|Breaking through: Darling Farah
The multivalent UK producer has roots in Detroit and the United Arab Emirates, but it was through access to the internet that his sound has evolved. RA's Ryan Keeling explains.
"We could easily have stuff like fabric or Plastic People in the Middle East, but they just don't want to hear anything different." Kamau Baaqi is discussing his time spent living in the United Arab Emirates. Originally from Detroit, in 2008 Baaqi and his mother moved from the Motor City to Sharjah, 20km north of Dubai. As he tells it, the scene in the country initially felt as barren as the surrounding deserts. Somewhat paradoxically then, it was in the Middle East, rather than the birthplace of techno, that he began to gain a real interest and understanding of electronic music, eventually treading his own house/techno/bass music path as Darling Farah.
At "a very average middle school where everyone was listening to very commercial hip-hop," the history and importance of Detroit's contribution to electronic music was in fact—as is the case for many in the city—far from palpable. The Detroit Electronic Music Festival (now Movement) provided one of his few contacts with the sound, although the visit was mainly so his dad could take him to see dub second-waver Mad Professor. It was actually through hip-hop that Baaqi first engaged properly with electronic music. "Maybe closer to when I was about to leave Detroit I was getting into weirder electronic tracks and hip-hop," he remembers. "If I hadn't heard MF Doom (one of my favourite rappers ever) and 'Accordion' then I maybe wouldn't have branched over into electronic music."
Baaqi was 16 when his mom took a job at the University of Sharjah. He attended an English school, chiefly made up of kids from European ex-pat families, who had no interest in the "louder sort of distorted electro, techno" he had begun listening to. Inspired by Daedelus' use of the Monome controller, and without any of the US-style creature comforts—a TV, Playstation—to occupy him, he began to experiment with music production, attempting to write a form of IDM by playing samples live and applying glitch-style FX. "I was just really nervous and kept my music to myself," he says on his formative tracks. "I was like, 'Ah I don't want to show [his classmates] this, it could be too weird.'"
Too young to play in clubs and without any friends to offer feedback on his music, Baaqi looked to make connections through DJs gigs on the area's house party (or rather "mansion party" in many cases) scene. "The thing about the UAE is that everyone knows each other," he explains. "You would hear about these parties via Facebook and I would just email whoever it was saying, 'Hey, I'm a DJ. Can I play some music?"'
However, any sense of achievement over securing a set usually ended in frustration: "I would go to the gig, play five minutes, and they would be like, 'No, you have to stop,'" he says. "I wasn't that bad, but because they didn't know what it was they didn't like it that much. They didn't want to give it a chance... So whenever I would go off, the other DJs would go on and just play older versions of Dutch house stuff—just commercial stuff, and everyone kind of vibed off that."
"Now whenever I go back [to UAE]
I could actually play what I want to play."
This undercurrent of house parties was necessitated by a climate of strict regulation in the UAE. A ban exists in Sharjah on playing music in public, while even the slightly more lenient Dubai and Abu Dhabi have stringent regulations on drinking and clubs. Despite this, Baaqi often saw inconsistencies in imposing such laws. "Things happen behind the scenes, but not behind the scenes to the point to where no one knows about it—everyone knows about it... They will have drugs, prostitution, these kinds of things… I guess the same thing could be said about everywhere in the world, but people turn a blind eye to it.
"If you get caught doing the wrong thing, they will go to the extreme to punish you," he continues. "Drug penalties are insane. When I go through the airport, they really search me, in terms of that. I don't know if it's my hair, or my skin, who knows. I knew people that got caught. I knew people whose friends got caught doing those things, but I was kind of away from that, which was lucky. But it is easy to get drawn into wrong place, wrong time kind of situations."
Undeterred by a lack of support in the UAE, Baaqi established a network of relationships through the then-thriving MySpace. Everything he produced became a potential demo. The first to pick up his music were digital imprint Idiot House, specialists in the more abrasive corner of the electro house market. "I was just really young, I think you could probably tell by the way it sounds," he says pragmatically on his frantic early releases with the label. "I think if someone looked at it, they could tell it was from a 16 year-old."
The difference between his sound then and now, however, is striking. There have to date been a handful of EPs and remixes released through London imprint Civil Music, each displaying a distinct continuity of vision while exploring Baaqi's rapidly developing tastes. This new incarnation of Darling Farah loosely uses the 4/4 structure as a frame on which to hang influences ranging from to classic IDM, to London bass music and German techno. "I just wanted a more refined sound," he says on his recent shift in approach. "I wanted a more mature, lasting sound, because I felt like what I was doing before was just pop; quick music. I wanted to put my head down and think that you could listen to this later on and think, 'I know what he was trying to do.'"
"Refined" is the key word here. You can usually count the number of discernible elements in a Darling Farah track on one hand. "Younger" from the Exxy EP, for example, (something of breakout track for Baaqi) samples a pop record, endlessly twists the vocal, stirs in a synth chord and kick drum then calls it a day—given its simplicity and sample source it's a highly evocative slice of house music. The remainder of the EP runs from 120 BPM (the jazz-tinged "Crown") up to 135 (subtle stepper "Exxy"), again relying upon the sparsest of elements to deliver its straightforward but potent message. Its follow-up, Division, combines techno and bass music over four variations—hardly novel these days—but felt one step removed from the usual marriage of the sounds. That's not to say, however, that Baaqi hasn't dabbled in genre pieces: his remixes of Bambounou and Citizen could easily be dropped in Berghain without breaking stride, while this area of interest was confirmed by Baaqi's mix for Truants, which featured SP-X, The Black Dog and Marcel Fengler alongside many of his own tracks and remixes.
After finishing school in the UAE, Baaqi decided to give living in London a shot and enrolled on a one-year sound design course. Limited opportunities for live performances in Dubai were also obviously a contributing factor, although he is eager to make a considered decision on his next move in perhaps the most crowded and competitive scene in the world. "In terms of the whole DJing and playing live thing, I want to hold back a bit," he says. "I don't want to jump into it too quickly and make it a sloppy live process. I want to get it to the point where I have a solid string of good performances and make it work from there."
Looking ahead, further EPs and eventually an album are both in the pipeline for Civil Music. And perhaps even gigs in Dubai: "Recently you have started to see more clubs that are focusing on alternative electronic music, like bass music, or future whatever you want to call it, which I like. It is kind of weird because it has happened since I have left, but I can only be happy about it. Now whenever I go back I could actually play what I want to play."