WORDS: Alex Caslano
“It opened up a whole new world for me, musically.” For someone so deeply invested in music culture and diversity, hearing South African producer and DJ Esa Williams talk about his experience in Cuba is really quite inspiring. Invited to perform at the Havana World Music Festival with long-term production partner Brian D’Souza aka Auntie Flo, the duo were met with a feverish welcome, and after playing to a crowd of over 4000 people (some of them festooned in British flags), the urge to book studio time was too hard to resist. Extending an invitation to some of the local musicians to record with them, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“We were very surprised by the turnout” Esa tells us. “We ended up going to the studio and there were all these musicians waiting outside. Most of them didn’t have an idea what we were going to do, so it just started with singing and recording along with the music that Brian and I had produced for the new Auntie Flo album.” In the company of such willing talent, the duo were able to capture some incredible samples which were looped into a simple arrangement. On their final session they were joined by vocalist, Eric Alejandro, and although short on time, managed to lay down something truly special. “We only had three or four hours because we had a TV interview, so it was really hectic and it’s crazy to hear what we’ve come up with” continues Esa. “It was nine months later when we thought ‘ok, let’s release this material.’”
‘Highlife World Series’ is the result – a trio of EPs which will see Esa and Auntie Flo build on their experience in Cuba by collaborating with local musicians in both Kenya and Uganda. Listen to the Cuban instalment and you quickly get an idea of the creative energy the duo encountered on their trip; energising rhythms and hypnotic percussion typify the release, but there’s also soul, a tangible essence which could only come from tapping into the culture on a personal level. “I got the inspiration for my tracks by reflecting on my experience there” confirms Esa. "For me it was like, ‘I really want to make sure I’m utilising those recording samples and instruments to the very best.’”
Back in Glasgow, we meet Esa at the Art School where he’s DJ’ing back-to-back with Auntie Flo at a special Highlife event. The legendary Vic Bar is swinging to the sound of an irresistible Rhumba-jam and there’s an almost carnival atmosphere. As the drums swell and those distinctive Cuban sounds filter through, we can’t help but feel that yes, music is the one truly universal language.
Listen to the first instalment of the Highlife World Series below: