From Johannesburg to Berlin: Lakuti & Tama Sumo In Conversation

Two prominent dj's and LGBTQI advocates speak about their early experiences of nightlife and the role music has played across a lifetime in sound and dance.

From Johannesburg to Berlin: Lakuti & Tama Sumo In Conversation

Two prominent dj's and LGBTQI advocates speak about their early experiences of nightlife and the role music has played across a lifetime in sound and dance.

Lakuti and Tama Sumo have a room in their house that creaks under the weight of vinyl housed on the shelves inside. It is the culmination of two lives lived in dance music. Together, they are the party makers behind Your Love, a celebration of music and its rich tapestry. 

Tama Sumo started DJing in Berlin in the early 90s. Tuned more towards the deep and soulful end of house music, her residencies began springing up around the city and across some of the capital’s most revered dance floors. Dancers at Cafe Drama, Globus/Tresor, Cafe Moskau and Panorama Bar have all been received in the embracing arms of a Tama Sumo set, as have floors across the world. She is a prolific digger and collector of music, a passion she shares with Lakuti, her partner in life and melody.

Lakuti’s first raves were set in the disused warehouses of Johannesburg and harmonised by the early intermingling of US, UK and Kwaito House music. She has been an essential component of music’s global underground for over twenty years, shifting between booking agent, promoter, DJ and collector. Like Tama Sumo, she has worked tirelessly to always push her scene and community forward, towards the light and in the direction of positivity. 

October 11th will see them play all night at London’s Moth Club - bringing Your Love back to London before they embark on their biggest tour of the US to date. Here they interview each other on their early days starting out, bringing down the walls and what keeps the fire burning. 

Lakuti: Let’s take it all back to your early days of DJing in Berlin at Cafe Drama back in 1993. What was happening then, what music was in favour in the city and which clubs influenced your own foray into DJing then?

Tama Sumo: "The dominant sound aesthetic at the beginning of the 90s in my experience was leaning more towards the rougher, pumping side. Techno and the more jacking version of House was big back then – Techno & House from Detroit or Chicago left a huge impact on the city. Deep House, Soulful and Vocal House also had it’s fans here in Berlin, but the scene was much smaller. Rave and Trance also became a thing here in the 90s… 

Berlin clubs & events that influenced my DJing were Tresor / Globus, Planet, E-Werk, Plush at Café Moskau, 90 Grad and Subversiv. But I also had one crucial experience in New York. It was the middle of the 90s I’d been invited to play in NY and it was very interesting for me to experience the big difference in approach to club life and music in the two cities. The crowd at the parties that I visited in NY were very much into deepness, groove - less into the harder stuff. Maybe it was the combination of my experiences in Berlin and NY that kind of paved the way to how I DJ now." 

Tama Sumo: What was Johannesburg like back in the 90s? What was your own journey as far as music goes?

Lakuti: "The 90’s were a pivotal time for me and the country. I went to University hopeful and wanting to change the world and in particular, to be a part of the historic shift that was in our political climate in South Africa at that time. 

I signed up to be a part of the South African Student Press Union, I was the student representative on the Arts Faculty Council. My friends and I launched the first ever LGTBIQ society on campus. I embarked on a law degree. Outside of University life, the beginning of the 90’s was such a moment. 

I still remember the very first rave in Johannesburg. This was in 1990 I believe, it was held in an old disused cinema. The memory of this party will forever be etched in my mind. We were literally all walking around not knowing what just happened after the rave. A sound system from Nottingham put it on. This event changed everything for me. Growing up in the townships, I was already in tune with some of the earlier sounds from Chicago from the 80’s. I just immersed myself into the whole thing. Johannesburg back then had a thriving clubbing scene & warehouse party scene. We were in tune with what was happening in the UK and the USA and our own sound in terms of Kwaito was also taking form. This is a period that completely changed my life."

Lakuti: What has changed from the 90s to now for you in Berlin and have the changes been positive?

Tama Sumo: "There have been a lot of changes – some of them positive, some negative. Everything was much more improvised in the 90s than it is today. The music was pretty new back then and on top of that - after the Wall came down - you had a lot of abandoned locations that could easily be used for doing parties (at least at the beginning of the 90s). This easy and cheap approach to locations gave people a lot of freedom to experiment. Besides, you did not have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy before you were allowed to open something… Everything felt very free, accessible and exciting. 

Also the political situation worldwide kind of left us hopeful – Germany’s reunion and the end of apartheid in South Africa were two milestones that kept many of us thinking that the world is changing into a better place. Little did we know… 

Clubs and events had a much shorter life back then due to the so called “Zwischennutzung” – temporary use of buildings for parties. The crowd also changed a lot. The audience today is much more mixed up in many ways, you meet more people with very different social and cultural backgrounds and more people of different age groups. Thats in thanks to the fact that Schengen made it easier for some people to move here, it’s thanks to the former refugees and also thanks to the many tourists that come here on a regular basis to explore Berlin’s nightlife. It makes for a more diverse crowd." 

