always quite conscious of that. That led to me making more of an effort to record and collaborate and do all of these things, that ended up being the basis of the album.

The name of the album is the same as your show on Worldwide FM. The name for both has stemmed from your travelling, as the local radio was often your first interaction with the music of the places you were visiting. I think the first track on the album ‘Life Is High’ sounds a bit like an old-style radio jingle. 

Ha, I’ve never thought of it like that before but that’s cool!

You also have a track called ‘Radio Souk’ – Is this inspired from a particular radio station you have come across? What inspired both of those tracks?

Those tracks are examples of little skits or radio jingles that pepper the album throughout. In my thinking, I wanted to join the dots between different songs, that are more fleshed out in terms of ideas. This ties in with the radio concept. From my radio show on Worldwide FM I had these jingles recorded from different people. I like doing the radio because I like presenting and sharing music with people. That’s what it’s all about. It’s a DJ’s responsibility (what they’re getting paid to do) to spend a lot of their time listening to music, foraging for new music and presenting it to whatever audience they’ve got. It’s ultimately about sharing the music, that’s all you’re trying to do with it. The radio gives you the opportunity to share the music and talk about it, presenting it in a radio format (which I really like!).

I think in terms of listening to the radio when I turned up in a new city. That’s often your first entry point into a soundscape of a place; getting into a cab or onto a bus and they’ll be playing the radio. It might be good or it might not be, but it gives you this insight into the culture there; radio is really great for that.

Those two tracks (‘Life is High’ and ‘Radio Souk’) they’re typical of the album, they both started off as a field recording. ‘Life Is High’ was in Havana just recording the street sounds, there’s a dog barking and stuff. ‘Radio Souk’ isn’t actually based on a radio station, the ‘Souk’ is the market. I just walked around the market recording. You’ll hear radios playing from different stalls in the background, you’ll also hear the traffic noise, all of that stuff. It’s interesting to think about the noise and sound of different places. It’s something we don’t often think about; how different sounds represent different places. Those two tracks and a couple of others, aren’t meant to be songs in a classic sense, they’re just there to present the sound of a city. Hopefully, it makes people think about sounds of cities when they go there.

With that first track, we can hear your heavy use of field recordings from the word go. It’s also quite a short track. I was just wondering why you chose to start the album in this way?

I read an interview with Tim Hecker (an avant-garde experimental composer) a couple of years ago. He said the intros to all of his albums act as a palette cleanse. It sets the scene and takes you away from whatever you were listening to or doing beforehand. It’s like ‘right here we go, let’s start this thing’.

I really like listening to albums, from start to finish. If you start the album with your first single and it’s the biggest track on the album, the listener will probably only listen to that. They’re less likely to spend the time and get into it, because you’ve given them the best or most enjoyable track first. To try and encourage people to listen to this album as an album, from start to finish, I thought the best way would be to start with a little intro track. That first track is over before you know it and then you’re onto the next track, getting into the body of the album already; that was the idea.

The first track inevitably paves the way for ‘Nobody Said It Would Be Easy’. You can really hear the instrumentation in there which I really love, along with the vocals, both male and female. The way the track builds from start to finish is beautiful. Could you tell us about the story behind this track?

It was made in Cuba, I got booked to play there in 2014. This track is such a good example of the whole album, as the serendipitous nature of my encounters when travelling, is something that has been a real cornerstone of the record.

The story actually starts life in Malawi, I got booked to play there at the Lake of Stars Festival. The reason I got booked to play there is because there’s a connection between Scotland and Malawi; David Livingstone emancipated Malawai generations ago. Due to this connection and as a Scottish act, I got booked to play. At Lake of Stars, we met a person from the British Council, who was in charge of the cultural stuff there and representing Britain. The person we met, got transferred to the Caribbean and they were based in Cuba.

It happened that there was a festival ran by Cubans, called The Havana World Music Festival. They had been trying to get this festival off the ground for years and years, however, they couldn’t get permission from the government to do it. Eventually, when they managed to get permission they got in touch with all of the Embassy’s, to try and find acts to bring in, as they had no real budget. When they got in touch with the British Embassy, it was the same guy we had met in Malawai and he remembered us from Lake of Stars. We got the call to go and play with my Auntie Flo live show. That was just down to serendipitous encounters in the most global sense.

We got this call and I was like ‘Brilliant, let’s go to Cuba! Fantastic’. It was an amazing opportunity and a great trip. It really felt like you were in this new world. At the same time, Mala had just released an album on Brownswood called ‘Mala in Cuba’. He had collaborated with local musicians and I loved that album. I thought I would do something similar and make more of this trip. We got some studio time and that led to some of the recordings on ‘Nobody Said It Would Be Easy’. When we were out there we also met local musicians, as Cuba is full of them, we invited them down to the session. We got a queue of amazingly talented musicians coming down to perform, hang out and record. This was actually during the time I was doing my second album ‘Theory of Flo’ but we ended up having all of these other recordings. Those ended up being turned into ‘Nobody Said It Would Be Easy’, ‘Havana Rhythm Dance’ and even ‘Life Is High’. Those first three tracks on the album were all from the same sessions in Cuba.

