Interview: Africaine 808
Hans Reuschl and Dirk Leyers detail the globetrotting journey of their joint project
Dirk Leyers and Hans Reuschl, the duo of Africaine 808, met 16 years ago as a bizarre footnote in Berlin techno history was being written. When they were introduced at Fuckparade – an outdoor gathering of hard techno and gabber – they saw a shirtless, muscular man with ivory skin and a face like stone scold a reveller who’d bumped into a woman dancing nearby. Millions of others have seen the exchange on YouTube, too. Not long after, Techno Viking led an impromptu march down the street.
Needless to say, Leyers and Reuschl followed a different route. They began working together 11 years later, a partnership that has yielded four EPs of polyrhythmic house that ties traditional African music and instruments to a Japanese drum machine, Africaine 808’s “third band member.” Earlier this month they released Basar, an album that explores dance music’s extensive African genealogy. But how did two guys steeped in German house and techno come to make something that binds Cape Verdean funaná and Angolan semba to jazz, blues and British soundsystem music?
When they met, Leyers and Reuschl were working for Kompakt and BPitch Control, respectively. Leyers had some success as one-half of tender techno outfit Closer Musik alongside Matias Aguayo. Reuschl’s output was low-key and more sporadic – in 2000 he put out a drum & bass record and a more experimental electronic 12-inch on BPitch Control with N-Dee as White Dolemite.
Reuschl became disillusioned with producing not long after and invested his time in his Vulkandance parties, which he set up six years ago and still runs. The DNA of Africaine 808 came from those get-togethers, where dance music from Angola, South Africa, Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica and many other places mixed freely. (Through the ’00s, he also became a respected graffiti artist, and took commissions from the Goethe-Institut. The illustrations on Africaine 808 records are his.)
As the party grew, Reuschl thought about producing again – in particular, he was inspired by early memories of dancing to cosmic DJs like Beppe Loda and Daniele Baldelli, and by a growing number of edits of African and Latin music released by labels such as Soundway and Sofrito. Leyers, meanwhile, had been turning out house and techno steadily through the ’00s with Nerk, Justus Köhncke and Markus Wegner. After repeated attempts to get Reuschl in the studio, they started working on edits and percussion tracks. Once Leyers had acquired a friend’s unused TR-808, the project began to take shape.
Leyers and Reuschl have an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and that feeds into the fluency of Africaine 808 tracks. Genres mingle like distant relatives at a wedding: they strike up an instant rapport, as if caught up in the celebratory mood Leyers and Reuschl create. As both emphasise repeatedly, humour is important, too. They like to have fun. You can hear it, for example, in the vibrant slap bass of “Lagos, New York,” and the extravagant, elastic melodies of tracks like “Crawfish Got Soul” and “Balla Balla.” That comes from a long friendship and a restless, irreverent approach where jamming and experimenting drive the way they work. This even extends to the gear they use. When I caught up with them at their Berlin studio, they were finishing a remix for Auntie Flo using a Hawaiian slide guitar. (“[It’s] a very odd instrument,” Reuschl said, “but we’re not scared.”)
In the period you guys first met, what were your respective relationships with African music?
For each of us it’s a different story. Dirk has more of a jazz background, and I have a background with lots of different styles of music. I was really into skateboarding and hip hop and hardcore at the same time, which is kind of unusual but, with skateboarding, it’s not so unusual. I got into avant-garde music early on through a friend, who was also a breakdancer. And he got turned onto more avant-garde electronic music and that’s how I got in touch with Afro-influenced electronic music.
The early stuff I heard was Brian Eno and David Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. That album was very much influenced by African drumming, and also probably influenced by Steve Reich, who studied African drumming. This kind of New York minimalist music. And from then on, I consciously fell in love with polyrhythms and this kind of drumming, and also the sound of these kinds of drums and percussion instruments. From there on, I started exploring it.
When I got interested in jazz music, I would travel as a teenager to all these festivals close to the place I grew up. Most of these festivals had what they would call African Dance Night, or something like that, so I had the chance to see a lot of bands playing besides the jazz artists I was deeply interested in. That’s the link – for me, it’s more like that I played guitar in several different bands, and got very interested in jazz music when I was 16, 15; I picked it up and wanted to know what was going on. The best thing you can do is listen to records or listen to bands and just hear how they approach it. I was totally blown away, for example, when I saw Tony Allen for the first time, with his band playing.
