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PAM Rewind: Gafacci’s world in 10 tracks

Every month Cortega picks a DJ or producer who puts Africa and its diaspora in the spotlight. Featuring an exclusive playlist of the 10 sounds that have shaped his musical universe. Today we invite the Ghanaian producer Gafacci.

Born and raised in Labadi, a coastal community that’s part of the bustling Ghanaian capital, Accra, Gafacci’s got music running in his DNA. His Dad – Sega Gafatchi – was a band member with the Nigerian juju music legend Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, and he’d played keys for the likes of Tony Allen and SJOB Movement among others. Contemporary DJs among vinyl-aficionado circles also know him for co-arranging, composing and playing synth on Pleasure, a disco-boogie anthem by the short-lived Honey Machine band. Beyond his immediate family environment, Gafacci tells us, Accra’s coastal folks are massively into dancing, and that’s always shaped his approach to music. Over the years, he has become a name to reckon with on the pan-African electronic music scene, as a producer, DJ and event organizer. He’s brought his art to festivals in Germany (Fusion, CTM), Norway (Oslo World), and of course Nyege Nyege (Uganda).

We’ve known your beat-making for about a decade, but tell us how you started as a DJ?

I really started DJing in 2017, but I’ve always been around DJs. My older brother is a DJ, and that’s what he’d been doing since the time we were kids. I got my fundamental introduction through him. He taught me how to mix and how to blend music together, actually way before I started performing as a DJ. The funny thing is that in return, I have been teaching him music production. He has a project now that he and I are working on called Chefbanku so that his production can also be heard. Transitioning from beatmaking to DJing was a very natural thing for me to do actually. Where I come from, in Labadi – which is a predominantly Ga community – it’s a dance-driven community. So instead of just playing hip-hop and afrobeats like everyone else here, dance music was the first thing that came to mind. That was very natural and fit with the kind of music I love and have been producing a long time.

DJ vs producer – do you distinguish the two roles, when you perform on stage?

Yes I do distinguish both sides. I am a producer first and foremost, before being a DJ. Wherever I go, I wear my producer hat. And while it’s true that DJing is a way for me to showcase my production work, I don’t want it to be a dominant part of my sets. I also want to share other people’s music, especially artists who are very good, who are not necessarily doing mainstream music, but definitely deserve a spotlight. I like to draw on lots of different influences and places, like francophone and lusophone music, and also kpanlogo, which is a very popular dance sound embedded across every ethnicity in Ghanaian culture since the 60s.   

How do you prepare your DJ set, especially for a new crowd you don’t know? 

When I go play in a new place, I try to learn as much as possible about what people listen to at that given moment. I check radio, online platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, but the risk when I do that is to fall down the rabbit hole of the mainstream and most popular songs, which I don’t generally find to be the most interesting when I play. Usually, the main theme of my DJ sets is very focused on ethnic elements in music blended with pop culture. For example, I want to play a song by Missy Elliott, but I don’t want to drop the hip-hop version, I’d rather play an edit of her song, that’s mashed up with a more afro element. I like doing this a lot with music that lots of people know but surprise them with a different version.

You make a ton of dope edits, where you take popular songs like Rema’s hit “Dumebi” or Marshall Jefferson’s house music anthem “Move Your Body” and rejig them with your own flavors. What’s your purpose with this?

I look at these edits and remixes as a way to let people know about the Ghanaian sounds. You see, generally people who like Crystal Waters or a Robin S may not know about asokpor music or may not know about Ghanaian dance rhythms. When I play these edits in my sets, I bring my touch to the audience. I also want to show that music has so many variations, and what I am delivering is just my take. It helps make my sets sound unique wherever I perform. I think there’s always in the audience some people who are there to discover something new. But at the same time, most people are likely just here to dance, so I try to make all my edits very very danceable. I also make them with the DJ community in mind – maybe even before the audience itself – because DJs are the ones who carry the music further. When a DJ picks up my remixes, they’ll feel comfortable playing them, because there are elements of the song – like the vocals for example – that they are already familiar with.

Do you make music with a target audience in mind?

No, I don’t have a specific target audience, but to be honest, it’s mostly a foreign audience that gravitates towards the kind of music I make, because in Ghana, and more broadly West Africa, it’s Naija music that’s at the forefront of the scene. People want to hear Davido on a 4/4 beat at 100 bpm (beats-per-minute) [NDLR. this is the generic formula of a standard “afrobeats” song], while I make music that’s much faster, from 128 to 140 bpms. In fact, you could say my target audience is the club scene around the world, and in Ghana per se, we don’t have much of a club scene, as you know. But in the future, when we start having an underground club scene, all these things I produce will make sense here too.

