These days Highlife is a three-man operation comprising Glaswegian DJ and promoter Andrew Thomson, Goan-Glaswegian Brian D'Souza (AKA Auntie Flo) and South African DJ and producer Esa Williams. "At the start, we were looking to do something new that connected the dots between kwaito, UK funky, early Cóméme records, stuff that was getting reissued by labels like Soundway and Sofrito and artists like [Ricardo] Villalobos, Shackleton and Actress, who were a bit darker," says Thomson. "We've added a lot to that list in the intervening years—recently we've been playing more Middle Eastern and Turkish music, for example—but that was the general basis we started on."
The idea for the night began where music projects tend to in Glasgow: on the city's ever-buoyant afterparty circuit. D'Souza and Thomson had been mainstays on Glasgow's club scene for a good while, the former with a house, techno and disco night called Slabs Of The Tabernacle, the latter with the night and label Huntleys + Palmers.
"We knew each other from being around the scene," D'Souza says, "and we would always end up having long conversations at parties or in pubs about music we loved but weren't really able to play at our existing nights. From those conversations it gradually became clear to us that there was a really interesting strand of music coming out that wasn't being played anywhere. It wasn't world music but it was music from different parts of the world that would really work on a dance floor. I realised that a lot of the music I'd been buying recently had this cross-pollination of different styles and influences and cultural reference points. I'd been buying it just because I liked it rather than with the motivation to do a club night, but I began to realise that maybe it could form the basis of a club night after all."
"This was just at the time that the whole nu-disco thing had reached saturation," Thomson adds. "We were both independently looking for a new thing to do and Highlife grew out of that."
The first Highlife took place on a May evening in 2010 at the city's Stereo venue, and featured guest appearances from Rebolledo and Capracara. "That night there was a good turnout," D'Souza recalls. "Not massive but it was definitely a good party. We did Mexican food as well—in the early stages we would put so much into having as much as possible aside from the music in terms of experiential things. Sometimes it would be visual stuff, sometimes food or special drinks like my mum's Goan mango lassi or custom-made home brew. When Raoul K played we had this voodoo home brew thing because we'd christened him 'the witch-doctor.'"
D'Souza and Thomson had a clear plan for where they wanted the night to go, but starting it was still something of a gamble. Glasgow had never had a night that played anything like the sort of music they had in mind. "Years and years ago there was a night called Sandino," says Harrigan, who has seen Glasgow's dance music history more or less in its entirety. "But it mostly just played Latin stuff. Highlife was and is a huge breath of fresh air."
Thomson says that the closest thing they were aware of at the time was Cóméme's BumBumBox events—impromptu outdoor parties in various Latin American cities where pre-recorded mixes by the label's artists played on outsized boom boxes. As far as Britain was concerned, Thomson reckons UK funky was the closest thing to what they wanted to do with Highlife, although, as he points out, it was a pretty isolated movement that "never really looked beyond what was happening in their own scene. We would play UK funky records alongside Cóméme records, African house, Latin American percussion records and lots of other stuff, so that scene was really just expressing a small corner of what we were playing."
D'Souza, for his part, cites Afrofuturism and the Paul Gilroy book Black Atlantic as influences. "We all approached Highlife from different musical backgrounds and perspectives," Thomson says. "Highlife is the meeting point for all three of us, our individual discoveries make up the Highlife sound and make it a unique one."
For Esa, who came in as the night's third resident a few months in, linking with D'Souza and Thomson was a moment of sweet relief. "I'd moved to Glasgow not long before from Cape Town, and been put in touch with some promoters and club owners, but with a few of the places I started playing at"—not, he is at pains to point out, Subculture, where he was a resident for a while—"I got fed up with being told what to play and what not to play. I first played as a guest at Highlife, and it was the first time I'd been able to play a set of South African house and kwaito music since I had moved. Afterwards Brian and Andy asked me if I wanted to become a resident, and that's when I knew I'd finally found a place in Glasgow where I could play music from my homeland alongside music from The West."
"Esa getting involved was an affirmation that what we were doing was and is universal," Thomson says. "It's been amazing to see him completely reconnect with his heritage through Highlife, and build a career as a DJ and producer, which has since seen him return to Africa several times for various music projects after being away for many years."
