As musically curious, adventurous and open-minded as any musician we've ever met, DJ Zhao is on a mission to demonstrate the connections between all cultures through music. Even more interesting is his special focus on Africa. How does a Chinese guy end up as an international DJ specialising in African music?
We've posted a couple of DJ Zhao's mixes in the past (check his Supermix for Akwaaba Music and Fusion 3: House of Eshu) - and he occasionally graces the decks at This Is Africa events, such our spot at the Solar Weekend Festival in Roermond last Summer, but we never got round to having a proper chat about his story, experiences and observations as a DJ.
With a fresh mixtape out (see bottom of this post for the absolutely stonking Ngoma 13 Juju-Juke), we figured it's about time we did. So, here we go.
Treffpunkt Afrika - Linz, Austria - April 2012
TIA: You were born in China but moved to the States as a teenager. Did you listen to any African music growing up in China? How and when did you first become interested in African beats or music, where were you at the time, and which styles in particular drew your attention?
DJ Zhao: I had zero contact with African music growing up. But after getting into electronic dance music and djing for a few years in my 20s, I felt like the rhythms in techno, house, electro, and even jungle were really limited. I thought to myself "There has to be more and better rhythms! For dancing, for listening!" So little by little, but purely on my own initiative - because not many friends at the time were on the same wavelength - I began to discover the immense wealth of music in the motherland. I mean, where the fuck else was I going to find more and better rhythms???
I was in Los Angeles playing minimal techno around 2003 when I started listening to Kwaito, which is in that 100-bpm range largely missing at the time from a lot of western dance music. Amazing basslines, beats, and the Zulu style vocals… a perfect mix of Zulu tradition and urban electronic music, It's what "hip-house" was always meant to be!
From Kwaito and Bongo Flava I moved to South African House, Kuduro, Coupe Decale, Hiplife, Naija... and simultaneously started digging in older styles such as Congolese Rumba and Highlife. From that point on, there was no more question of what direction my life in music would take.
TIA: When and why did you begin to focus almost exclusively on African music?
DJ Zhao: Between 5 and 7 years ago. 2005-2007. In these western electronic dance scenes, there is a real poverty, a poverty of rhythm and musical ideas. That same rhythm blue print, untz untz untz untz… I love quality techno and house, but for many people in these scenes it's like eating the same meal every day of the year. It's insane! There are entire universes of African rhythm and melody and sound ideas that Europe and North America are only beginning to wake up to.
DJ Zhao with Philip Marcel, Ngoma Soundsystem and Werner Puntigam
TIA: Too true. So you dip into quite a range of styles for your sets and mixtapes - Kwaito, HipLife, Naija, Kuduro, Juke, Zulu-Electro, Township-House, UK Funky, Soukous, Afro-disco, Bongo Flava, Kizomba, Zouk, Taraab, Egyptian, Ethio-Jazz, Coupé-Décalé, Hiplife, Naija, among others. Are there styles that you won't play for any reason?
DJ Zhao: Well I've cut out all reggae and dancehall from my club sets (I'll still play some at a bar gig), because that is already very well represented. There are no African urban styles I won't play... from Shangaan Electro to Taraab.
Oh, I don't play African urban music which sounds too much like American hip hop or R'n'B. It's a question of cultural value: in Africa, I understand a lot of youths want to be like American rappers, because American culture is perceived to have value, and their own indigenous cultures are sometimes seen as not cool, not hip, not fashionable... this I think is sad.
TIA: I hear you, man. So you're pulling all these sounds together, but not only from Africa. And listening to the mix, you don't just fade-in and fade-out from one track to the next. Rather, it's more like you're working with samples and building layers of sounds. I understand you use Ableton to do this. Can you elaborate on what this allows, beyond technical functions?
DJ Zhao: Software like Ableton enables me to show that underlying the surface styles there is an unbroken rhythmic lineage between what is happening now in Chicago, in London, and Africa. But I am at the same time very much interested in European approach to sound, that that cold weather feeling of depth. So what I am doing now is fusing these worlds.
In African music, I find an undifferentiated, unseparated, uncompartmentalized sense of "Rhythmelody" -- there is no melody without rhythm, and vice versa.
In Europe, rhythm was seen as something "primitive", "animalistic", and characteristic of the music of the lower classes. These attitudes still persist today: serious music is for silent contemplation, and dance music is largely seen as "entertainment for drunk idiots'. But the opposite is true: European classical music was developed precisely as pure entertainment for the rich. And dance music is descendent of the true musical and cultural heritage of our species.
