When it comes to dancing like there’s no tomorrow, Alan Abrahams (the man behind Portable and Bodycode) is top of our list. Abrahams’ live performances and music have that rare ability to engage our bodies into dance resembling a state of trance; this is a dancing experience primal and cerebral at once. During his sets you often find yourself pulling unexpected moves, moves you didn’t even know you had. Eager to unveil the key behind such powerful ascendancy on our senses, we met with Alan Abrahams to talk about dancing, rhythm and the relationship of artist and audience.
In motion his whole life, his music seems to have evolved accordingly. Abrahams grew up in Cape Town, in a post-apartheid Africa, subsequently relocated to London, then decamped to sunny Lisbon and is currently settling in Berlin. One of the few African faces on the electronic scene it may seem he’s just hitting his stride, but truth is he has been producing and releasing amazing stuff for almost ten years. Today he can enjoy the near global acclaim his releases have garnered all these years and has growing demands for live gigs and remixes. His second album for Spectral as Bodycode, Immune, was another big success and his new EP as Portable, released recently on Perlon, This Life of Illusions, is already on top of every techno chart. Süd Electronic, the label he runs together with Lakuti (a dear friend of South-African origins like himself ), is a long-time fixture on the party circuit of London’s underground techno scene. Perlon is just the last addition in an impressive list of top-quality labels that have wooed Abrahams into releasing music for them: Context, Background, Karat, ?scape, Musik Krause, Spectral, Yore, Circus Company are others. His sound is so remarkable and personal that not few artists have craved for a Portable/Bodycode treatment of their tracks. Ellen Allien, Damian Lazarus and The Knife are next in the pipeline. For too long it seems his talent slipped under the radar of many music lovers, another case of great things being ahead of their time, perhaps. But after a long and slow seduction, he’s got a horde of admirers, well, by the balls one might say.
Back in 2002, when we were fascinated with Sutekh or Akufen’s micro-sampling, Abrahams, under his first pseudonym Portable, was using that same technique, daring to venture the micro-house genre into the territories of an enchanting fusion between the syncopated rhythm and traditional sounds of his Africa and the 4/4 pulsations of a warm Chicagoan house. Andy Vaz, boss of the German label Background, was one of the first to believe in this splendid and utterly original hybrid of African rhythms, techno/house beats and rich electronic textures: “With all this click-house and laptop music, we tend to forget that this music started in Detroit and was made by African-Americans first – people who know about rhythm!”. With intentions to push sound with his label that could be a modern synthesis between Detroit classicism and futurism, tradition and avant- garde, Vaz couldn’t have hoped for better than having Portable’s futuristic Afroism up his sleeve.
In Abrahams’ musical world the mathematical, clinical precision of digital media and technology goes together with the polyrhythm and improvisational nature of African traditional music. In Abrahams’ words: “I feel that house music, especially in the beginning, and traditional African music are really one and the same, the starting point is the same. Music traditionally is made to get to your soul via rhythm. When I use a sample I always kind of recreate it so that it still sounds African but nobody could really be playing that way. My goal is to reinterpret those sounds for the here-and-now, not just sample and reuse them in a cheap way. My ideal is that my music might be regarded as a document of contemporary Afro-European music and culture ”.
Cycling and Futuristic Experiments #5, his first two albums for Background as Portable, presented richly layered and compositionally detailed music able to transcend the stereotypes that delimiting terms like ‘micro-house’ might suggest. “Within micro-house structures you just have enough space to allow contamination with other sounds or tempos,” Abrahams observes. “The music you find in clubs is sometimes one- dimensional, it’s like the space is not used. Of course it’s different tracks, but when the tempo is 4/4 all the time, the variety gets lost, doesn’t go up and down, which I think is what people react to. I think a good DJ or a live act has to include that. Back in Cape Town, when I was a young kid and went to clubs, I was very much inspired by the DJs there, and what I loved was that they could split the dancefloor into different levels. And that’s what I do with my music, I am us- ing the rhythms in between the beats. All African music does that!”
In other words, the African element is integrated in the music, not only in the form of percussive arrangements and deeply syncopated rhythms, but also in the reprocessing and digitalization of samples. The sounds are often organic, coming from traditional instruments like different types of drums, harps, flutes, or even animals or objects like rattling anklets or tinderbox containers (traditionally used for music), and, last but not least, the stuttering voice snippets, mainly samples of voices which seem to be taken from ritual or religious chants, that in the early stage of his sound were endlessly dissected and chopped. Enhancing the hypnotic quality of his groove – if we might wax poetic – there are the subtle gorgeous melodies, sometimes dark and spooky in a suspenseful, sci-fi way, sometimes menacing or melancholic, though never desperate, just so powerfully evocative. The four-on-the-floor tempo was not that straightforward in the beginning, resolving in a softer and more introspective, atmospheric techno. Portable’s sound clearly originated in a much more experimental than dancefloor-driven approach, which might account, along with the strong personality of his sound, for his being sort of an outsider back then.
But the seed for a more danceable dimension was there. It was just a matter of time before Abrahams started to move his sound toward a more sensual and up-tempo synthesis, a bliss of the senses which every dancer must try once on the dancefloor. When the A&R of Spectral (Ghostly’s dance department) asked him to create another alias for a project to release on their label, Abrahams was already working on more danceable versions of Portable’s material (Version, ?scape, already hinted a change of pace and attitude) and that’s how Bodycode came into play. “With my music it doesn’t have to be any particular kind of dance,” explains Abrahams. “It’s more a body moving aesthetic, a warmer nurturing approach which we all desperately need now. Music as a tool to unlock the psyche via the body.” A natural evolution in Abrahams’ aesthetic brought on by his observation and experience of the club environment.”
A club is a much more engaging space because there you have to relate to an audience. When I play live I can play stuff I am still working on and see what kind of reaction I get from the people, that helps me decide which elements to keep and what not and which new direction to give to my music. A lot about dancing is sexual, so I started to feel the need to include more sexual elements because getting closer to your audience is also a process of seduction.” In that vein Abrahams has also increasingly been using his own voice or that of Lerato, a more than welcome novelty in his music and live sets; “…’cause a microphone makes it easier to make contact with people. For me it’s important that it’s not a man-and-machine situation with my music”.
Could it be, then, that a pop album is the next metamorphosis of Abrahams’ music? The teasing is met with laughter, but vocals and singing are definitely something we’ll hear more of on his album for Perlon, due out in 2011: “It’s still too early to say much, but the new album for Perlon is the most ‘pop’ I would want to go. I think it’s nice to have pop elements in the music because a lot of people in this scene, they’re so serious, sometimes impersonal and therefore forgettable. So my next album is going to be even more personal without being too poppy. It’s mostly vocal tracks and will feature collaborations with Efdemin, Lerato, and Jus Ed”.