Touching Bass are digging deeper into the transformative power of music

Words by:
Photography: Lynn Hayleigh (O-Ke)

“I’m a Londoner born and bred. My dad’s Jamaican and my mum’s from Grenada, so Caribbean culture has been my everything right from the start,” says DJ, radio presenter and curator Errol Anderson, explaining how the tendrils of sound system culture have woven their way into all that he does.

Alongside partner and fellow DJ and radio host Alex Rita, Anderson is part of Touching Bass – a label, club night, concert series and growing web of musicians that has established itself as one of London’s most exciting musical prospects. Part of a creative community rooted south of the river, Anderson and Rita share a meticulous attention to detail when it comes to record selection – playing everything from hip-hop, soul and jazz to dancefloor-focused sounds like UK funky and garage – as well as a deep dedication to the transformative potential of sound.

The pair, who beam in via Zoom from their home in Deptford, south London, met seven years ago at a club night Anderson organised at Hoxton Basement. At the time, Anderson was working as lead programmer and host for Boiler Room, a job he landed after a lifetime of exploring different music cultures. He describes being “in and around Notting Hill Carnival for as long as I can remember. My first loves were those of my parents, obviously. A lot of reggae, dub, ska… and country music, actually.” Rita immediately chimes in: “What is it with Caribbean people and country music?” she asks, laughing. “My dad as well. I’m just like, ‘Nah man, not the vibe.’” Rita, a Copenhagen native with Caribbean heritage on her paternal side, is now an adopted Londoner, having lived in the city for nine years. “When I moved here, there were a lot of sounds that I wasn’t familiar with because I didn’t grow up with them.”

© Lynn Hayleigh (O-Ke)

She soon rectified this, and Rita’s work as a DJ, radio host and occasional producer has evolved to reflect the breadth and diversity of Touching Bass’ approach to music. After initially falling for high-octane sounds like jungle, she’s now equally at home with cosmic jazz, R&B or ambient – all of which she showcases on her NTS show Calm Roots, which focuses on the more meditative side of music. “Just certain chord progressions… I remember when you played me White Gloves by Khruangbin for the first time,” she turns to Anderson with obvious glee. “We were both just geeking out over how great that tune is.”

This almost childlike giddiness for music has come to define Touching Bass’ artistic mission. Based around a circle of friends and fellow musicians seeking more intimate experiences with music, TB Dance, their monthly club night in south-east London, was born out of dissatisfaction with the capital’s prevailing club culture. “[TB Dance] started out of frustration,” admits Anderson. “It started with me going to clubs and hearing music that I loved – at the time it was UK funky. But at that point, I wasn’t only listening to the sound system continuum, I was also listening to D’Angelo, funk, soul, boogie. I didn’t feel that there were enough places I could go and expect to be surprised.”

© Lynn Hayleigh (O-Ke)

The night started as an intimate affair held at various spots around south-east London. Locations would be shared with friends via text message, like a secret underground network – a practice they’ve kept up to this day. Most of the musicians who played at those first events were part of their wider friendship group, including Miles Romans-Hopcraft – better known as Wu-Lu – and multi-instrumentalist Maxwell Owin. “I’ll never forget that first dance,” smiles Anderson. “I remember standing at the back when Miles played D’Angelo’s Spanish Joint at 2am. I’d never been in a club space where someone had done that before, and seeing people react…” he adds, buzzing from the memory.

Having already amassed a loyal fanbase for their open-minded nights, the obvious next steps would be to seek larger venues and expand their operation. But this isn’t on their radar. “We don’t think bigger is always better. Our dance feels like a beautiful house party and we want to keep it that way,” asserts Anderson. Something else that defines TB Dance nights is that alcohol plays a small role. “They’re not massive drinkers,” Rita says of their typical audience. “They dance! They just drink water. I think that’s why the energy is different, because people are quite present.” They recognise that a lot of music venues depend on bar sales as a revenue stream, but they both question the cultural reliance on it. “I kind of stopped drinking,” says Rita. “As someone who doesn’t drink, it can be quite exhausting to be in a club where everyone is just off their face.”

