“I just like drawing weird things”, London-based DJ and illustrator Anu Ambasna says, in the back of a busy bar, as we unravel her career up to this point. She isn’t lying – poo, nudity, wrinkled skin – anu’s artwork doesn’t shy away from life’s more awkward, taboo subjects. Her style of DJing is similarly brave and unconventional – jumping between different genres, moods and sounds, all tied together with a sense of fun, jubilant energy.
In person, anu (she prefers the lower-case spelling) is scatterbrained and lively. Our conversation is a rollercoaster of lost trails of thought, new themes stumbled upon, and bursts of excitement when the right topic emerges. Taking together her trials and tribulations so far, it’s clear that anu’s already tried a lot of different things, hated some, and found the new ones that suit her better.
By her early twenties, anu had done a year-long stint in Berlin, dropped out of art school and become Rhythm Section’s most loyal punter, making the fortnightly 90 minute schlep from her family home in Hounslow to Canavan’s Pool Club in Peckham. This early boldness paid off – after crossing paths with founder Bradley Zero, anu was quickly welcomed into the Rhythm Section fold, taking on the role of resident, label manager and in-house illustrator. At one point, she hadn’t missed a Rhythm Section party for a record 15 months.
But the story of how anu got into DJing, during an internship in Berlin, sounds far less deliberate: “I had no experience DJing, but I had said I was really into music” she says. So when her boss asked her to play at the company’s Berlin Art Week closing party, anu was caught off guard, but embraced the opportunity: “I ran back to my flat, got my laptop, made a playlist and just faded between Spotify and iTunes,” she says. “I literally had no idea what I was doing – but people liked it.”
After returning home from Berlin, anu eventually enrolled at Camberwell Arts College, where alongside her studies, she continued to DJ and learn to mix. It was during this period, in late 2013, that anu helped run another burgeoning South London outfit, “people-centric” music platform Equaliser, with a fellow arts student. In the years since, anu’s abilities and reputation as a DJ have continued to grow consistently, culminating in several significant musical milestones in 2017. Along with an RA Live mix at Brilliant Corners, and her first Boiler Room show, anu was also flown out to Nyege Nyege festival in Uganda, as part of a scheme funded by the Arts Council in partnership with NTS Radio.
Anu parted ways with Equaliser over a year ago – and more recently, handed over her responsibilities at Rhythm Section, to focus on personal projects and her mental health. But these carefully considered moves stand in contrast to a more restrictive early period in anu’s career, where her artistic identity evaded her at almost every step. At art school in particular, where she studied illustration, anu describes how her existing abilities were stifled rather than nurtured: “I have a specific style that is very personal to me, and [the university] tried to make you forget anything you were previously taught,” she says. “But none of the skills that I had really learned had been taught by anyone. I just taught myself… doodling, from a real young age.”
At a point when her enthusiasm for the university was already hanging by a thread, a complete lack of faculty support gave anu little reason to stay. One particular anecdote from anu’s time as a student stands out: after securing her first exhibition, for a portrait series of a hairless, brown-skinned character called Snax, not a single one of her tutors made the effort to attend. Worse still, the show was spitting distance from the university: “they just didn’t care”, anu says. But the broader lack of encouragement for her work, which she ascribes to her South Asian background and self-taught abilities, sounds like the main issue. “It was a really white institution,” she says. “I just didn’t feel comfortable enough to make the work that I wanted to make.”
Race comes up a lot during our conversation. And anu is frank about the challenges involved in navigating her British Indian-ness, particularly the conflict between the cultural norms of her hometown, Hounslow, one of London’s most Asian areas, and her own more unconventional interests. “Growing up in Hounslow, going to school you could count the amount of white kids on your hand,” she says. “When I was a teenager I was trying to escape that. I was listening to indie music and trying to hang out with all the rock-kids and the skaters. I don’t know – I just wanted to be weird.”
This instinct for the weird fuelled anu’s musical discovery. When she was “really into Tumblr”, during her mid-teens, anu says her listening habits involved “a lot of emo music and crossover shit like SBTRKT and James Blake”, which eventually evolved into relatively underground DJs, like Rinse FM stalwart Josey Rebelle. Anu first started listening to NTS Radio around the same time, particularly Moxie’s bi-weekly show. “[Moxie] was one of the reasons I got into house music basically,” she says.
As her taste developed, and musical ambitions started to form, a 17 year-old anu published a prophetic Tumblr post: “I hope to have a show on NTS one day,” she wrote. Fast-forward to the present day and anu’s monthly NTS slot is one of her proudest achievements. But, as she makes clear, there were plenty of awkward teen years in between.
What starts as a half-joke, about the hipster cliché of anu meeting her first boyfriend on Tumblr, uncovers something far more nuanced: “I wanted to be that typical person – that stereotypical white girl, who had a boyfriend on Tumblr,” anu says. “I wanted to be normal – not into hip hop or bhangra or Bollywood – cause that’s what all the Hounslow girls were doing. I didn’t want to be like them. I wanted to be white.” It’s worth emphasising that these feelings are long behind her now, and anu’s infinitely happier being herself. In fact, she couldn’t be more enthusiastic about her roots: “I love the colour of my skin,” she says. “I’m proud to be Indian.”