TIA: Indeed. But unfortunately, we tend to be aware only of the history that happens in our lifetime.
DJ Zhao: People tend to think we live in the "post-colonial" or even "post-racial" era, which can not be more false. Colonial exploitation continues, and our concepts of the world are still very much shaped by colonial mentality.
DJ Zhao with hiplife/hip hop artist kwaw kesse - WorldTronics - Berlin, Germany, 2011
TIA: Are the audiences you play for across Europe predominantly white or black, or is the racial mix evenly balanced?
DJ Zhao: Audiences are always mixed, but in Germany it's mostly white simply because there are not many brothers and sisters over here. [Laughs].
TIA: I ask because it's been argued in the past that mainstream European and American music fans tend to be interested in African music only when it is Europeanized for their consumption. In other words, if it sounds too African, it becomes "exotic". But there's hardcore Juju in "NGOMA 13 - JuJu-Juke", so is that something that used to be an issue but no longer holds true. Or are the audiences you play for just more open and knowledgeable than the mainstream? Or, are there styles you've tried, even recently, that have just been too "out there" for European audiences, and if so, what styles were those?
DJ Zhao: It's still true that "Western" audiences are scared of many sounds. The Juju stuff I will only play at a big festival, or at peak time in a larger club. And yes my audiences are certainly more open-minded than the mainstream.
With "Global Bass", a lot of the same problems with "World Music" continue: this term represents something exotic and niche, a small, minor piece of contemporary music culture. Which is of course an entirely distorted view because Africa is a millennia-old ancient oak, and all these modern styles like hiphop, house, or electro, these are but tiny little branches which grow from the tree. And the musical culture in India, in Cuba, in Indonesia, in Haiti, these cultures are each exponentially more rich, nuanced, and full of musical ideas than the dominant styles of hegemonic cultures.
So my project tries to bridge these gaps in both space and time, but there are various issues and potential problems with playing African music to a privileged European audience whose privilege largely comes from the exploitation of Africa!!!
TIA: It IS clear from listening to your mixtapes that you're not just out to entertain.
DJ Zhao: In one way, of course, spreading culture is a good thing, but I don't want my work to be only about selling Motherland culture to Europe. There has to be more awareness, culturally, politically. I've started to speak a little bit about these issues in the middle of at the end of my sets... I need to work on my MC voice [Laughs]
TIA: Is this exploration and pulling together of sounds from all over the place what you mean when you describe yourself as an amateur ethno-musicologist?
DJ Zhao: Yes, I guess. I use that term in a very loose and unacademic way. Of course, there are inherent problems with "Ethno-Musicology" itself, just like with "Anthropology", as disciplines developed with a Eurocentric attitude.
FUSION Festival, Germany 2011
TIA: Have you noticed any trends developing in say, the last 5 years, in term of a) audience reception/openness, expectations and knowledge of music styles, and b) any changes in the music being made by African artists (for instance, if there's a greater tendency for artists from particular countries to craft clubbier or more internationally-accessible beats)?
DJ Zhao: a) in the last 5 years certainly more, although still a tiny percentage of population at large; people are hip to various African music styles.
b) and sure, many African scenes are developing sounds influenced by "Western" club music, often with great results. South African House I think is one of these things that is more easily appreciated in these colder climates.
Many rhythms and sounds from Africa are still very alien and unworkable with a "western" audience that has simply never come in contact with the music. On my recent tour in America, I found many many people who have NO IDEA about ANY new African music. The US is just so far away from the Motherland!
And not aesthetic but literal accessibility is of course a big problem: most African new releases are simply, and have never been, available for purchase in the "west".
TIA: Is that part of the reason you moved to Berlin? I mean, for the sort of sets you put on, is Europe that much better a place than the States? Why is the States so late in catching up?
DJ Zhao: Yes, it is a little easier doing what I do in Europe compared to the US, or at least it was when I moved here 5 years ago. But now many micro scenes are developing in big cities in the US, as I discovered recently. People are waking up over there too. The US, as I'm sure you've noticed, tends to think they are the best, and don't need to look elsewhere. This conceit I think does play a role in resistance to sounds from other places. Even today some people are like "Oh, that's 'World Music'. And I don't fuck with 'World Music.'"