Beyond production and DJing you are very active in helping develop the electronic music scene in Ghana. Can you tell us more? 

We had started the Jowaa project a few years back as a way to highlight Ghanaian sound in electronic music. It was a passionate project for me, which helped define the music landscape here. This said, I haven’t performed under this name since the project ended two years ago, although we still release remixes of Jowaa by other DJs. The project now morphed into something that is more community driven. It helps bring up other DJs or aspiring producers out here who are trying to work around the lines that I have worked. When I see someone that reminds me of the way I used to think about music, I try to bring them in. We haven’t done any new releases so far but what we’ve been doing is curate mobile stages at events. We did our first one at a local festival in Labadi, and the second one at the Chale Wote Festival. We now think of it as a platform where home-based DJs can come through and they can feel free to play stuff like afro house or kuduro or any kind of music, not just the mainstream. We also invite friends in the global DJ community, like we have had Germany’s Through My Speakers collective, Mina from the UK or Moto Kiatu from Spain. Our goal is to bring this experience to events in Ghana, to share whole different styles of music but also to showcase the way electronic music is staged. Usually in these Jowaa events, I am there mostly managing the show, but not performing on stage (or only in a minor role). Having toured outside, I appreciate how events are organized, the efficiency with which they run around the world and I am trying to replicate it in Ghana, with a focus on delivering high-quality events: everything is on point, no delays, we plan shows months ahead of time, and don’t just improvise spontaneously.

We have done three so far and our last one at Chale Wote has been a real hit. There is definitely an evolution in the audience, who’s increasingly open to listen to good music they don’t know about, without flashing you with their phone, asking you to play the last big radio hit. I have been to so many events in Europe where people would never come up with request. They were just there to dance and have a good time, and as long as DJs played something tasty and danceable, people would ride along. Here, I can say, our club community is not yet the same. We are trying to build a community, from the ground up, where everyone, from every walk of life, can come and enjoy music together. Regardless of background or community they come from. We don’t want people thinking it’s too “bougey” or too “local” for them. Its open to anyone. Now of course, since Corona came, we haven’t been able to continue with this program, but hope to do so again soon. 

Who are some of these up-and-coming DJs the world needs to know?

Some of the best home-grown DJs we have worked with, and whom I am particularly excited about Afrolektra, TMSKD, Eff the DJ and DJ K3V. 

Finally, we noticed some of your recent releases – like Wabisabi – have Japanese letters on them. That’s intriguing. Can you break it down for us?

Haha! I do this kind of things exactly so people can ask me questions. I am a story-telling type of artist, and there is always some kind of message in what I do. So for “ Wabisabi ”, it is a Japanese concept that a friend introduced me to, which is about embracing beauty in imperfection. When I look at how I do everything, there is always imperfection. How I do everything is imperfect, and small things can impact me in a major way. I see my lifestyle as a wabi-sabi lifestyle. So for this release, it’s like trying to blend Ghanian azonto rhythms with amapiano sound, with keeping vocals down to a minimal, something different to what I usually do, that people are not so familiar with but I find so beautiful. Hence the name Wabisabi.

Playlist selection
Tinny – Makola Kwakwe 

This was my theme song when I finished junior high school. Tinny was the hottest artist out of my town at the time. His style of rap was unique, and he was one of the rare ones who rapped in Ga language. He spoke about cool things in a very interesting way. Like this song is about the Makola shopping center in Accra and he talks about the rats and all that. It’s funny and different. His impact was strong in our community, but he was able to break out of town, and became a big household name in the Ghanaian music industry. All musicians where I come from look up to him. Many have tried to emulate the way he composes music. This has been very inspirational for my creative process. When you play this song in the coastal regions of Accra, people go crazy. It’s an all-time classic.

