Manchester’s Afrodeutsche takes inspiration from Underground Resistance — and The Sound of Music
FACT Rated is our series digging into the sounds and stories of the most vital breaking artists around right now. This week, Kamila Rymajdo talks to Afrodeutsche about gleaning inspiration from everything from UR and Drexciya to Alfred Hitchcock and The Sound of Music.
Before Henrietta Smith-Rolla, aka Afrodeutsche, became Skam Records’ most exciting recent recruit, she had a solid run of enviable opportunities. Without knowing how to read music or even play keys, she was asked to join Graham Massey’s vintage organ group Sisters of Transistors in 2006; her first live show in 2016 was at Pikes in Ibiza playing alongside Carl Craig. “I have this mentality where if I’m scared or nervous about something then I should definitely do it,” she explains over the phone, fresh off playing her first set at Berlin’s techno mecca Berghain.
Smith-Rolla grew up in Devon where her interest in music manifested at an early age. As a seven-year-old, she would dance along to Soul II Soul’s ‘Back to Life’ on Top of the Pops, while Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s famed ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ would similarly incite her to “lose [her] shit”. Her passion was formalized with violin lessons, but she gave up by the time she was 12. Riding into school with the instrument on her back made her a prime target for bullies. “I had enough shit to deal with,” she says. “Being from Devon at the time when I was there I felt black. I felt like I was a black woman because there weren’t any other black women there except for my mum. And so you are kind of a spectacle in a way, not necessarily in a bad way, but you were a spectacle.”
Moving to Manchester at age 24, Afrodeutsche “suddenly had no sense of feeling different,” and it was here that her passion for techno began. In 2007 she started to make electronic music, two years after new friends introduced her to Underground Resistance’s ‘Afrogermanic’, a moment so influential it is part of the inspiration for her moniker. An obsession with Drexciya forged an even deeper appreciation when she discovered the Afrofuturist context. “It was a fantastical story but something that I was connected to in some way,” she says. “The connection between ‘Afrogermanic’ stuff and Detroit was also speaking to me but I had no idea how strong that was until I started looking for my dad.”
Although she had never met him, she was able to dig up some information about him, including that he lived Germany in the late 1950s. The word “Afrodeutsche” kept coming up in her research, but no one could give her a solid origin story for the term. “Germans don’t make up words for no reason. They’re so to-the-point,” she says. She eventually learned about German and Russian colonialism in Ghana in the 1600s. “It actually felt like an accidental weight that I have discovered,” she says and reveals the search coincided with the making of her first album Break Before Make, giving her a new context for her work. “It was a solitary experience and that’s why I think the album’s quite sad, because I’m making sense of that solitary thing,” she says. She still hasn’t found her father.
Break Before Make comes after various other ventures in music. In 2009, Afrodeutsche started club night Clap Trap with friend Jackie Thompson (“The clap was our favorite sound from a drum machine in the house tracks we were listening to”) and that same year she began composing for other people, mostly writing film and theatre scores. She took her inspiration from Bernard Hermann’s work for Alfred Hitchcock, which she came upon just a few years before she began making electronic music. A culmination of nearly a decade spent collecting hardware, Break Before Make was made using synths including a Korg MS2000, Yamaha DX7, Novation X-Station and microKORG, as well as Ableton.
“Sound was always really important to me,” she says, citing the rounds sung in The Sound of Music as the catalyst for the moody counterpoint melodies on the album. “Quite a lot of my stuff is arpeggios – not straight arpeggios, but patterns of music. They repeat but not necessarily the same repeat.” The album’s prime example of these patterns is the Manchester-inspired ‘The Middle Middle’. “I love relentlessness, something that holds you down,” she adds.
Countered by violent purges of confessional storytelling via synth-processed crying, the post-apocalyptic tone of Break Before Make honors the Afrofuturism she was first inspired by when arriving in Manchester. But she says the album’s politics is rather contained in the artwork. “It’s been quite difficult because it’s not completely my own history, it’s a lot of people’s history.” More literal is the album’s title, which alludes to the opening of an original signal path before a new signal path is closed to avoid shorting between the two signal sources. “For me, it was also happening in a personal and emotional way,” she says. “I had to be broken before I could make any of this music.”
Kamila Rymajdo is a freelance journalist. You can find her on Twitter.