Alan Abrahams maintains that traditional African music and house music are much the same thing. In his music as Portable and Bodycode, Abrahams acts a living link between the indigenous sounds of his youth in South Africa and the first Chicago house records whose futuristic aesthetic broadened his horizons. Since leaving South Africa for London, Lisbon and now Berlin, Abrahams launched the Süd Electronic label with Lerato and released on ~scape, Spectral Sound, Karat and Perlon (among others). Tomorrow sees the release of his second album as Bodycode, the spectacular Immune on Spectral Sound. Full of fuzzy organ chords, needling percussion and Abrahams’ emotion-filled vocals, the album finds his sui generis sound in its most realized state. Our 22nd podcast pits Abrahams’ Portable and Bodycode monikers against each other, providing an exclusive look into the sounds bouncing around this talented producer’s head and computer.
01. Oleg Poliakov, “Rainy Dayz” (Portable remix) [Circus Company]
02. Bodycode, “Meaning and Memory” [Spectral Sound]
03. Portable ft. Lerato, “Body to Body” (live remix) [Yore Records]
04. Portable, “Release” [Perlon]
05. Bodycode, “Subspace Radio” [Spectral Sound]
06. Portable, “The Many” [Perlon]
07. Bodycode, “I’ll Hold Your Hand” [Spectral Sound]
08. Bodycode, “Nanotechnolody” (live remix) [Spectral Sound]
09. Bodycode ft. Lerato, “What Did You Say” [Spectral Sound]
At what age did you start listening to Chicago house? What drew you in about the music? Did it relate at all to what you were already listening to at the time??
Alan Abrahams: I must have been around 16 or 17 when I first started listening to Chicago house music. I guess what drew me to it was the fact that it was new music. This was the time when some of the first drum machines and new synths were being made, and you had a completely new, futuristic sounds being experimented with. Some of the the really early Chicago house tracks were completely revolutionary. Like Liz Torres’ “What You Make Me Feel” or Master C & J’s “Face It.” Some made only with a 909, [which was a] brand new sound back then, you must understand; this is after the latter years of disco and the biggest change I felt was the addition of a harder, more bottom-ended bass drum, sparse vocals and amazing pads! There was no real relation to what I was listening to at the time. In fact, before house there was only pop and african music for me as a pre-teen.
How long were you making music before releasing your first record in 2001? Did your years of experience mean you already knew what you wanted to make when you were able, or was it a lot of experimenting?
I was making music for a little while before, more experimenting with different incarnations. In fact I was part of a duo called The Mighty Masses, my first foray into singing. We had a big record deal, recorded the album but it was never released. The label felt it wasn’t “black enough” for the country. Funny as I was black and the execs were not. I then left this and started experimenting with more dance related music. A CD was released called “Dance for Freedom” in 1994 under my one time pseudonym, Plexes, on Mass Records in South Africa. This was to coincide with the first South African democratic elections and the release of Nelson Mandela. It was a rare remix album of traditional African freedom songs, one of which later became the national anthem, remixed into a house context. During this time I also had my first foray into deep house music for a record shop/label in Cape Town called DJ Syndicate. I was told it was never released but discovered, after I left Cape Town for London, that in fact it was released without my knowing. In fact, Lerato, who now appears on “What Did You Say” is featured on one of the tracks. So after my move to London a few years passed and it was 2001. “Patterns and Signals,” my first international release was on Sutekh’s context imprint. After that I sort of found my way into the international musicstream.
Your records often find interesting ways to combine African music with house. I was curious where you think the two sounds naturally meet? Do you ever get tired of producers trying to replicate African sounds and, rather often, doing a mediocre job of it?
It’s funny, somehow I feel that house music and traditional African music are really one and the same. Traditional music is made with the intention to get to your soul via rhythm, and the earliest and truest house music is intended for the exact same purpose. I use traditional African sounds and instruments and convert them to bring them into the digital domain. I never just use the sound as it is, that is not the ethos of my sound. My goal is to re-interpret these ancient sounds for the here and now, not just to sample and re-use them in a cheap way, which all these cheap producers do. They are just lazy, it’s easier and easier to make music but not so easy to compose something truly from the heart. I often here these guys talking about how they’ve got this hot track, only to find out that it took them a couple of hours — and of course it sounds that way. Like everything in life, for a piece of music to be timeless, it needs to take time to compose.
It seems since you started using vocals in your projects you haven’t gone back. What significance do your vocals hold in your music? Do you use them when you want to be more explicit about thoughts/emotions? Who are a few of your favorite house music vocalists?
As I mentioned before my first foray into the music world was as a singer. I left that for many years and really just stumbled onto it again recently. I was trying to figure out different ways to move my sound forward and the natural progression was to use vocals, specifically mine. But not vocals just for the sake of vocals, but just when needed. The general idea was to make the tracks more personal,and how more personal can you get than by adding your own voice. I guess my favourite house vocalists are Liz Torres, Robert Owens, and Aaron-Carl.
