This clearly rankles Mayanja—"like, is anyone paying attention to what I am doing personally?" she asks. Perhaps no one had been, but this year at least has indicated that misperceptions are now being addressed, and redressed. Mayanja took literal inspiration from her own life for her second album of rhythmic and intricate deep house Woman Walking in the Shadows in May, and this month has seen the launch of EDJ, Mayanja & McKeithen's joint label project, which is self-distributed by the couple and bears one track from each.
Now that she's emerged from shadows, Mayanja can also reveal that alongside her own music, she also has her own stories to tell: of fleeing war-ravaged Uganda for a harsh Midwestern winter as a teenager, of learning the ropes from Joe Claussell and balancing all aspects of her current life in Bridgeport.
I was thinking about the album for a long time, and I just couldn't figure out what direction to take. I had a lot of ideas but I like to have a theme, and the one thing that kept coming up was this "cloud," for lack of a better word. Every time I put out a record, especially last year, I would read a review and it would always be "the wife of Jus-Ed." I'm like, "OK this is great, but he didn't have any participation in the creation of this."
I appreciate the fact that distributors need to sell records and need to attach it to something, but not every single thing needs to start out with "the wife of Jus-Ed." So I was a little sour. How about just saying, "we like the record, or we don't like the record." That was where Woman Walking in the Shadows came from, and then it extended out beyond just me personally. Most women just don't get their props. So this became an empowerment message, like, let's not get down on it, let's not pity, let's just do what we do because if we didn't do it the world literally would not move.
Has there ever been a point where you've considered not persevering with music?
Oh, yes. This business is very difficult for people like me, because what you see is what you get. And that doesn't quite compute with this business and the way it works. And then you need to deal with distributors. Distributors are a very frustrating group of people. You sit and you do this music, and then you need to deal with the ugly beast that is the distributors, the retailers, the press. All of these machines that keep the wheel pumping, that is the ugly side, and it can be discouraging. I am thankful I had the background that I did coming from Dance Tracks and being sort of thrown in the middle from very early on. Having done that for a long time I can withstand a lot, but there have been times where I have been like, "you know what, I don't need this crap." But music is in my blood, I can't walk away. I would be miserable if I could not create.
You and Ed recently created a joint label EDJ, which you are distributing yourselves. How are you finding it managing the sort of tedious logistics of distribution? Has that decision has been worth it?
We just wrapped up our EDJ001 distribution, and it was very successful. It was a lot of work, bagging up records, getting in touch with people, shipping. We lead very busy lives. We are just pulled in so many different directions, especially with being parents, but Ed and I are very hard workers and we are very committed to our craft. It has been difficult but it's produced what we wanted, which is to be in control of how our music is put out, and how it is priced, and how it gets out to the market. But the reward is we instantly get paid, and this is really the biggest gripe that you hear from all labels. So for us now we can finally settle into a schedule of how we want to do things, not how is dictated by other people.
There's a feeling of pragmatism there, which reflects back on when you started Bu-Mako Recordings in 2007 to debut your own productions, particularly as you had a good network through Dance Tracks, DJing and also through Ed. What was it exactly that led you down the DIY route to Bu-Mako?
The label came of a desire to be independent, and from having run into so many walls as people didn't quite know what to do with my music. It was frustrating because I believed in what I was doing but I wasn't getting enough of that back, or people were making empty promises. I'm a self-starter. From the years of working in the record business and DJing I made a lot of contacts. Joe Claussell actually started Spiritual Life at Dance Tracks because he was a partner, so I helped bag records, helped write descriptions. That was good training for me to start my own label. He was very encouraging and he gave me a lot of opportunities and was very instrumental in me playing at Body & Soul many times.
So I was involved with that, and at some point I was going to put out some music with them but things just didn't gel. I was like, enough already. So I just thought of the album and I wasn't even thinking about a label at that point. I had just had my first child and I was at home a lot. Ed had really just started to get going with Underground Quality, so when the album was finished I was like, "well I'll have to make a label to put it out, because I'm not going to wait around for anyone." Then when I was finished I was like "I guess I will have to have more recordings and put them out."
So you were never actively shopping your music around?
No. Other stuff I had shopped around, because I had done music production before for some labels in Japan and in New York, but always in collaboration with people. They would put the production together, and they would put it out. My input, but their agenda. In the past I didn't have access to my own equipment so that handicapped me, but it gave me great experience, it helped me to trust my own voice, express my own ideas, so by the time I approached an album I could access my influences and inspirations and actually make them into the tracks that I needed.
Bu-Mako Recordings evolved out of parties you were doing in New York under the same name. How did that night come together?
Bu-Mako grew out of another party which me and four other people put together, it was a very spontaneous thing, a very underground party and it was very popular. But we had a parting of ways and me and one of the partners in that party, Mookie Kayam, started Bu-Mako. He is Israeli, so we were trying to combine our languages and cultures to come up with something like "music is the source of life." Life in my language is "Bu" and source in Hebrew is "Mako." We did the party for a couple of years in lofts and private spaces, just playing whatever music as long as people danced to it. It ended because I had my second child and at that point I had moved to Connecticut and didn't have it in me to be dragging records around. It was a loft party and we needed to bring in the sound system, and it just wasn't practical for me to do it anymore so that was the end of that. When I thought about doing my own label I kept Bu-Mako because to me it was such a powerful concept and powerful name.