When my parents approached me to learn an instrument, for me it was always drums. I was always in love with drums and percussion. Of course, I could never get a drum set, because, you know, neighbours and stuff. So my parents got me a shitty Farfisa organ, one of those tabletop blow organs. It was one of those air-blown, air-ventilated organs. Terrible, terrible. And, so, the love for drums was still there, so I got some African drums in a flea market.
It really intensified at the end of the ‘80s when I met a guy – one of my friends who was really into cosmic music – and he took me, when I visited him in Munich, to these cosmic parties up in the Alps. That’s where I saw Beppe Loda, and Baldelli, DJ Mozart play. That was the first time I heard DJs play African music, and it completely blew me away. Before, I went to the early techno parties, and it was not really surprising to me because I was into this avant-garde electronic music already. Throbbing Gristle did the same stuff 10 years before, right?
But this particular mix of African drums and dance music I’d never heard before, and it was really inspiring to see 20, 40 drummers. Everyone that brought a drum to these rave parties got in for free, so we always carried drums there. That became the driving force for me to become a DJ.
When did you guys decide to embark on the Africaine 808 project?
When I was in Cologne, and Hans was in Berlin, we had the chance to meet for the first time. We were hanging out, we had great talks, and then I’d have to disappear to Cologne again. I moved to Berlin around 2003, and then we would meet occasionally and I was actually bugging Hans to go into the studio to make some music.
Because, for me, with the background of playing in a band, and when I did Closer Musik with Matias [Aguayo], it was always the right approach for me to actually work with people and not feeling like a nerd in front of the computer moving stuff. So it was always about the interaction, to have a buddy and discuss certain things, and you have different influences, and then you meet and try to develop something else, which is interesting to me. So I was bugging Hans, and maybe Hans can explain better, but I think he was moving into another direction. I think he was pretty much fed up with producing electronic music.
It was not so much the production, it was more the music business I was fed up with. I had a music project before, I worked for BPitch Control. Things were basically alright with the reviews we got, we were record of the month in Groove magazine. At the time, this kind of electronic music was really peaking, and people were really making money with techno and electro. The stuff that my friend and me were doing together was more like breakbeat, polyrhythmic, experimental approach. And this music later became like grime or dubstep. It was very much heavy bass music with breakbeats. That was like one, two years before that stuff actually happened in the UK.
We were kind of experimenting in the same field, but the stuff was never a big sales point for BPitch Control, who were very successful at the time with Soffy O and Toktok and having, like, 30,000, 40,000 sellers. The stuff we produced would sell 800 copies, or 1,000 copies – which nowadays is great! – but back in the day this was like a failure.
At some point, my job was falling apart. I was working for a company doing sound design, and I got this studio space for free. When the company went bankrupt, I had no money to maintain the studio, and I had to give up. At the time when I was living in my flat, I couldn’t produce music – it was impossible, because of the neighbours, and the whole situation, it was just no good. And I hate producing over headphones.
All of a sudden, I was just only buying records and found myself not producing anymore, really just DJing and buying records and organising parties. It finally came together again when this whole Vulkandance thing that I started six years ago became bigger and bigger. I could see that it became, everywhere in the world, this kind of retro world music approach, translating world music into dance music. Doing edits, doing remixes of old stuff – the stuff that Sofrito does, or Soundway, or Analog Africa, and all these labels do.
I come from dance music DJing, so I like playing tracks all together and have this approach that Beppe had with cosmic disco, or Afro, to actually mix those Afro tracks together. And so I feel it was time again to go back to the studio and work on that stuff. And I met Dirk, and Dirk was like, “Hey, when are we gonna do it?” And I was like, “Yeah, maybe this time I actually feel like we could actually do something together.” At some point, a friend of his brought the 808 drum machine that he had never used, which was almost brand new.
The 808 is just oscillating the whole time – it doesn’t sound the same when you record it over a long time.