Missy Elliot – Get Your Freak On

One of my favorite musicians of all time. To this day, I follow what she does. She has made a ton of classics in the dance community, and when you make edits of her songs, they work so well in any DJ set! What really gets me on this song is the way she raps on the beat, which requires a high level of skills. The song sounded very different from mainstream hip-hop when it came out, and personally, I am moved by things that are unique. I also love the blend of Indian melodies and rhythms with hip-hop. In that sense, this song is like reference material for my music production, because I am heavy on blending ethnic or traditional with electronic music. I still get blown away by this production because of how ethnic Indian rhythms were crafted to sound like a hard-hitting hip-hop beat. It was genius to turn this into a super popular song. Every time I see a remix or edit with Missy’s name on it, I have to download it unconsciously.

Buk Bak – Komi Ke Kena

If you’ve been to Accra, you’ll definitely have had kenkey on your plate. It’s a very common corn-based staple food, in particular among coastal communities. In this song, he is saying he always prefers eating kenkey over fried rice, which around that time was kept for special occasions. If you play this song in the coastal areas, like Osu, Labadi, Teshie across to Nungua it’s a huge classic. It’s a must-play when I perform there.

Aaliyah – Try Again

I discovered this song on a bootleg cassette called K5. It was a compilation of the hottest hip-hop songs of 2000, and I had just gotten a Walkman that I could play music on. I would listen to this compilation on my way to school, and it was the only song of the whole tape that I would rewind every time. This track is very motivational, because she sings that if you don’t succeed, you need to dust yourself off and try again. That line sticks with me every time the song comes on. The melody is beautiful, and her voice sounded so good. With hindsight, I know I dig this song because I am also obsessed with Timbaland beats. It’s the kind of song I may have thought of remixing, but I can’t touch it because it’s too perfect.

Magic System – Amoulanga 

To me this is a classic Magic System, although I know it’s not everyone’s classic. It deserves the shine it didn’t get back then. This was on their first album in 2000, which also features the title song “Premier Gaou”, that became this massively popular song across the world. That success certainly overshadowed the rest of the album. Also, “Amoulanga” brings back memories from family times in Labadi, where my aunt would bring a radio and we’d all play music and dance together. It’s so deep in my memory I can still remember exactly the clothes people wore around the time this album came out.

Alizée – La Isla Bonita (cover) 

Up until 2018, this used to be my favorite song of all time. You can hear it in the way I make music, I try to have this approach in my music, but in a very modern way. I really love music with Spanish guitar in it, you know like flamenco and that kind of sound. My first introduction to this kind of sound was “Maria Maria” by Carlos Santana & Wyclef, which made me want to hear more music that sounds like it. You know, I am not the type to spend hours researching music, but when something comes along and hits my radar, I can become a big fan, so when I heard this version of the Madonna classic, I fell in love with it. I like how the song is built, with the intro, breakdown, and strong percussive element. If you listen to my afrobeats production, you will see this inspiration. I have listened to this song so much, that the structural arrangements influence the way I craft my music.

King Bruce – Minsumobo Tamoshe

This is another super classic song in the coastal communities where I grew up. It has helped shape the way I think about music. Like a reference, as an artist, it keeps you on your toes, because you want to make music that people will remember and reminisce on. The songwriting on this piece is what’s most special to me. He talks about how he loves his woman like sugarcane, and how he would go above and beyond, through any circumstances, to be with her, even if he has to live with this woman in a lion’s den. Also, the brass in the song brings a nostalgic feeling. Somehow, it makes me picture the first President of Ghana, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, dancing to music. Even though he passed away long before I was born, this music kind of channels memories of him. I’d love to make music like this someday.

Keke Dance Assembly – Phobia Anthem

Hmmm. This is a very interesting one. The sound quality sucks but I have to mention this song. It’s the anthem of my favorite football club, Accra Hearts of Oak. It’s one of the most popular songs ever made for an institution. Everyone knows it. It’s a motivational song about overcoming a situation. The main line in the song says: “never say die until the bones are rotten”. It’s about not giving up and pushing on. Every time it comes on, you want to hear it played loud. It also has this Wulomei vibe who made many very popular songs in Ghana blending highlife music with traditional songs. That’s definitely something that inspired my music production process.

Amarh Pino – Maria  

This is another very good song that deserves a shout in 2020. The songwriting and arrangement are very on point. It’s a very catchy song, but it’s been done with quality, which is very hard to pull off.

10. Buraka Som Sistema – Kalemba (Wegue Wegue)

I wanted to shout it out, because it’s a blend of electronic music with Angolan kuduro, which is very significant for the way I make my own music. I like using local riddims or staple songs and blend them with my own electronic sound in similar ways. I am influenced by this song and use it as a reference and play it in most of my DJ sets.