Some of the early Highlife nights were lightly attended, but momentum soon began to build. "The first couple of Sun Ritual parties were what turned it for me," D'Souza says, referring to the now-traditional annual summer party that brings a tropical atmosphere to deeply untropical basement clubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh. "The reaction was unbelievable, and that was when we said, 'Right, let's really start talking about this now.' That was around that time when the first Auntie Flo records were coming out, and Huntleys + Palmers had started to be a record label as well, so it was combination of stuff building up together."
Rebolledo's involvement in that first party foreshadowed a relationship with Matias Aguayo's Cóméme label that has lasted throughout Highlife's existence. Relationships with other labels—Studio Barnhus, Optimo Music, Themes For Great Cities, Multi Culti—have also blossomed. These connections have served the night well, bringing a constant stream of impressive and unusual guests to the parties, and ensuring DJ support for releases on Highlife's label, which started in 2013.
"What is particularly impressive," Knight says, "is how they have managed to create something that allows them to play pretty much anything they want, yet sheer quality is always maintained. A testament to that is the variety of shows they all get booked to play these days. They are equally happy to play a raucous cumbia party in Santiago or a thumping set at Panorama Bar. In terms of the club night, just a quick look through their previous guests, both as Highlife and Huntleys & Palmers, is enough to give anyone inspiration to push boundaries and think beyond borders."
Perhaps no edition of Highlife has been more extraordinary than the night Chanjarit Singh came to town, in summer 2012. The Bollywood session musician and acid house pioneer (who passed away in July) had re-released his seminal 1982 album Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat to much acclaim two years earlier. Thomson and D'Souza discovered that RBMA were bringing him over to play in Belgium, and immediately booked him for Glasgow. "Up to when he played those shows people actually still thought the whole thing was a hoax," Thomson says. "Some of the people who came along to the shows did so partly to see if he was actually real."
"We knew he had brought over all the machines he used to record the album," D'Souza continues, "and that he was in his 70s, so the opportunity probably wouldn't come around again. We expected to lose a lot of money on it but we were just taking the attitude that this was something that had to happen if it was at all possible. We ended up selling out La Cheetah and having the most surreal, wonderful time. It was a freezing night in November so it was a real culture shock for him to come to that from his nice life in Bombay as a Bollywood music producer.
"The record has this one acid bassline that goes through every song and it's pretty identical on every one," D'Souza continues, "so it gets to the point where it just goes ad infinitum. He kept forgetting to stop because it was too dark for him to read the little 'ragas' book he had with his drum patterns written in it, so he just kept playing the same pattern with pretty much the same bassline for ages. Eventually it became a thing: if it went away, you craved it. He played for an hour longer than we thought he would, with his wife sitting next to him on a high stool because she was so tiny. The crowd were going mental."
Other great stories about Highlife abound—for instance, about a beach party during Sónar where a then-unknown SOPHIE played two identical sets, or the time Matias Aguayo managed to set the speakers on fire during a frantic show in Glasgow—but none encapsulates their imagination better than the party with Singh.
Being lauded DJs, promoters and producers generally opens doors, but this has been especially true for the Highlife trio. "As soon as me and Esa got established we started getting the opportunity to play in quite a lot of interesting, off-the-beaten-track places," D'Souza says. "We went to Cuba, to Malawi for the Lake Of Stars festival, ConnectZA in South Africa, and a lot of other places. When we came back from Malawi we were kicking ourselves because we hadn't allocated any time to be in the studio with local musicians, but we saw the huge potential there was for making music with people there. When we were offered the Cuba trip we immediately started thinking of Mala In Cuba and Gilles Peterson's Havana Cultura work, and we were determined not to let the opportunity slip this time. We made arrangements through the Cuban embassy and while we were there we had sessions with local musicians and recorded four tracks."
These were originally going to comprise a one-off release, but by the time that came around Esa had also had the opportunity to visit Kenya and Uganda and had set up similar sessions with musicians there. The result was Highlife World Series, a string of collaborative records that the label is still in the process of releasing.