What was that transition like, moving from NYC to Connecticut? And what kind of effect do you think it had on you as an artist?
I moved to Connecticut in 2003. I basically moved because Ed is from here. I came kicking and screaming because I didn't want to leave my apartment in Brooklyn. I love Brooklyn! We'd been doing the long distance, I would come to Connecticut on weekends and he would come into the city, and we had been dating for a while and he was like "come on, move over here." It was drastic for me. At that time I hadn't started producing music yet, but it was a big effect. I'd lived in Brooklyn for ten years or something at that point. I was used to getting on the subway, used to the convenience. I was used to... my life.
speaking gibberish and being ignorant."
What does your production set up consist of the moment? Do you guys have a studio at home?
I have a laptop and a keyboard; that is my studio. So I work wherever I am; in the kitchen, sometimes it's in the living room. I don't have much and it's probably shocking to people that have gear all over the place. I'm not a gear whore, I don't need to have everything. I would like to add some things on as I'm moving forward somehow, but you either have it and can create it or not. So I just work with what I got.
Going back to your earlier releases, the track "Harmony" really stands out on Stream of Consciousness, the rhythm and tempo seem distinctly rooted in Ugandan music. When did you leave Uganda and how much of your upbringing there influenced you as a producer?
I was about 13 and it wasn't the best of circumstances. It was 1983 when we got to the States, and it was very turbulent. My father had left earlier because he was under threat for his life, and eventually he and my mother hatched this plan for us to come over here. When we came we were kind of hatched out of our existence and thrown into this foreign world, in the Midwest, in the fall leading up to winter. It was one of the most horrible experiences of my life, because we had no idea what winter was. In thin clothes, in knee deep snow, it was a miserable existence. It was a huge culture shock for us, we had no idea what we were walking into, and Americans had a culture shock as well.
We were well-spoken and well-educated and people expected us to be in tattered clothes, speaking gibberish and being ignorant. It was alarming to us because we did not expect to be treated that way, so that was very difficult. But fast forward to many years later and going to college and getting caught up in house music, and eventually moving to New York, when I started making music I noticed a theme from my childhood. We were always involved in singing, especially choir singing at a young age, so I noticed it was very easy for me to come up with harmonies. So when I started listening to music from a DJ standpoint I approached it from choral harmony, from melody, from rhythm because that's what was imprinted on my soul. That was where I drew from the most, and it still has a huge impact on me.
Given your roots in singing, you opted for a few instrumental EPs before stepping out as a vocalist. Was that intentional?
I started out as a vocalist, that was my first calling, but I had a lack of confidence. It's not a typical voice, it is not a gospel voice, so I was a little shy in the beginning. I would disguise things and reverb things, and then sketch it out. Sometimes it just feels it's just part of the music, it is not made to stand out. It's not so conscious anymore.
She is a kindred spirit, and it's funny because I actually discovered her in your article. I was chuckling about her interview, because it was very honest and I could tell she was very new because she didn't have much censorship of herself. Right after I read it, she contacted me on Facebook and said, "I just discovered your music through Aybee, maybe we should collaborate." I said "OK," I didn't really know much of her music, but she sent me some and I was really amazed by how original she was. She experiments with her voice like I do, and I'm always down to do something with another woman. That's how we ended up doing a record together, and we're doing another project called Supreme Scyence with another woman, Lola AKA Dakini9. We're doing something similar to The Three Chairs, and we are going to try to get other women involved as well.
Was Supreme Scyence created specifically as a project for women out of necessity?
I don't know if I would classify it as necessary, but I think it is needed. It is important to me because I get emails all the time from women that are like, "you inspire me," or "I am so glad you're doing this, you give me confidence to do it." And it's amazing to me in 2011 that you still invoke those kind of responses. What I am trying to do is make my contribution to make things balanced, so in ten years, fifteen years, when you go and look at the charts of RA, it is not an anomaly to see as many woman producers on the charts as there are men. There are tons of woman producing and DJing, but not at the same stature. Just looking at your own magazine, on a monthly basis count how many articles are of a woman DJing or producing. It would be disproportionate. So if you are in any position to make a contribution, by all means do it.
How has that manifested for you personally? You came to Berlin and played at Panorama Bar last year, but you have children with a partner who has the same travel-dependant lifestyle. What proportion of opportunities presented to you as a DJ are you able to take up?
Not many, but things are changing now. I had a tremendous night at Panorama Bar but at the time my daughter was two, and she was very attached to me so that was very difficult. It has been a very delicate balancing act of putting our family as the priority and to take things where we can now. In the past year it's been non-existent for me; Ed was on the road for weeks at a time, but now the kids are getting older and we are switching things so we are now in the position to make things more balanced to where he is not on the road so much. We also now have EDJ, which is not only helping us artistically but financially, so he doesn't have to be out so much. That keeps us focused and busy.