Auntie Flo and Rathisa: On collaboration and the significance of South Asian festivals

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For Sarathy Korwar and Brian D’Souza, collaboration and spontaneity is the formula behind their works.

Indian-raised, London-based musician Korwar is the revered jazz drummer and bandleader who goes by Rathisa for his solo work; while Glasgow-born artist D’Souza is best known as the DJ and producer Auntie Flo. In 2020, the year that the pandemic hit for most countries, Korwar released Otherland – a companion piece to his second studio album More Arriving – and collaborated with Upaj Collective. For Auntie Flo, what began as a weekly live stream during lockdown has since turned into a 24-hour station called Ambient Flo – a platform designed to act as a therapeutic escape from our daily routines. Both artists have a flair for weaving global sounds into their work and creating music that is bold, inviting and unexpected.

The pair came together in the studio earlier this year to work on a project, resulting in an EP which is scheduled for 2022. But, before that, they’re doing a first-time, collaborative live performance at Dialled In – a new festival celebrating South Asian creativity. The festival is organised by the groundbreaking collective Daytimers, creative project Chalo and club night No ID.

Here, the pair catch up over a video call to discuss their upcoming performance (for which they are deeply unrehearsed – just how Korwar likes it), the nature of their collaboration, and the significance of ‘South Asian’ events such as Dialled In.

Rathisa: I’ve been familiar with your work, Brian, for a long time. I think the first song that I heard of yours was Rainfall on Red Earth. It caught my attention because it’s this long 16 or 17-minute piece. It is beautiful bass music. I then began checking out your work, and asked you to do a remix for my album More Arriving.

Auntie Flo: I was familiar with More Arriving, but I didn’t realise you had a release before on Ninja Tune. I wasn’t familiar with your work, I gotta be honest – so that’s my bad. I think we first met at Worldwide FM? I really miss that – it’s been one of the fallouts from Covid, not being able to go to a spot like that and meet people involved with the station. There’s great folks down there before and after different shows; it was a great way of meeting different people – and you were one of them. That was the first time we connected face to face. After that I did the Mumbay remix for you. That remix is entirely different from Rainfall on Red Earth, so apologies if that was what you were looking for [laughs].

R: A common friend, Nikhil Shah – who runs Mixcloud – was restarting a label called Make Music. He asked us if we wanted to be the first project on the new label, and do a collab – an EP, album, whatever. He basically booked us some studio space and said “do whatever you want”. That was back in April.

AF: There was a connection there already, so it made sense for us to do it together. We got four days in the studio, and decided to see what happened.

R: We recorded a bunch of music, which is coming out as an EP. It’s six tracks in total that we’re working on mixing at the minute. Hopefully it should be out in spring or summer next year. I work best collaborating with people and just getting in a room and trying different ideas out.

AF: The starting point for our conversation about what a collaboration would look like was exploration of traditional Indian instruments. Sarathy – you play drums and tabla among other things. I love the tabla sound, and so I was interested in doing something that would fit in with that. Through lockdown I went a bit crazy buying random instruments. Not that I can really play anything, but I’ve always been interested in different sonics and sounds that acoustic instruments make. I’ve been going mad on eBay and seeing what kind of relics from the past I could find, or what interesting, unusual things that make sound I could buy.

“Part of the reason why we wanted to work together was to not think too deeply about South Asian-ness and to move away from those constructs”
– Rathisa

One of the things I came across was this shruti box. It’s a drone, kind of a harmonium, and it makes this amazing sound. The other thing I bought we never ended up using, it’s this really cool looking 100 Plus Drum Machine, which is an Indian drum machine. And they make some cool electronic tabla-esque rhythms – though obviously with you here we didn’t need that. But I had that on my little desk as inspiration [laughs]. The shruti box formed the basis of the sound of the project. It was a case of working out the best way we could play off each other, taking the sound of the shruti, playing it through arpeggiators and things that can affect the sound in different ways – distortion, loopers, delays. That’s been the starting point for each of the songs: trying to find an interesting loop, sound or tone, then jamming it out with you playing. I loved the process.

R: Something that I was interested in exploring was drone music and having something like the shruti box. Having the same key centre is something that happens a lot in Indian classical music, so it’s something I’m familiar with, but from your perspective I was curious to see how you brought this into the studio. My plan was to react to whatever you were coming up with. That’s kind of how I function best in a creative space, just reacting to stuff. It was a minimal conversation but we knew that it wasn’t going to be, like, a spiritual jazz record or a bluegrass record. It was going to be based where our talents lie: with my percussion and your electronic production, we would try and build something quite organic with layers of electronics to it.