Many of the track names on this album are very telling of the far-flung tropical places they were born out of. For example, Havana Rhythm Dance, Malawi Skit and the already loved, Cape Town Jam. I noticed the spelling of track ‘Isbjørn’ – this is Norwegian. I translated this and found it was Norwegian for ‘Polar Bear’. I can see a contrast here. Can you tell us about the story behind this track?

Haha, Yes! I wanted that contrast, it’s really important because it’s easy to glorify these tropical places, but actually there’s different places with different sounds; different people making different music. I didn’t want to have too much of an emphasis on tropical places, I wanted a wide range. With ‘Isbjørn’ and also ‘Lights in the Northern Sky’, those tracks were recorded in Tromsø in the north of Norway.

Again, I was asked to play there as part of a festival called Insomnia that takes place every year. Through that, I met this DJ called Charlotte Bendiks, who is from there (but I think she lives in Berlin now.) We had become friends and I told her about this party I run in Glasgow called Sun Ritual. It’s part of Highlife and we do it every summer. It started off as a bit of a joke because in Glasgow we never seem to get any sunshine; we thought we would recreate it. We put it in a small club and had all of these lights, the DJ would have control of the lights and do all of this crazy stuff, the tunes would have ‘sun’ in the lyrics. It turned out to be a really fun party.

I was telling Charlotte about this Sun Ritual thing. Obviously in Norway they don’t get any sunlight all Winter, but they get endless light in the Summer. When there is this transition back into light in January time, they have a big party to celebrate the first light. I said to her, it would be cool to do a Sun Ritual party there. She was really up for that, so I ended up going back to Tromsø for a second time. At that time, I did my usual thing and stayed an extra day to do some recording. Charlotte got us a studio and we did some recording with her and this drummer called Boska (who’s also from there). We ended up recording the percussion bits for those two tracks (‘Isbjørn’ and ‘Lights in the Northern Sky’). The track name ‘Isbjørn’, the word does mean Polar Bear but it’s also the name of a beer up there; We were drinking that beer. You can actually hear on that track, the beer cans opening ‘Psss!’ – if you listen really carefully. It’s just representative of that trip as it was good fun.

Previously, you touched up the word ‘Skit’, when we were talking about radio jingles. There are two tracks on the album ‘Malawi Skit’ and ‘Magic Stones Skit’. I did some research and found that a ‘Skit’ is a short comedy sketch.

How are these tracks linked with this meaning? Particularly, ‘Magic Stones Skit’, I’m intrigued to hear the story behind this track and what inspired it?

I didn’t actually know of that meaning (which is terrible of me). However, for me ‘Skit’ comes from being a fan of Hip-Hop records. A lot of Hip-Hop records have ‘Skit’ in the title of short tracks in which they’re bantering and what not. I just thought that word was a commonly used word for an interlude between tracks. The original idea that I had for ‘Radio Highlife’ was for it to be like a mixtape; that’s where the Hip-Hop influence comes in. Although it didn’t turn out like that, the idea for these little ‘Skits’ was still relevant.

The ‘Magic Stones Skit’ was actually originated in my mums’ garden. Mame N’Diack is a Senegalese guy who features an awful lot on the album. This is another serendipitous thing as we met in Kampala, Uganda. A year later I bumped into him in Amsterdam, when I was booked at this festival and that was cool; we stayed in touch. After that, we did some recording together and we managed to bring him over to the UK, to do some shows in Scotland.

When he was in Scotland, we went to my mums’ house in Glasgow. This is a good example of how you can make the sounds in music with anything. We went into the garden (anyone else would just see a bunch of stones) and he was like ‘Ah, these stones are magical!’ – he’s quite a spiritual guy. He just started picking up these stones and hitting them against the plant pot. As a percussionist, he was creating this new rhythm and singing. I was like ‘Wait a minute, let’s just record you doing that’. That’s that really, just him playing with stones in my mums’ garden and calling them the Magic Stones.

You’ve released two tracks of this album as singles. The first single being ‘Cape Town Jam’. I heard this get played recently by Bradley Zero on his Radio 1 Residency! I think everyone, alongside myself, would love to hear the story behind this warming uplifting track. Can you tell us more?

It was the same trip as when I went to Malawi, when Lake of Stars booked us. I ended up getting some shows the week before in South Africa; one in Cape Town. We were down in the harbour and there was this band busking; they were f***ing great, they had so much energy! I took a little recording of them just as a memory, not thinking I would do anything with it. That ended up being one of the recordings left on my hard drive.

