The percussionist brothers from Basel return with another rhythmic excursion
House music has spread far and wide from its beginnings in America’s midwest. It’s now a global phenomenon, with fans on every continent taking the original template and giving it their own particular flavour. And since 2014, Dersu and Diego Figuiera – a pair of Basel, Switzerland-based twins of Cape Verdian extraction – have been bringing their own background to bear on their house music productions.
Both are percussionists as well as DJs and producers, and their releases as Alma Negra have picked up support from DJs as diverse as Four Tet, Hunee, Detroit Swindle and Gilles Peterson. Their version of house music is a rich, percussive concoction, taking in their family's West African musical traditions as well as their beloved Chicago house, and blending elements of jazz and disco into rich rhythmic collages, all held down by adept production touches. Alma Negra’s original recordings, re-edits and remixes have appeared on Basic Fingers, Lumberjacks In Hell, Sofrito, their own Alma Negra Records and Detroit Swindle’s Heist label, and they’re about to drop another four-track EP, Dakar Disco, on the latter.
The EP serves up four dancefloor productions of varied tempo and style, all with hints of jazz-funk and disco along with Alma Negra’s particular rhythmic sensibility. The title track is a party-friendly, horn-soaked midtempo houser, Contra takes things to a more jazz-funk place courtesy of its Moog-esque lead while Back In Town is a speedy percussion-acid combo. The EP also comes with a sophisticated remix from Japanese producer and sound designer Kuniyuki, and the whole package is infused with a warm musicality as the rich organic instrumentation melds with waves of Alma Negra’s live percussion.
We spoke to the pair about their new music, their career and getting that live, organic feel down in the studio…
How would you describe the music that you make?
Diego: "There are a lot of different musical influences in our productions. It can be classic house or disco beats but we also experiment with polyrhythms. Different rhythms, like Maloya and Sega from the Indian Ocean, Gwo Ka from Guadeloupe and of course the Cape Verdian Cola San Jon or Tabanka all can have a big impact."
What is the Cape Verde [an African island nation in the Atlantic] connection to Alma Negra?
Dersu: "Our Dad is from Cape Verde and we have grown up with music from Cape Verde. In 2014 we released some edits of Cape Verdian records from the 80s on Sofrito."
Is Cape Verdian music important to you, then?
Dersu: "Very important for us, for sure. We grew up in Switzerland and the Cape Verdian music was important for us to keep our identity. Recently we recorded a track with a band with a Cape Verdian rhythm, and made our own interpretation of the music. So it’s always present in our musical development."
Tell us about your latest EP on Heist, Disco Dakar. Are you happy with how it’s turned out – did you achieve what you set out to do?
Diego: "Yes! We are really happy with the result. It reflects what we are doing at the moment and that is satisfying for sure. You know, sometimes you release an EP but the tracks don’t reflect where you are with your musical ideas… but on this new EP, it all fits together."
There’s lots of live instrumentation on the EP – tell us a bit about how you work in the studio?
Diego: "We work with digital but also use analogue synths from time to time. Mario Robles, who is also part of Alma Negra and responsible for the live project, is a fanatical modular synth guy. We record our percussion and work together with different musicians."
You're both percussionists, is that correct? How you make your organic musical performances and electronic elements work together?
Dersu: "Yes, we both play percussion, and we were both self-taught from a very young age. I also play congas in the live band. And sure, the recordings of different percussion help give our tracks that organic feeling. Not only the drums but for smaller percussion too, instead of using the classic clap and hi-hat sounds. Maybe others would use more drum machine sounds, but in the end it doesn’t make a big difference."
How do you know when a production is finished?
Dersu: "Diego decides when the track is finished. It can be a nightmare to finish a track, and then sometimes it just flows and you have everything in mind – those are the perfect moments when you can really express yourself."
Dakar Disco sounds like it was fun to make – was it?
Diego: "Definitely! I first did a version in the box that had all the brass arrangements, but then we decided to record all the brass live with some musicians. I think that it gives the track that little bit extra."
What do you think of Kuniyuki’s remix?
Dersu: "We all think his remix is mind-blowing. Kuniyuki is a thorough master and an idol for us. It's amazing how he controls the reverb, he’s at the highest level. I can’t wait to play it out!"
Do you have a dream project or collaboration you’d like to do one day?
Diego: "There are too many nice musicians and producers we would like to work with. The fact that Kuniyuki just did a remix for us is a highlight right now for sure."
Who has been the most important person to you both in your music career so far?
Dersu: "Mario Robles for sure, and back in the day Dario Rosa, who also used to be a member of Alma Negra. We learned a lot from them Also the people that gave us the chance to release our music, like Lars Dales and Maarten Smeets from Detroit Swindle, who’ve supported us constantly in the last four years. Hugo Mendes from Sofrito and Nouvelle Ambiance, who were the first labels we worked with.
"Also Tooli and Mad Mats from Local Talk, Marcel Vogel (Lumberjacks in Hell), Andrew Thompson and Auntie Flo. And we’ve had many exchanges with other DJs and producers like Nomad Of Africaine 808, Esa Williams, In Flagranti, Mehmet Aslan, Nightmares On Wax and others… all of them are important too, so thank you!"
And what have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your music career?
Diego: "Actually, if I think about it, there has been no bigger challenge than the coronavirus crisis so far. It’s hard to look forward in such an unsure future."
What are you most proud of in your career?
Dersu: "When you see a crowd dancing to your music, that’s an unbelievable feeling and hard to describe. But even though I am a modest person, I can say that makes me proud of us."
How did you get into DJing the first place – and which came first, DJing or producing?
Diego: "I started first with production; for Dersu, DJing came first."
Dersu: "I started as a DJ playing funk, jazz and disco in local bars and open air spots in Basel. Back in the day I started just for fun because I'm a music lover, but could not have predicted where we are now."
So how do you see yourselves now: as producers who DJ, DJs who produce, or something else entirely?
Diego: "The fact that Dersu was already DJing for some years before I started with production made it clear that it was just a matter of time before we combined our skills. Nowadays, Dersu is a DJ who produces and I’m a producer who DJs, ha ha!"
What have you got planned for the rest of the year?
Dersu: "We are really happy with the new Heist release and are working on other different projects at the moment. We have recorded three tracks with the live band and hopefully can release those later this year. Also we’re working with Babani Records from Mauritius on a EP based on the traditional music Séga/Maloya. And a remix we did with the singer Celine Huber will come out at the end of August, also on Babani Records, and will be released as well on the next Buddha Bar compilation."
Is there anything else that we haven’t asked that you wish we had?
Diego: "We just want to say thank you! Hopefully we will see people soon again on dancefloors and at festivals around the globe."
Words: Harold Heath
The Dakar Disco EP is out on Heist on 28 August