You’re more of a live PA guy rather than a DJ. What draws you to that over DJing? Who are a few of your favorite producers who do live PAs?
I’ve started playing live just before Ableton 1 arrived, back then with a desktop of all things, haha! Then along came Ableton and opened up a whole new world for the live electronic music composer. I love playing live. You can change your tracks and really feel your music making a difference with the audience. Many times the live sets come up with completely unique versions of my tracks that wouldn’t happen anywhere else but right there on the dance floor. Although I like DJing sometime, I feel I have more to offer as a live PA. And recently I’ve been using a homemade theremin and adding my voice too, so who knows what happens next! As of yet I’ve not seen any outstanding live PA’s, so I don’t have a favourite.
What are the difference between the Bodycode and Portable projects? Your Portable remix of Oleg Poliakov’s “Rainy Dayz” and your Portable singles for Perlon and Musik Krause sound to me a lot like your new Bodycode album. Are the two projects growing closer together production-wise?
I would say the two projects are growing closer for sure, they were never meant to be too far apart. From the start Bodycode was a dance version of the Portable material. Why the remixes and Perlon and Musik Krause releases sounds more dancey is because they were vinyl based releases for the dance floor.
The Portable sound has shifted quite a bit since it first started, though it feels a bit more “stable” these days. Is it more important for you to present a consistent sound or to be flexible?
The very name Portable is meant to mean always moving,being able to move with the flow of existence. I guess it’s sounding more stable now cause these times are a little more stable for me. It’s only important me to present a sound I feel is right and moving with the times, whether it’s stable or not.
When making the Bodycode album, were you aiming more for the dance floor or home listening? How important is it to you to appeal to both settings/audiences?
To be honest, if I’m not listening to classical music or traditional music then I’m listening to dance music. But the Bodycode sound is a dance floor project. So it’s a dance orientated, but because it’s not just thrown together slapdash like so many of today’s productions you can listen to it when you’re cycling or when you’re running or cleaning or cooking or just hanging out with friends, because I feel it appeals to all these aspects.
I know you’ve moved around quite a bit since leaving South Africa. Are you a restless person? How has living in multiple places influenced your music or musical outlook?
I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa and then moved to London to further my music aspirations. While in London I started my Süd Electronic label with longtime friend, Lerato. While there my music as Portable was signed to Background Records, then later with ~Scape and I was able to carve out a reasonable living only composing and playing my music live. After ten years in the concrete jungle that is London, I wanted a change. To be able to live closer to nature but still be within Europe. On a gig to Lisbon I fell in love with the city and this opened up the door for this kind of lifestyle, a little city and a lot of nature, beach and beautiful weather. So I moved to Lisbon. It is topographically similar to my home town, a city on the ocean, and I think this influenced my music in a big way. Almost as if I had come full circle in a way. It reminded me of why I started to compose music in the first place, which mainly was to include natural elements in electronic music. After three years of this style of life I needed a change to some place with yet more urban appeal. This was what prompted my move to Berlin, Germany. I’ve only been here for a few months so I really can’t tell you what kind of influence it’s having as yet. I doubt it will have time to affect me too much as I’m continuing my life in Lisbon come September.
Tell me a little bit about how the “Emerald Life” EP came about. The Aside is rather raunchy and rocking while the B side is so beautifully melancholy. What was on your mind?
Well I was listening to a lot of early ghetto house music at the time and all of that music is really raunchy. And if you think about it, a lot about dancing is sexual, and also a place to meet people. So I wanted to include this sexual element, an often neglected element in today’s electronic music scene, into my music. On the flipside I wanted to compliment that honesty in a deeper why, with the track “The Shallow,” in that it’s easier to be shallow than deep.
I’m also curious about the track “Imitation Lover” on Immune. It’s so emotionally vulnerable, reminding me a bit of Prosumer & Murat Tepeli’s “What Makes You Go For It.” Would you tell me how that track came to be?
Well, it was kind of a mix of things. I was in Tokyo on tour and a very good friend of mine there was telling me about his lover problems and how they always end up fake — “imitation.” Both of us are really crazy about old school house, so on a night out we jointly came up with the “No No No, imitation lover” line whenever we spoke of someone or saw someone who fit that description. Later on, while composing the track I expanded it; in fact, the dub version is the original. I then started brainstorming the theme and wrote the lyrics to transpose into the online singles lifestyle. “It’s all pretend, a simulation,” and how in a sense, it brings us closer together yet further apart… “a firewalled mankind.”
Are there more releases to come on Süd Electronic?
Yes the next release on Süd Electronic is my first live set ever recorded in 2002 and features many unreleased tracks. Shortly after that is an EP by Lerato.
What else is coming up from you in the next year?
Right now I’m working on a new release for Perlon and possibly a new Portable album for Perlon; but for that, it’s early days. Think more vocal tracks from the heart and mind!
LWE Podcast 22: Portable vs. Bodycode (54:06)