Tama Sumo: You come from Johannesburg and settled in London for 15 years before coming to Berlin 7 years ago. What are the main differences for you between the three cities as far as nightlife goes?

Lakuti: "Culturally there are huge differences between the three cities. Johannesburg is a thriving metropolis with people from all over the continent adopting the city as their home. Sadly though, there is a growing issue of xenophobia which really has no place in the country especially given our history. Poverty is another issue that needs to be addressed in order for the city and the country to show its full potential. Johannesburg is generally a friendly city and it’s a cosmopolitan city in terms of clubs, but the city has taken a nosedive since the 90's, which is a shame as this is a vibrant, music loving city with a great and rich musical talent. There are clubs, but not as many as back in the day. Johannesburg has a lot of what London and Berlin have to offer to those who can afford it. I get so inspired by the younger generation whenever i am back - they are so incredibly smart and progressive and have such a great sense of style as far as looks and fashion go.
 
The big difference is Johannesburg is that it is very much a Black city and by and large Black people drive the music scene, the fashion and all that makes the city vibrant and fresh. There are more parallels between Johannesburg and London in that London has a Black community that has historically contributed musically and in other great ways, and carries on to do so to this day.  The influence that Jamaican sound system culture brought to the UK can still be felt now. The general musicality vibe in London has some similarities to what I feel whenever I am back in Johannesburg. 

Berlin is different for me in many ways. There are freedoms that you are afforded here in terms of nightlife compared to London and Johannesburg. Berlin by and large, is still mono-cultured, although that is changing."

Lakuti: You on the contrary have always lived in Germany and have spent nearly 30 years in Berlin. Did travelling change your perception of your hometown? 

Tama Sumo: "It definitely did. Travelling gives you a great insight to other cultures and the opportunity to compare and reflect on where you come from. We still do have a lot of freedom in Berlin and the city offers many niches and possibilities for alternative life styles outside the heteronormative status quo. This is not a given thing and you sometimes forget about this when you are so used to it and we should do everything in our power to nurture and expand this, to make Berlin as safe a haven as possible for everyone – no matter what cultural and social background. Berlin is often seen – by many of its inhabitants and by others – as a very open minded and vibrant city. In my opinion, if we truly want to be open minded and welcoming, there is still some room for improvement. Besides the obvious rise of the right wing in this country, there is a lot of structural racism going on here also in Berlin. If we were to be a bit more open and to listen to what POC experience here and empathise with them, we could really move forward in making them more welcome and feel at home. I am not saying that this is not happening at all here – but it would be great if this expands on a larger scale in Berlin’s society." 

Tama Sumo: The last 3 years has seen a surge in your gigs and international travel. What has that been like for you?

Lakuti: "I never set out to be a DJ incidentally. I have always loved music. I grew up in a household full of music. I got my first 2 albums on vinyl which were gifted to me by my grandfather when I was 7 yrs old. He was a huge vinyl lover - a jazz man. When I put on the Süd Parties in London for 11 years, I was one of the resident DJs, I occasionally played at other parties in the UK and held a residency at Freerotation festival. Outside of that, I never pushed myself as a DJ, although I did push quite a few other DJs. I never once thought that DJing could be a career path. Back then, DJing wasn’t really a career path as compared to what we see currently. Only a select few DJs were travelling outside of their cities. 

The whole touring thing and DJing is something that happened organically and moving to Berlin kind of pushed everything to where it is now. I am grateful to the city and the opportunities it has offered me in as much as I am grateful for the support I got in London when I first moved there. I am having a great deal of fun and getting so inspired by all the different places I have visited and the people I meet. It’s a humbling experience and one I do not take for granted. I wish and hope that more people like myself, a black African woman and queer and in my 40’s can also get the same opportunities. All of us have the ability to contribute in a meaningful way if given a chance."

Lakuti:  With a DJ career spanning 26 years, what keeps the fire burning in you?

Tama Sumo: "Big money and fame of course ;-) 

No, seriously – music and people keep the fire burning strongly. I am still as excited as I ever was when I discover new music. You are never done with learning – and in terms of music this is a beautiful thing. On top of that, I have been lucky to meet so many beautiful souls throughout my DJ life and this is priceless and still a driving force for me. 

If you can connect deeply with people through your passion, I feel that is just great. I am very grateful to have the chance to experience different places and cultures thanks to DJing. I come from a proper working class background and I am aware that these experiences and exchanges put me in a very privileged position which also keeps me keep on doing what I am doing."

Tama Sumo: What’s cooking with your label, Uzuri Recordings? The label has now been running for 12 years. How has your approach on running and curating the label changed over the years?

