Scottish Album of the Year Award winner Brian d’Souza (aka Auntie Flo) talks to Fiona Shepherd about how collaborating with musicians from around the world between DJing gigs led to his breakthrough record Radio Highlife
Earlier this month, for the first time in its eight year history, the Scottish Album of the Year Award went to an out-and-out dance music record – Radio Highlife by Auntie Flo, aka Glasgow-born, London-based DJ, producer and musician Brian d’Souza, who was also the first winner not to be there in person to pick up his prize. Like any self-respecting DJ on a Friday night, he was working a few hundred miles away and was mid-set at the Skye Live festival when his phone started to light up with congratulatory messages.
“The promoter came backstage with a bottle of champagne and I thought ‘there’s only one reason they can be bringing me a bottle of champagne because it’s certainly not on my rider,’” he laughs.
Although unexpected, the win was sweet for d’Souza, who had been shortlisted or longlisted for his two previous albums, Future Rhythm Machine and Theory of Flo. Unlike many of his peers in dance music, for whom the stand-alone club banger or remix EP is king, the longer album form is the optimum conduit for his music. The clue is in his alias, which pays tribute to his Goan aunt, but also puns on his love of musical flow.
“I’ve always loved listening to and producing albums you can listen to from start to finish,” he says. “That’s what makes a good album, it tells a story.”
Radio Highlife certainly flows, its mellow house foundations infused with a variety of world music influences, delivered with an added piquancy which comes from being recorded in situ in multiple locations around the globe. Its story is one of diversity and cultural exchange, as d’Souza would look to book studio time and record with local musicians wherever he landed on his jet-setting DJ itinerary.
“It’s a travel diary of the last seven years of my life,” he says. “Every place sounds different. That’s where the radio theme comes from because often the first thing you hear when you go into a cab or bus is the local radio, that’s the first insight into the sound, the buzz, the vibe of a place.”
The album’s first three tracks started life in Cuba when Auntie Flo was invited to play the first ever Havana World Music Festival a few years ago.
“This was quite a seismic event,” says d’Souza. “There’s no money for the local promoters to bring international acts. They had to fight for many years to get the Castro government to allow this event to happen. So it was quite a big thing for us to be invited to be the British act to play at this festival.
“It seemed like everyone we met was a musician so we said ‘Tuesday 1pm, come along to the studio and we’ll record.’ We didn’t know what to expect but we turned up and there was a line of people around the corner to record with us.”
In total contrast, the next stop was Tromsø on the north Norwegian coast, where d’Souza was invited to reprise a Sun Ritual club night he had mounted in Glasgow. Originally a tongue-in-cheek response to the lack of sun in a Scottish summer – “everyone got their fake vitamin D dose,” he says – it was easily transferrable to an Arctic Circle festival held to welcome the first light of spring after a winter of unremitting darkness. Here, d’Souza recorded some local drummers for the tracks Isbjorn and Lights in the Northern Sky.
Radio Highlife also transmits from East Africa, where d’Souza did some sessions in Kampala, Uganda, and South Africa, which produced material for the sonorous, pulsing Cape Town Jam, before finishing back in his native Glasgow, where he first started the eponymous Highlife club night nine years ago.
“What we’ve cultivated at that club over the years is being able to play a diverse array of music,” says d’Souza. “There’s probably a place for all the album tracks somewhere over the course of a Highlife evening. There’s a few dance tracks on it, but it’s not a club record. My goal was to try to make sense of all those recordings, to condense it down into an album that works, not just a compilation of all these different sounds from around the world.”
Radio Highlife was released last autumn on Brownswood Recordings, the label run by veteran jazz world DJ and all-round music obsessive Gilles Peterson. Since then, d’Souza has taken its global jukebox out on the road as a live show featuring bandmates from Senegal, London and Glasgow. It’s the latest stage of a musical journey which began, appropriately, with a love of radio.
“Radio was the first port of call,” says d’Souza. “I always reference John Peel as my biggest influence. I used to go down to FOPP on Byres Road with my pocket money as a teenager with a list of tracks I’d written down from his radio show and try to find every single one of them.”
Record rack rummaging led naturally to the purchase of a set of turntables on which to showcase his eclectic collection, with his DJ sets morphing from hip-hop to electronica over the years and then on to the creation of his own music.
“I see dance music as a very empowering community,” says d’Souza. “You can have a solo experience in a club but you can also have an amazing non-verbal community feel on a dancefloor. It’s often maligned because of the drug and alcohol incidents but it’s not just about partying, it’s much more about a shared communal experience.”
D’Souza says he plans to use his SAY Award prize money to pay back into that community – he has started to build a studio for use by budding young DJs and producers – and to fund the follow-up to Radio Highlife, which is already in the works for release next year.
“Most of my music is influenced by place,” says d’Souza. “My approach is to pay respect to what has come before, but make it a step forward from Radio Highlife.”
Radio Highlife is out now on Brownswood Recordings.