Obviously, I wanted to be sensitive to the fact that they hadn’t given me permission to record them. In the end, all I did was take a tiny little sample, slowed it down and chopped it up. That gave me the backing track to build the rest of the song around. That bit is fairly subtle within the track. The rest of it, the ‘Jam’ part was just me jamming out the synth parts in one or two takes. I wouldn’t say I’m a particularly talented musician as such, there are quite a few mistakes if you listen to it, but I like that; it gives a realness to it. It ended up coming together so nicely. ‘Cape Town’ is part of the original field recording, but the rest is my ‘Jam’; me playing and recording my own stuff – jamming.

We’ve spoken a lot about stories in this interview. The final track of the album is called ‘Mames Story’ featuring Mame N’Diak, who you mentioned before. So, what is the story here – Mames’ Story?

Yes of course. The story behind the track starts with us being asked to play for the BBC at the Edinburgh Festival. They got in touch with me and asked me if I wanted to do a live thing there. At the time, I didn’t have a live show prepared, but I thought we should see if we could bring Mame over, because he’s such a good live performer.

The BBC were really up for this, so then we found ourselves in this situation of trying to get Mame a Visa. We thought it would be easy as we had the BBC behind us, they had given us all of these letters of recommendation and it was the Edinburgh International Festival; the biggest arts festival in the world. It was sooo! Difficult for him to get this Visa. He had to go between offices in Amsterdam and Dusseldorf. He was almost sleeping rough. He was staying with strangers who would put him up for the night, just so he could go to the Visa office at nine in the morning. He didn’t have any money, so I was transferring him money and loads of his friends were helping out. It was this big ordeal that went on for weeks and weeks. We were calling the Visa offices in the UK. The BBC were calling them and they weren’t very responsive or helpful. There wasn’t anyone on the European side that could help. It got us really determined that we were going to make this happen.

Mame’s such a positive guy, at no stage in this process did he say ‘it’s not going to happen’. It got to the day of the performance and he still didn’t have a Visa, so we were almost giving up. Then he found out that he had gotten the Visa, but we didn’t know where his passport was. He was living in Amsterdam and he’d gone to Dusseldorf that morning, for the third time, in anticipation that his passport would be there. The Visa office had couriered it back to Amsterdam, so it was in Schiphol airport. By this time, it was getting well into the afternoon and the performance was at eight in the evening. He went back to Amsterdam, got his passport, so I’m like ‘f*** it let’s get you the next flight’. He got on the next flight to Edinburgh, he came and within half an hour he was on stage at this live televised thing. It was mental.

The next day, we had some time to record so we got a little studio in Glasgow. The lyrics in the song are him telling the story of his ordeal, trying to come into the UK. You’ll hear bits where he mentions my name and ‘UK Visa’. It’s all done in his dialect from Senegal, but you can hear bits of the story. That’s the story, that’s what he’s singing about. I’m glad to tell you and get that story out there.

You’re preparing a live show that you’re going to take on tour. Can you tell us about this? What are the challenges that you’re facing or have faced so far?

It’s been a fun process. I’m not just doing it all by myself, hopefully we’re going to get Mame N’Diack over; we’re going to through this whole Visa ordeal again (probably). He’ll be star of the show because he’s so lively. He’s seven-foot-tall and plays the drums very loudly and things. I’ve also been hooked up with this young guy called Yohan Kebede, who plays in a band called Kokoroko; this is a Brownswood/London Jazz connection. He’s on the keys, so we’re going to have that element of live. Most of the bits that are played in the album, he’ll play and take it to another dimension, because he’s so good. Then I’ll just do all of the sample stuff and all of the sequencing, effects and stuff.

It’s all going to come together. It’s going to be the album, reworked for live. There’ll be a few surprises in there as well. I think we’ll do it almost like a radio show, we’ll have some of the field recordings and the skits in there, but that’s still all being worked out. It’s going to be good fun for sure. I love playing live. I’m a DJ through and through but to play live is a completely different thing. It’s a bigger effort to play live, than it is to turn up with a USB stick and plug it in. It feels really good to put that effort in. Hopefully, people are going to enjoy hearing and seeing that.

What is in the near and distant future for Auntie Flo? What can we hope to look forward to? What have you got to look forward to?

The big thing is obviously this album. Ahead of that, we were going to release a couple of singles this year on different labels. That didn’t end up happening because I wanted to focus on the album. I’m hoping they’re still going to happen. I’ve got one lined up on Disco Halal, Moscoman’s label. We’ve got a really great remix from Nicola Cruz. That should still happen, probably next year now. There’s a couple of other things I’ve possibly got lined up, but we’re still working on them, but we’ll see what happens with this live show.

Radio Highlife is out now on Brownswood Recordings.

Buy it here.

Words: Sophie Mcnulty

Featured Image: Flavien Prioreau

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