Kirsten Azan on Toronto nightlife, travelling the world and throwing JERK parties.
“Lisbon is one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” says Bambii, reflecting on her afternoon exploring in the sunshine. She’s in town for a gig at MusicBox alongside the Luso-Brazilian DJ Shaka Lion, following a set in Berlin the previous night. While all DJs are used to the jet-lag-induced fugue that comes with the career, Bambii is engaging, kind, and armed with a razor-sharp wit.
On stage, her style is powered by a borderless intuition; behind the decks her focus is obvious, even as she dances – expressively – to the music’s aneurysm-inducing textures. She slides smoothly between dancehall, house, afrobeat and global music, and you can sense the joy radiating from her set: a love letter to the empowering spirit of a darkened room and a soundsystem. Clearly, it’s the product of someone who lives and breathes music.
Sitting on her bed while she undergoes an outfit change for the night ahead, Bambii and I discuss the changing role of the DJ, the art of adapting to different crowds, and redefining what fame looks like in 2018.
What first inspired you to DJ?
I basically dropped out of university and after working a millions jobs, I felt pretty aimless – the same way that when you aren’t taking the path that all your peers are taking it can give you a lot of anxiety. There isn’t really room in society for people who don’t have a clear direction; you can’t just float around, you have to attach yourself to something… It can be scary when you can’t do that. That was me for a really long time. I had gone to an arts school and I had always been really interested in music, but I didn’t know what my relationship was with it. I started doing events before I started DJing – I was throwing this party called “Recess” and I remember not being able to find a DJ. At that time in Toronto there just weren’t any female DJs playing the music that I wanted to hear. So it came from seeing that the space was empty and I couldn’t find what I wanted.
Aside from getting people to dance, how would you define a DJ’s role?
I think DJing is really saturated and looks like a lot of different things right now. It can be really mixed up with the entertainment industry, in a negative way where the DJ is just in a club and nobody cares about the music, but in the best case scenario DJing helps break new music; it exposes people to music they’re not familiar with, and in terms of how content gets out to the general population, DJing is integral. Writers, photographers, artists – it’s kind of this ecosystem that helps create sub-culture and I think the best case scenario of DJing is integral to that ecosystem.
Your set explores a number of genres. How did you work out your sound?
When I first started I was playing the music that I grew up with. I listened to a lot of Caribbean music, but my mum also had a really weird taste in music – she really liked classic rock and disco – so I started out playing what was familiar. All music references other genres, though. I started playing Caribbean music but then slowly started playing afro and afro house and South American stuff, global music… I think that everything kind of circles back. Now I really like club music and jersey club but that all links back to this starting point of what I initially started listening to as a child.
You’re DJing in all these cities with different cultures and crowds. How much of your set is preparation versus freestyle?
I definitely prepare beforehand but I always feel nervous in foreign places. In North America I kind of have an idea of what to expect, but when I’m abroad I feel a bit nervous because I don’t know what the scene is, I don’t know what’s “passé” to play or what’s been done, I don’t know what people are exposed to. But at the end of the day, you just have to do you. You can’t fake it and you can’t mimic locals. You can prepare and perhaps kind of anticipate what the scene is and what’s going on, but you also have to rely on the fact that you’re unique and people are excited to hear your sound. They booked you for a reason.
How do you feel your set has evolved since you began spinning to today?
When you first start doing music research, you kind of start playing the music that’s most immediate to you. So when I first started playing I was way more mainstream and played the music that was most accessible. Nowadays I do much more research, I’m plugged in with more people around the world. I have a clearer idea of the kind of music that I like and it’s just so vast and intricate. I wouldn’t say my sound is obscure, but I’d say it’s more…refined.
Nice. So the JERK parties in Toronto, what motivated you to start these?