TIA: Still, are there some styles (besides Juju) that you sort of keep in reserve for the right moment/occasion, say, for those big festivals or at peak time in a larger clubs, because, as relatively knowledgeable and open-minded as the European audience might be, there's still a long way to go?
DJ Zhao: Yes of course, the Fuji/Apala, Tsonga/Shangaan and the more classic Soukous and similar things are only for certain special occasions. But at the right time/occasion, almost anything can work on the dance floor.
On the American tour, people went MAD for the Fuji and Juju and East Afrian Mbira workouts, and I know for a fact that it was first time hearing these kinds of rhythms for most if not all of them
In Serbia, people were going MENTAL to the fast and intense Juju beats. I was playing this set with lots of Juke and Footwork, and when the 160-bpm Afro rhythms kicked in, people start SCREAMING!
TIA: All right! There is light at the end of the tunnel. Have you DJed anywhere in Africa, and if so, where? If not, where would you like to begin and why?
DJ Zhao: I haven't yet played in Africa. There are people in South and East Africa trying to bring me out, either later this year or next. So lets hope that works. I'm not sure where I would like to begin [given the choice]. I hope to make that trip through East and South Africa, and I would love to play at the festival in Zanzibar.
TIA: Do you ever go back to Beijing, and if so, do you DJ there and what's the reception like to your sets?
DJ Zhao: I have not been back to Beijing in 25 years. Also on my list of things to do soon.
TIA: Cos, as you know, there's a small but growing African population in China now, although I'm not sure if that's also in Beijing.
DJ Zhao: Yes, I'm sure also in Beijing. Don't get me started on Chinese racism, xenophobia, and ignorance [Laughs]. At least just as bad as Europeans and Americans.
TIA: So we've heard.
DJ Zhao: And talk about closed-minded. Chinese culture has constructed a proud legacy of closed-mindedness.
TIA: But over time, living in close proximity, the cultures simply can't remain "alien" to each other forever.
DJ Zhao: True. The separation is completely illusory, for there is much cross-polination between Asia and Africa in history. There is a book called "Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting" which details exactly that. It talks about things such as both Ganja and Dreadlocks arriving in Jamaica from India. Also there is Ngugi wa Thiong'o's recent article about this, called "Asia In My Life".
TIA: Oh yeah, I read that article, too. Haven't read the book though, but I'm gonna link to it so everyone can go get it.
DJ Zhao: And I've heard that Indonesians have been living in Madagascar for centuries... I need to find out if Afro-Gamelan exists. That would be some serious Afro-Asian next level business. This Gamelan vid is also around 160 bpm.
TIA: Man, we could probably go on for another hour, but we'll do this again.
DJ Zhao: Cool.
TIA: Good luck with the gig tonight.
NGOMA 13 JUJU-JUKE
The history behind the mix, in DJ Zhao's own words:
Ever since drums were banned on most of the North Amerian slave plantations during the 1600s, because the masters had discovered that the (mostly) West African slaves were organizing revolts with their talking drums, the expression of poly-rhythms in Afro-North-American music has primarily been through use of the voice. This is the reason Afro-Diasporic music in North-America is typified by the simple 1-2 “dupple” rhythm, and by contrast South-American or Caribbean styles are marked by more complex drum patterns. Thus the evolution of all subsequent North-American music was profoundly shaped, from Blues to Funk to Disco: kick on the 1, and snare on the 2; all the way down to the late 20th Century – complex poly-rhythms in hiphop is produced with rap, and the drums remain a skeletal, minimalistic boom-bap, as if just to mark time.
Now in the 21st Century a renewed sense of complex poly-rhythm returns to Afro-North-American dance music in the form of Juke/Footwork in Chicago: interlocking 2s and 3s form intricatebeat structures, unmistakeably related to many forms of percussion styles in the motherland (but of course often with that N. American hard snare on the 2).
Juju-Juke demonstrates this epic reconnection, after centuries of separation, between African tradition and Afro-Diaspora: between Juju/Fuji andJuke/Footwork, between Ethiopian dance styles and Ghetto-Tech, between Iberian trad-modern street sounds and R’n'B/Pop, between Afro-Punk and Club Music, between Congolese Mbira workouts and Hiphop, between Ghanaian and Senegalese percussion and Urban Bass Pressure.
Stream the lot via Mixcloud. How much is this product worth to you? If possible, please make a donation before you download.
DJ Zhao links
For upcoming events, check DJ Zhao at Facebook or last.fm.