He had used it for his house project, but they had the same problem back in the days, when house wasn’t so popular anymore, and actually the label dropped the album they were producing. He was hiding the 808 in a suitcase in his apartment, and I met him and he told me, “Yeah, man, I’ve got this drum machine at home, don’t you want to use it in the studio?” And I said, “Okay, what kind of drum machine are you talking about?” And he said, “It’s an 808.” And I was like, “Wow, sure – bring it over!” And that’s how the 808 became the third band member for us. We had the machine, we loved the sound, and we discovered that the sound of an 808 with acoustic-played instrument goes very well together. Sometimes, you hear acoustic-played stuff on an electronic track but it’s not really fitting, you know?
There’s a bunch of machines, where it sounds really “wow,” for example the Compurhythm CR78, and the old Vermona, or Farfisa drum machines, the old organ drum machines. A lot of these machines were used by African musicians. They’re a bit more rough and raw, and the sounds are a bit more distorted. I think it’s this rawness that attracts us.
It’s just like when you use analogue gear, it’s oscillating all the time. It doesn’t sound the same. When you just play back the sample in a DAW then you have exactly the same sound all the time. The 808 is just oscillating the whole time – it doesn’t sound the same when you record it over a long time. But that’s a bit nerdy!
Are there particular regions of Africa that inspired Basar more than others?
We started working more on a regular basis, and doing more and more sessions, and really getting into it, and getting, like, a drive to really make more tracks and spend more time in the studio, and we realised we were onto something. We had one track that did not fit the genre or the format of a 12-inch. And we were like, “wow, this is kind of an album track,” this is like something that goes deeper where you have to put it in the right environment to release music like this. This was “Basar,” which has more of an Arab-Saharan influence with the drums on it.
From there on we started exploring, and what we found out was that each track that we favoured for the album had a different influence, be it from Africa or the United States or Brazil or different places, where the rules of African popular music migrated to. Some of it through slavery, because certain slaves got shipped to certain areas. For example, one of the old Angolan rhythms is the semba. And the semba actually ended up in Brazil because slaves were shipped there, and they started playing the semba in a different way because they did not find the instruments there that they were used to. The calabash was smaller so they had to build different instruments, and that changed the music, so out of the semba the samba was created. There are countless examples of this. The blues that came from Mali – and the slaves from Mali and Senegal – was shipped to New Orleans, so they kept playing their music, and from that music the modern blues evolved.
We were just following through these different influences, where we see this music that we love, how it travelled, and how it reached different areas.
We were just following through these different influences, where we see this music that we love, how it travelled, and how it reached different areas. Even if you look at jungle, there’s a clash. The early jungle, drum & bass stuff has so many different influences. It has this Jamaican influence of heavy basslines, a breakbeat over it, and it has tons of different influences on it. If you look at Wax Doctor and early Metalheadz, there was lots of jazz influence on there.
I think what’s important is to just have your freedom. It’s a privilege getting older and having all these influences in you. Within other genres in electronic music, at the same time, I felt so many restrictions. I’m not really keen on restrictions – ”Okay, now I have a concept album, and now it’s 4/4 beats, and it’s 10 tracks with a 4/4 beat.” For us, it wasn’t about finding a format which works. We did one disco track, which was “Lagos, New York,” and we didn’t feel like, “This works, so let’s do another track.”
Hans, at your Vulkandance parties, were there particular artists you’d booked – or records you’d played – that fired your interest in Africaine 808, and made you consider it more seriously?
Actually, we get more silly! We laugh a lot in the studio.
It’s all about the fun here. Vulkandance was started in the same spirit. It was really an accident. It was just Hunee and me. We had a soundsystem together. Hunee decided at some point he wanted to go more into the disco/house direction, and explore that field more. And we always played that music: we played kind of old-school Bristol block party music, all styles – soundsystem style. Reggae, and ragga, and hip hop, and house, and broken beats, and – you name it. We played Afro, we played a lot of disco and boogie at the time. At some point, he went into his direction, and I was like, maybe I’ll just do what I really fancy, and I was playing African music and tropical music and Latin stuff.
From the beginning, the limits we had for Vulkandance were just that we would play amazing music there, so somebody could play just a disco set there, and if there were some Afro boogie records in between, that’s fine. You could play house – we had Auntie Flo play at our party just playing a purely electronic set. I had Beppe Loda many times play at our parties, and sometimes I would challenge him before he would come and tell him: “Hey, you’re not allowed to play your regular space disco stuff, you have to play just Afro,” or, one time, he played just samba the whole night, which was amazing. What we wanted to do with Vulkandance was really get record collectors and diggers to feel really free and be invited to do what they wanted to do.