© Lynn Hayleigh (O-Ke)

Instead, the belief that music has the power to uplift us and change lives is what fuels Touching Bass’ live component. It’s something they further examine at their intimate Speaking in Sound events, held primarily at east London’s Brilliant Corners. These are community-focused evenings that feature discussions, artist Q&As and themed musical exploration, with the aim of building stronger interpersonal relationships – something that is harder to do solely in the context of clubbing, Rita opines. “We’re multifaceted people. We love the club, but also have different interests. I think the thing you lack in a club is being able to truly get to know someone.”

Speaking in Sound, which is also alcohol-free, allows for a different type of interaction with music. Rita smiles when she remembers a previous event which focused on the theme of improvisation with prodigious jazz drummer Yussef Dayes. “We had a few different players just improvising for an hour and a half and it felt like the room levitated,” she beams. “Everyone was so in tune and present. A guy came over to us and said, ‘I’d forgotten that music can make me feel this way without drinking – that you can be taken somewhere else.’”

This fluid way of presenting music means that they’ve also branched out into collaborations with art galleries and other cultural institutions. “I see it all as curation, whether you’re choosing which tracks to play as a DJ or who comes to speak,” Anderson says. “We’ve done stuff with the Tate and recently collaborated with the White Cube for Frieze. It’s another necessary part of what we’re trying to build.” These events have become hubs for a strong musical community that’s up for a rave while also remaining sonically and intellectually curious.

“We don’t think bigger is always better. Our dance feels like a beautiful house party and we want to keep it that way”

Errol Anderson

Having such a wide-ranging and adaptable approach to presenting these cultures helped them survive lockdown, when nightlife was put on hold indefinitely. The Touching Bass record label began to expand during this time, with one record in particular chiming with audiences struggling with the enforced solitude of those long months – the debut EP from fellow south Londoner cktrl. A beautifully crafted record, Robyn was written in the wake of a world-shattering breakup and soundtracked mostly by cktrl’s clarinet and piano playing. “Putting out a contemporary classical record about someone’s heartbreak really resonated with a lot of people,” Anderson says.

© Lynn Hayleigh (O-Ke)

Currently, they’re busy promoting another significant release on the label: Soon Come, a 22-track collection by various artists affiliated to Touching Bass, including Wu-Lu, Hejira, Clever Austin (of Hiatus Kaiyote) and Cowrie. Full of fuzzy, loping beats, soulful vocals and jazz-infused rhythms, it’s a perfect introduction to the wide array of talents that make up the Touching Bass world.

Even when they’re taking time out from their creative lives, Rita and Anderson gravitate towards music. Before the pandemic, the couple spent over two months touring in Australia, New Zealand and Japan, preceded by an eye-opening holiday in Ethiopia with Rahel, one third of Hejira. “It’s always been the place I wanted to go to the most, knowing how rich the culture is. I just think, ‘Wow, one of the only places that hasn’t been colonised in Africa – that’s deep,’” says Rita. The pair’s travels around the country coincided with Timkat, the biggest celebration in the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Christian calendar. “We went to the church and there were 40 men and young boys singing. It was very spiritual,” she describes. “We were there for two and a half hours and the same guy was singing the lead vocal the entire time. They have these scriptures they bring out every Easter, and there are people dressed in these incredible outfits.”

© Lynn Hayleigh (O-Ke)

While Anderson, Rita and the rest of the Touching Bass family operate outside of any formal spiritual or religious practices, their dedication to music nonetheless borders on the devotional. I ask them both whether they believe the music scene they inhabit offers transcendence to people living in often-unforgiving cities like London. “So many people live for the weekend. I used to, when I was younger, working five days a week…” says Rita. “I don’t know if the majority of people intentionally think of the club as a place where they can find healing.”

Anderson nods, offering his own perspective. “For a lot of people, the club is their escape,” he says. “When people go to the club, regardless of how they choose to spend their time or how they do or don’t intoxicate themselves, that’s their chance to just be.” What’s abundantly clear, however, is that Rita and Anderson have created a community that’s deeply cherished and valued; one in which music is a vessel for connection and unadulterated joy.

Soon Come is out now via Touching Bass

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