At any rate, by her own admission, anu didn’t have a “heavily Indian childhood”. Neither Indian music nor religion played a significant part in her upbringing. And to her shame, though an Indian food obsessive now, anu reveals that she and her brother used to demand spaghetti bolognese for dinner, over homemade Indian dishes. Overall, anu’s early years sound like a hodge-podge of different cultural influences, that have no doubt shaped her outlook immensely.
Take anu’s brother, Rahul, who got her “into loads of good music.”. As well lending her an iPod packed with Be Your Own Pet and Weezer, Rahul blasted subtly explicit songs like The Roots’ ‘The Seed 2.0‘ and N*E*R*D’s ‘Provider‘ during family car-rides. Anu tells me, unashamedly, that these are all bands she still loves to this day.
However, it’s anu’s dad, Manoj, an Indian raised in Tanzania who immigrated to the UK, who stands out as her biggest childhood influence. “We’ve always grown up listening to music,” she says. “And my dad has a real love for all kinds of music. He has an incredibly eclectic taste: soul, the most amazing taste in jazz. He always let me listen to what I wanted to listen to.”
The picture anu paints of her father is equal parts goofball and intellectual, wholly committed to fostering his daughter’s interests. He even introduced anu to one of her favorite artists: “as I got older, my dad would play me stuff like Sade,” she says. “I loved it, but I never admitted it to him at the time.” Only later, when anu came across Sade’s music independently, and properly fell in love with it, did she realise that she’d actually heard it years before.
Another story, of a Maccabees gig anu’s dad took her to when she was 16, encapsulates their relationship: “It was at Brixton Academy. He stayed at the back with his coat and scarf on the whole time and then he took me through into the mosh pit,” she says. “He was burning up – and I was like, ‘Dad, you can go stand in the back, if you want!’ He is a very cool Dad.”
While anu maintains a close connection with Indian culture through her family, she, like many second-generation British Indians, hasn’t yet been back to India itself. But her DJing is taking her increasingly closer to home. For Nyege Nyege Festival in September 2017, she spent a week in Uganda, which shares a border with Tanzania, the country where both her parents were born. In fact, her uncle is actually from the Ugandan town of Jinja, the very place where Nyege Nyege festival takes place.
Anu beams when we discuss the Ugandan music festival, describing it as “one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.” But at the same time, she admits the trip had its fair share of challenges. It didn’t get off to a great start: the journey from London ended up taking over 24 hours, as their arrival coincided with two large national events, which caused days of gridlocked traffic.
Anu’s main difficulty, however, was overcoming anxiety in anticipation of the trip. “A week before going, I messaged Flo (an NTS station manager) saying that I was too anxious to go, that I didn’t think I could do it,” she says. The station, which had helped organise the trip, was “completely understanding” and reassured anu that if she didn’t go, it wouldn’t compromise her existing radio show in any way. But that’s not to say NTS didn’t push back – “we think you should do it” formed the heart of their response.
“I did it, and I’m so glad I did,” anu says. “And it was such a big thing for me to do. I’m really glad that I went – Uganda was fucking sick”. But, if the broader prospect of going was nerve-wracking, anu’s anxiety ahead of her actual set was even worse. “I was like, okay, I’m playing a set in Uganda to hundreds of people, I cannot fuck this up,” she says. “I literally cannot fuck this up.” After she finished playing, anu was in a “weird zone for about three hours,” she says. Why? Because she felt she’d come all that way only to play a “mediocre set”.
Thankfully, anu was too hard on herself. When she listened back to NTS’ recording of her performance, it was obvious that she’d played nothing less than a stormer. “The crowd was shouting my name” she says. “I was like: “What the fuck!” I listened back to that shit for weeks when I was feeling anxious.”
As our conversation draws to a close, we naturally turn to anu’s plans for the coming year. (We meet a week before New Year’s Eve, so discussing 2018 seems apt.) Anu mentions fulfilling a lifelong dream of going to Japan, getting more selective with the gigs she accepts, and wanting to appear on the return of Supermarket Sweep. When I ask her hot artist tips for the year, anu is quick to mention label-mates FYI Chris, as well as Aurora’s releases as Vampire Crab, and NTS mainstay Debonair, who anu describes as one of few DJs playing the New Wave sound she loves, really well.
Anu mentions Laurel Halo too, not as a pick for 2018, but as one of her all-time favourite artists, elevating her to almost idol-like status. “I will just always want to know what she’s working on and what’s she’s doing” she says. “I’m so fascinated with everything she does. The sound that she creates – it’s such a strange feeling, it invokes so many emotions within me. Watching her mix, it makes me want to cry.”
It just so happens that anu had recently met Laurel Halo, at a party she’d put on in Berlin. “[Laurel] came over to me… and was like, ‘you deserve to be getting all these gigs’.” Anu still can’t quite get over the compliment, but the encounter goes back to a wider point, about the wider DJ community and how even successful artists are just ordinary people, who suffer from the same problems as everybody else. “You meet so many DJs, who you think are super relaxed and calm,” she says. “It’s like: ‘Oh right, they’ve got it all sorted out’. But everyone has their ups and downs.”
We end on an optimistic note: “I think one of the best things about this year is the amount of people who are speaking up for shit,” she says. We both try to avoid using the word “woke”, but there doesn’t seem to be a more precise term to use. Anu’s confident that the tide is turning, with people becoming more open-minded and willing to listen. It helps that we live in age of digital technology: “everyone now has their own platform, no matter who you are,” she says. “No matter how small it is. With the internet, even someone who doesn’t have any clout, can come forward and say something.”
Words: Isaac Rangaswami