I started JERK because, basically, when I started DJing nobody was gonna book me. It was the first party that I ever threw and it was the first party I ever DJed at! It was just an idea that I came up with because first of all, I like parties, a lot, but at that time in Toronto the music scene was really stratified so if you wanted to hear dancehall or hip-hop, you were in a very separate scene (from if you wanted to hear house music or electronic). So it was me trying to create a space that would bring those different “worlds” together. At the end of the day, it was really just reflective of the music that I like to hear to at home and I just wanted to create a space where people could hear that music, but also where the crowd was really diverse.
They happen twice a year, there’s a winter and a summer edition. Each year it changes a bit, it gets bigger, and I’m always just trying to find a way to make it better. I think the Toronto music scene is a bit behind so I’m trying to find ways to make the bookings at JERK reflect the scene that I don’t think people are exposed to.
What is your favourite and least favourite thing about Toronto?
That’s a hard question, I talk so much shit! I think it’s a good incubator. I think if you’re a young person and you’re figuring shit out, it’s not so wildly expensive to live here, it’s diverse, and it’s a good entry point into the arts. It’s not so competitive that you can’t break through. Whenever I think of cities like London or New York, they seem so much more overwhelming when you’re starting off, whereas I think Toronto is somewhere you can move to and actually build something.
But my least favourite thing about it is that I think the infrastructure of the city is very conservative. There are very few street festivals, there’s still not enough funding for public arts, there are a ton of restrictions with venues – trying to do events in different types of spaces or outdoors is just difficult. I think that really affects the creative programming in the city. If you compare Toronto to Montreal, it’s a really conservative city. Montreal has more festivals in the summer than any other city in the world actually, and they have a really good DIY scene; there’s less money there but there’s more freedom. I think artists from Toronto should challenge themselves to travel and leave because I think staying there makes you complacent.
I’m always inspired by people who manage to remain a fan of music while working in this industry, because I think so many people become focused on their career and lose sight of their love of music. How do you maintain that love for music and the passion for the job itself alive?
Yeah, 100%. I think that you can’t make fame your goal, because there are so many different ways to be successful. Especially nowadays, because there are independent record labels and people can be indie artists and have a pretty good life. When we think of artistry, we think of a particular image of fame, and you need to redefine what that looks like for you. I think that’s kind of how you find happiness, you know? For me, having the freedom to travel and DJ is huge. I don’t work another job, I get to just actually do this, so I feel like I’ve won in a certain way already. I think the next step is just finding a way to make that sustainable so that I can do it for a much longer time. That, to me, would make me very grateful, to be able to just have this sustainable lifestyle.
2017. What were some of your highlights?
Our last JERK was amazing. I think that was the most people we’ve had before. To see that many people come out, especially when I pretty much promote it by myself, that was a highlight for me. It’s scary when you have a project, when you’re not in a collective, it’s just me and my manager and I’m the front person for the event. It was incredible to see a thousand people come out. It means a lot to me that people fuck with it and that I can make it a cultural hub. I went on a solo tour in the first part of the year and that was really cool too, just to be able to go to 10 different cities, in Europe, by myself. Fame is a weird concept and I’m definitely not famous but it’s just nice to get that support and have that mobility. I’m really grateful; I know it’s a huge privilege.
And plans, thoughts or resolutions for 2018?
I have to work harder. And drink more water. And mind my business. I think my main resolution is not to be afraid of trying new things or to own new ideas. To not care so much about what people think. When you make art and you make it in a particular way and you try to do something you’re like, “Oh but everybody knows me as this kind of artist” or “I can’t do that blablabla”. But that’s the kind of thing that separates successful people from non-successful people: actually not giving a fuck about all that noise. So yeah, trying to drown out other people’s perceptions or opinions.
So finally, what’s next after Europe?
I’m working on my own EP. I also produce, so just learning this craft because it’s very different from DJing, so my next goal is to like, make music. It’s fucking hard. It’s just a different game. It’s definitely very humbling. I think when you first start making music, your instinct is to just make something you’ve heard, and then when you go deeper you’re actually just trying to find your own sound. You’re not really gonna make anything brand new, but you just try to find yourself in the midst of so much influence… it’s a very weird psychological journey, I guess. It’s extremely hard!