So right now the party has a very diverse way of presenting itself. It’s really very open, it’s just the rule to play left-field stuff and leave the hits at home. I mean, play your personal hits, but not like commercial, average club bangers. You can play one in between, but it’s really about showing your selection as a DJ and having unique characters play there, and really have a high level challenge going on and still hold the dance floor and turn it into a great body, that’s basically what it’s about.
As Hans was running the Vulkandance party, did Matias Aguayo’s Comeme label become a reference point for what you then did together?
I really wasn’t following what was going on at that time because I became a father. I thought I have to walk out of music production and see my child grow up, actually. But actually no, I don’t think so. We’ve been to South America together, Matias and me, and I still have contacts with a lot of musicians in South America. Maybe I was actually looking for a place where I could grab my guitar and play again, and actually be totally free with the influences which surrounded me, so that’s basically it. I did other music while Matias was doing Comeme; I was producing with Nerk from Toktok, and we were actually producing some funny, harder techno at this time. But it was actually the same with Nerk as well – we were really stuck in a formula.
It all comes from either blues or funk influence – this is African music.
I wanted to touch on something you mentioned earlier about Basar. When you mentioned slavery, well, it’s a heavy subject. I found it interesting that the album is, one the one hand, a celebratory work, but what made it possible – as you pointed out – was the slave trade from the 15th century onwards.
All of our popular music would be completely, utterly different today if there would not have been slavery. You cannot credit the slaves enough for actually creating our entire popular music. It all comes from either blues or funk influence – this is African music. Old Germanic music might have some similarities to reggae, and you have in the old, ancient European folk music you have of course similarities in some rhythms in some ways – call and response chants – and so on.
I tried to imagine how our modern popular music would be without funk and blues. It’s actually a little bit scary. If our modern popular music would not have any of that blues and polyrhythmic influence it would be a sad story. If jazz had never happened, where would we be? I cannot imagine what this would mean to the world of harmonies if we wouldn’t have explored jazz.
Even for techno music. Claude Young told me that his main influence for techno music was not what was going on at the time in electronic music. For him, it was Steve Reich. It was this kind of minimalist music in the ’60s, you know, and Steve Reich went to Africa and studied African drumming and African percussion and brought that to classical music, and fused it to classical music instrumentation and orchestras. That weighed for him a lot heavier than Kraftwerk did at the time.
Which instruments did you enjoy using in particular, and how did you use them?
One steady candidate that can be mentioned is the Korg MS20. Sometimes, we have a weird way of playing our synthesizers. If they’re not MIDI-fied synthesisers, and we’re playing live, Dirk is playing some harmonies, and I’m doing the tweaking, so he can play with four hands and I go to tweak the knobs at the same time, and we do the same with the Studio Electronics ATC1, which is one of our favourites, because it has all of these filter modules that you can exchange.
On top of that, we’re lucky when we have real players coming to the studio, and you can record their magic at the same time. It’s important for us that we’re not making it stiff, even if it’s just shifting, that’s great, and gives a live feel to the album.
Eric [Owusu] and Dodo [N’Kishi] are percussionists and our drummers, and they’re also part of the band. They naturally edit – they lifted a lot of the sound on the album to another level.
Same with the vocalists. It’s beautiful to work with same-minded people who are open to experiment.
This is all family, people we’ve been knowing for many years, and so we didn’t have to buy in talent, but it’s really just talented – these are our friends, these are the people we hang out with, the people that go to the same parties.
We have a lot of amazing, talented people around here in Berlin, which really helps the project. And I think the city really reflects on our music as well. There’s a lot of Berlin music history on this album. There’s our drum & bass years. There’s a lot of the Berlin dubby techno vibe, like the Basic Channel years where we went to parties and were always in the same scene. Everyone was kind of together at the time, it was not separated as it is now. One night you had a drum & bass night, the other night you had a techno night, but still it was the same people going to the club, and mingling and exchanging ideas. I think Berlin is still like that because it’s structured the way it’s structured. It’s not structured around one city centre, but around a lot of different city centres.