"People have no idea how advanced musicians are in these places," Esa says. "When I went to Cuba, part of what I did was run Ableton sessions with them. I was pitching it at a sort of beginner level because I didn't know where they'd be, but there were about 75 people there and every one of them was at an advanced level. I think the level of interest in electronic music around the globe that we've seen through doing Highlife has taken us all by surprise. There's a perception that people don't have access to technology and aren't plugged into the 'scene,' but it's just not true. And that makes doing stuff like this very interesting, because people are already at a level where collaborations with them can bear fruit very quickly. A couple of days in Cuba, and a few more in Uganda and Kenya, and we had a bunch of tracks all ready to be released."
A few days after speaking with Esa, I talked with Makadem, a noted Kenyan vocalist and player of the nyatiti (a traditional instrument and precursor to the guitar) who is often referred to as the "Kenyan Fela Kuti." He was one of the musicians who worked on Highlife In Kenya when Esa travelled to the country for the Rift Valley Festival.
"I was contacted by Santuri," he says, referring to the East African collective of DJs, musicians, producers and sound engineers. "They asked me to come to the festival. I wasn't really sure what I was heading for but I got in a taxi and headed out into the valley and suddenly boom, I was there looking at a whole studio setup in a tent in the middle of the bush, and all I was thinking was, 'What's going on here?' There were a few other musicians I knew around, but I'd never met Esa before. He just said, 'See what you can do with your nyatiti,' and we started playing together. Within about an hour we had the song that would become 'Salam' on the Highlife World Series EP, and we performed it on one of the stages at Rift Valley that night.
Makadem continues: "In Nairobi a lot of us have been talking for a long time about how to get young people interested in traditional Kenyan instruments, like the nyatiti. I think a good way to do it is to incorporate those instruments into music that works in clubs, and Esa being a DJ/producer, rather than just a standard record producer, helped with that a lot, because he understands the club. African youths are thinking more and more of aping Western stuff, but I think what this can prove to them is that you don't need to ape, you can incorporate aspects of Western music with your own traditional music and instruments."
As is true of many of the partnerships forged through the Highlife World Series sessions, Esa and Makadem's partnership is ongoing. The Barbican in London recently arranged for Makadem to come to the UK to play four shows with Esa. All of them have been as part of a four-piece band with Zanzibar-born artist Mim Suleiman and Nonku Phiri. "I'm actually thinking we need to find a way to do a world tour," Makadem says, "because it's unique what we're doing. The way Esa creates these beats and then we come in and blend our instruments and voices in is just awesome."
D'Souza and Williams have found themselves in many interesting corners of the world thanks to the night and label. D'Souza recalls a recent booking in Jakarta: "I had been touring in Australia and the booking was a last-minute thing made during that trip," he says. "I turned up and found this bunch of really switched-on guys who were playing a lot of the stuff we play at Highlife, and also a lot of my own stuff. It's a strange thing to find yourself on the other side of the world playing Afrofuturist records. I went there with absolutely no expectations but found a parallel musical universe that I had no idea existed. The same goes for Tromsø, in the Arctic Circle, where we played last year, too. People are playing and enjoying this music in the most unexpected corners of the world."
Highlife's fifth birthday has coincided with exciting developments on all fronts, and the trio is looking forward to building on what's been achieved. In June the night's fifth birthday was marked with a four-date UK tour, including a seven-hour show at Chris Knight's Banana Hill in Sheffield, which, Knight laughs, was the first time he'd ever had to "wipe sweat off the ceiling to stop it raining on the decks." As for the label, Highlife World Series (Uganda) dropped July with further editions, including Brazil and Egypt, currently in the pipeline. Auntie Flo has a new LP coming up on Huntleys + Palmers, and D'Souza premiered two tracks from it this past summer on Beats In Space. Appearing on a show he's listened avidly to for ten years was, Thomson admits, a "completely surreal" experience. "It was a special moment, because the impact that show has had on us, as a platform for discovering great artists and music, has been huge. So to appear on it ourselves felt like completing a circle that we've been drawing for the last five years."
Tempting as it is to view the Beats In Space appearance as some kind of crowning glory, it's really just another point on a genuinely extraordinary continuum. Highlife's mix of adventurousness, talent and energy has taken them from a Glasgow basement to the four corners of the globe.
Highlife and Cómeme will host a showcase at London's Corsica Studios on December 19th, as part of the Cs13 series.