Lakuti: "The label is essentially my contribution to the music community. I mean, let’s face it running an independent label these days is more about love rather than being rich. We are hitting our 29th release this September with an EP by a talented Italian born, Berlin based producer - Two. It’s been getting some love from some of the tastemakers out there like Volcov, Call Super, Levon Vincent, Harvey Sutherland, Jimpster, Tama Sumo, Eddy Ramich  and more. We will be hopefully hitting our 30th release before the turn of the year. Really excited about that. We are slow compared to most labels as far as release schedules go. quality rather than quantity is the ethos I adhere to. The label was mainly formed to support the talent that was untapped back then around me." 

Tama Sumo: You are a label owner, travelling DJ and booking agency operator which all makes for a busy schedule. What do you do to balance this out? What outside of music moves you, inspires you?

Lakuti: "I like to keep busy though I am trying to learn to chill and see the merits of self care which is difficult because, being a grown up, comes with a lot of responsibilities . Outside of music, my other big passion is cooking . So on my weekends off as you know, there is usually a group of friends round our dinner table and we have a cookout. I am known to let my hair down also whenever i can by going out and supporting other parties in the city or going to hear live music. The live music scene in Berlin is currently popping. Reading lots around politics is another thing I do a lot. I’d rather stay informed with these things than remain in the dark although it is depressing."

Lakuti: And what inspires you besides music?

Tama Sumo: "Catching up with friends is very important. Also I like to dive into other worlds by reading books or watching good movies or watching a good series. I can’t wait for the second season of “Pose” to be shown in Germany. For the ones who did not see the first season – I can highly recommend it. It is all about Ballroom culture in New York in the 80s. The characters and their stories are so moving and touching, the actors and actresses are amazing, the music is fabulous." 

Tama Sumo: What advice would you give to young DJs and producers?

Lakuti: "Take your time. Work hard on your craft. Social media is part of being a touring DJ currently but it is not the be all and end all of everything. You still need to strive to be a standout in terms of your craft in  a tough environment. There is power in the music and the arts in general. If given the special attention music and arts deserve, it has the power to transform and impact lives. Never forget.

Love music, not the trappings that come with being a known artist. Stay humble. Speak to people in a profound way with your music. Work hard on your craft and form your own language as a DJ. Dig deeper into the culture and see how you can elevate and nurture the culture. It is important to give meaning to all of this and not just to treat it as some type of throw away thing."

Tama Sumo: From your perspective as a punter – what was a highlight when you went out and why?

Lakuti: "I grew up in the apartheid era and things got hard. There was profound sadness for all the lives lost  and the violence etc. I always felt like a loner as well. Growing up, I felt different due to being queer. I am so blessed to have a supportive family which is not always a given. Discovering all of the music and going out partying and house music  in particular brought me a family  outside of my own that made me feel comfortable and accepted. This is a big driving force for me still to create a welcoming space outside of the often brutal reality of living under a corrupt system." 

Lakuti: I am sure you also go out and not only enjoy parties behind the DJ booth. What was a highlight for you and why?

Tama Sumo: "In 2009, when Prosumer and myself played for your Süd Electronic party we came a few days earlier and stayed with you and you took us to ‘Work“ – an LGTBIQ party in South London – together. I was blown away there. The music was Dancehall, Old School RnB, Hip Hop etc. and I did not know where to look first because of all the amazing dancers. There was also a kind of a catwalk for dancers, where the very brave ones went to show off their moves. I loved it and did not dare to dance for quite a while there. I did not know a party like this in Berlin and enjoyed the music, the people and the whole atmosphere a lot."

Tama Sumo: You are travelling the world as a DJ – can you tell us how you prepare for your sets?

Lakuti: "I am constantly digging and on the look out for music. I love that. The more I discover, the more new things come to me so it is an exciting, endless hole. 

I listen to stuff and pick records according to my current mood. One new discovery can also throw that all out of the window. I kind of need to know at least what I'm doing for the 2 first records then I try and feel the room and see where things can go. Often my favourite times playing are when everything is completely spontaneous in a way. When you have a great crowd and records feel like they are picking themselves. That is when the magic happens." 

Lakuti: And what is your way of preparing for sets?

Tama Sumo: "It is very similar to you. I also dig for new music constantly and also for me it is often one or two particular tracks that I am looking especially forward to playing out. Those tracks give the main inspiration for the next gig. I also take into consideration what the event I am playing for is like and who I am playing with. I want to find out what I can contribute to the event. The main thing is to stay flexible and true to yourself at the same time. That’s all the preparation but, while playing, I always improvise. I want to feel the atmosphere and people and be in the moment, interact with people. We all create the moments together."


Your Love will return to East London on Friday the 11th of October with Tama Sumo & Lakuti. Buy tickets HERE

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