“E wan DJ nar yar”—“He wants to DJ here,” my friend, Jordan, says pointing to me. We’ve just climbed unannounced into the sound booth of Aces Nightclub (at left), one of hottest spots in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The house DJ looks at me and then looks back at Jordan puzzled. I am in Sierra Leone working on a writing project and decided to bring my mixer and DJ MacBook with hopes of playing in the country that gave me my first exposure to African music. An ex-British colony, Sierra Leone was founded by freed slaves in the late 18th century. It holds historical ties to the U.S. through the Amistad affair (see Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film), the Gullah people of South Carolina, and the country’s Creoles. Descendents of freed slaves, many of whom fled after fighting with the British during the Revolutionary War, the Creoles became a unique ethnic group, shaping Sierra Leone’s identity as an emancipation point for those in servitude and creating the country’s distinct English and African-based language, Krio. Sierra Leone is also known for its brutal 10-year civil war, including heavy employment of child soldiers, chronicled in the 2006 Academy Award-Nominated film Blood Diamond.
Back at Aces Nightclub, Jordan and I begin a dialogue with the house DJ, Bai Kargbo (in blue at right). Jordan explains that I am a New York DJ who knows African music, has played prominent gigs, and that I’d like a slot mixing there. After some discussion of music and convincing, Bai tells us to come back on Thursday night to confirm if he can give me a set. This is my best chance at mixing a club in Africa. One doesn’t really find agents or contracts when it comes to DJ culture here. Like an African market, the best bet is to show up and arrange the deal in person, preferably with the guidance of a savvy local.
On our return Thursday evening, Bai confirms he’s going to give me a set Saturday, without giving much detail. As the club fills, he begins his mix and starts announcing about every 20 minutes in Krio that Aces will have a VIP guest DJ from New York Saturday night: “Dis Satiday, we go get wan special New York DJ wae name Jake Bright—12 a.m. til 2 a.m.!” Only then do I realize he’s given me the peak slot on Freetown’s prime going-out night. When I start to observe the club and hear Bai mix, I also realize the place is highly dance driven and as a DJ, Bai is excellent.
In New York, there is a lot of debate in the music community as to what it actually means to be a good DJ. In many circles, DJing has become a fad du jour, some leading with real skills and others with gimmicks. For my part, DJing started as a bit of an accident: someone asked me to bring some music for a house party, and it quickly became one of those hobbies/professions to fill a void for love of music. In addition to private events, the junior patron and fashion circuit, after years of collecting African music and booking several big African charity galas, I got a name for mixing African sets and eventually formed African-focused Cocody Productions.
Listening to Bai, I note he’s better than many of the DJs in New York. He’s tight, reads the crowd well, and mixes everything from 80′s pop, modern pop, all genres of African music, hip-hop, house, dance hall, and reggae smoothly. Name any relevant party music from Africa or the U.S. and somewhere in Bai’s dozen or so wallets of labeled CDs sprawled out all over his DJ station, it’s probably in there and he’s able to weave it in. I find out he’s been mixing for about nine years and never outside Salone, as locals refer to the country. Bai also reminds me of something I learned the hard way when I first started mixing for African crowds in New York: Africans don’t only want to hear African music. They expect a great mix of a lot of genres, including African sub-genres.
So, as I observe the dance driven West African crowd of Aces moving to one of the better DJs I’ve come across, Jordan and I continue to hear my name repeated again and again as the Saturday night celebrity DJ from New York. Thoughts of, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” do start circulating in my head. On my doubting side, I am a thirty-something white dude with a desk job, originally from Northern Michigan, and now I am scheduled to headline the peak set of a big African nightclub on a Saturday night.
About the author: Jake Bright (shown at left in Sierra Leone in the 1990s) is a writer and DJ in New York. Portions of this piece first ran on Afropop Worldwide.