Afrodeutsche on Skye Live & the art of improvisation

Manchester-based Afrodeutsche is blurring the lines between cinematic composition, critical club beats and improvised live performance. We catch up with her ahead of her performance at Skye Live

Feature by Michael Lawson | 09 Jul 2018

Henrietta Smith-Rolla is a multidisciplinary artist in the truest sense of the term. A composer, pianist, producer, live performer and NTS radio host, there doesn’t seem to be much in the realm of music and sound that she’d struggle to turn her hand to.

As Afrodeutsche, she DJs and produces music heavily influenced by seminal Detroit electro acts such as Drexciya and Underground Resistance – even deriving her name from the latter’s 1998 track Afrogermanic. But with a background in classical music and cinematic composition, it’s clear that the way she approaches electronic music differs greatly from that of the average DJ or producer.  

“My DJing is kind of like this hybrid of vinyl and Ableton, and that’s partly down to me being a massive control freak,” she laughs. “There can be a track that I like that’s got a clap in it but I want to hear the clap more so I’ll add more claps in – I set up drums and stuff so I can play along to tracks.”

This combination of improvisation and preparation is prevalent on Smith-Rolla’s debut LP, Break Before Make, recently released on longstanding Manchester experimental imprint Skam. It’s an album characterised by dark electro hardware jams but interspersed amongst the club-focused tracks are a handful of fleeting, emotional soundscapes, that clearly draw on Smith-Rolla’s compositional background.

“I think composing and making electronic music are really similar,” she argues. “Like one time when I did a live show someone said to me after, ‘oh I didn’t realise you played songs’. In my head they’re all songs rather than just club tools or whatever. I come from different angles when I’m making music: some stuff’s really emotional and that I guess is the stuff that’s more composed, and there’s the other thing when I just want to dance.”

Afrodeutsche is also a vehicle for exploring Smith-Rolla’s Ghanaian, German and Russian heritage, while simultaneously satisfying her desire for all things German. “There’s always seemed to be this innate connection between myself and Germany,” she explains. “I’ve been obsessed with the country all my life and used to visit regularly as a teenager – which in hindsight could of looked a bit strange for some black kid living in Devon!”

In fact, when we catch up on a balmy Wednesday afternoon, Smith-Rolla has just returned from an eventful week in Berlin. She enthuses about making her Berghain debut during the trip, and hearing her music played through the club's fabled sound system, but talks even more excitedly about her new residency at Monom, a boundary-pushing 4D sound space in the city.

"It's got a capacity of around 300, then there's a raised floor with 20 subs in it and multiple pillars around the room with four monitors in each," she explains enthusiastically. "And what you do is you basically create a shape of sound in the space – so you can create a cube of sound, like 1 metre squared or 40 metres squared or whatever, and move that shape around the space – and it's just totally thrown my understanding of composition. It's surreal because my compositions are now based around shapes of sound rather than elements of sound."

Smith-Rolla is set to perform at the fourth edition of Skye Live in September, after being invited along as part of a stage curated by Éclair Fifi. The pair first met when Fifi was a resident at Manchester club night Hoya:Hoya almost a decade ago, but have only recently got back in touch.

“It’s funny; I’ve known Claire for years and we’d always got on and spoke to each other and stuff, but never really spent that much time together because she lived in London. It was only recently that we were back in communication again to discuss music and then she got in touch about the festival, so I guess it’s happened pretty organically.” 

Afrodeutsche’s multifaceted musical ability means she can effortlessly adapt her sound to fit the occasion, so how will she react to performing at an idyllic outdoor location on a remote Scottish island?

“Well as I mentioned I’m a massive control freak. Like I totally am!” she admits through laughs. “So I’ll set up as many parameters as I can to make sure that I’ve got a lot of choice when the time comes.

“When Claire invited me to play she described it as ‘the most beautiful festival ever’, so I want to be able to relax and take in the occasion.”

Afrodeutsche plays Skye Live, Isle of Skye, 21 Sep