AF: What I liked about your approach was how you never like to be too prepared – it seems to me like it’s all very in the moment and that appeals to me in terms of a way of working. I’m not a musician, per se. I need to be a little bit more prepared by knowing the instruments, the bits of gear that I’ve got, but only to a certain point. It worked well, going in fresh and starting off with no real preconceived concepts apart from a few things around the sound.

One of the inspirations for me in lockdown was I started off this radio station called Ambient Flo, so I’ve been listening to a lot of drone-y ambient music. I’d also been studying sound therapy; using acoustic instruments like the gong or Himalayan singing bowls, getting people into a meditative state. It’s something that I’ve been trying to do myself, practicing meditation through the lockdown. That’s been helping me with what’s been a crazy time. But what we’ve ended up with on the EP isn’t necessarily that – it’s definitely got a bit of energy to it.

Live, it will be really interesting to see the crowd react to it. We had the working title after day one from this notion of being in an ecstatic place. Thinking of meditation, detaching yourself from your conscious brain, psychedelic kind of thoughts – kind of ecstatic dances, the true meaning of ‘trance’ as in transcendental. I’m interested in how music can get you out of the day-to-day headspace and into an exploration of your subconscious.

R: That can only happen when you’re not trying too hard to make something sound good. I feel like the true potential of these collaborative projects for me comes into its own in a live environment. I’m forming this music on stage where I’m trying to let spontaneity take over. I’m excited!

AF: I’m a bit scared! [Laughs] You are a master musician who can just get up on stage and play, whereas for me I’ve been a DJ for the longest part of my career. Doing live is always a step into the unknown. But there’s a great thing about the fear of the unknown, getting onto the stage, getting into that flow state and reacting off the crowd. That’s supreme danger to me, but it’s a real buzz, too.

R: Obviously we don’t know what it’s going to actually look and sound like – not just us but the whole festival, until it comes together. But I find these kinds of projects very liberating. And it’s a celebration of different versions of South Asian-ness, so I hope that it’s a messed up, complex idea of what it could be to look and sound South Asian. It’s adding to that narrative of fucking up all the boxes, not being able to place any of this music in any particular kind of context. For me, this space is hopefully where it’s seen and understood for what it is. Part of the reason why we also wanted to work together was to not think too deeply about South Asian-ness and to move away from those constructs as much as you want to fight them. I’m excited to hear the rest of the festival as well, I really want to see what other people are up to.

“Doing live is always a step into the unknown. But there’s a great thing about the fear of the unknown”
– Auntie Flo

AF: For me, in terms of framing myself as South Asian, it’s an interesting thing. I was born in Glasgow. My mum’s side is Indian, but she was actually born in Kenya and lived there for 20 years, then came to the UK at the end of the British occupation. There was a lot of movement between India and Kenya, and there’s a lot of movement between Kenya and the UK. And, my dad’s side is all Scottish.

When I was growing up, my mum would refer to herself more as Kenyan than Indian – never really South Asian. Then as I got older, people pointed out to me – you’re Indian. But then, even within India, I’m Goan, and Goa was a Portuguese colony – India is a massively diverse place. So, when we were asked to do Dialled In, it was interesting for me to then be placed in this box.

The main thing that I take away is we all have multiple identities, and if this is a way for me to explore this part of my identity, then that’s cool, let’s do it. I’ve got an uncle and auntie who are Goan and in their 60s or 70s, and hopefully they’re going to be able to come down for the show. It makes me feel more connected to that side of my family’s past, so that’s a good thing.

R: But that’s hopefully the point of these festivals. ‘South Asian’ as a concept can be reductive, but the end goal has to be about these constructs being dissolved. The reason why it’s worthwhile doing these contemporary South Asian festivals is, ironically, so that people don’t attach or ascribe a certain sound to South Asian music, or people don’t have that conversation about whether you ‘get’ to be called South Asian or not.

It’s interesting to have this collaborative set at the festival – it’s not just me, a first-generation Indian. No one is questioning whether I’m South Asian or not. But surely the conversation has to be around, who gets to decide? Who gets to call themselves what they want? How inclusive can these things be? It often becomes India-centric, and caste, religion and gender doesn’t get spoken about when we just talk about ‘South Asia’. So what I’m saying in a very long-winded way is that festivals like this are good for us to have these conversations.

Auntie Flo and Rathisa play at Dialled In, London, on 11 September

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