As Holly Dicker explains, Aïsha Devi has undertaken a long creative and spiritual journey to achieve the singular work she's now widely known for.
Devi's live shows are visceral experiences that, for a while, can skewer one's perceptions completely. Her methodology involves frequencies, meditation, chanting and spatially disruptive visuals supplied by the photographer and graphic artist Emile Barret. The combination is supposed to break our notions of spacetime, to knock us out of this reality and into another one—"the fifth dimension," Devi says. In short, she is a radical doing radical things with sound, spirituality and the psychoactive properties of music. But where on earth did it all come from?
"I started meditating seven years ago," she says, "something like that, and when you start meditation your whole being changes. I started meditating the same way I started doing music: feeling really outcast, feeling really crippled in the world, not having a place in society and always feeling frustrated with something."
Devi found an outlet for her frustration through music. She's always been a bit of a punk, and gravitated towards harder electronic and industrial music. She describes her discovery of Aphex Twin, Autechre, Pan Sonic and Front 242 as an "electroshock to the brain." Like many artists, she started by messing around in her bedroom, not thinking about releasing anything or performing in front of anyone. To her the process was therapeutic and more important than the outcome. "But actually, the anger was still there," she says.
Devi is reluctant to talk about Kate Wax, the project her bedroom experiments turned into. As Kate Wax, she released a number of records on the Swiss label Mental Groove during the mid-2000s and toured all over Europe. In 2010, she signed to Border Community for her second album, Dust Collision. It was eventually released the following year, and though well-received, would be her last record under the name. She was feeling disconnected with the project and generally unfulfilled. At this point she turned to meditation, which had swift and dramatic results.
"I was transformed," she says radiantly. "Even in my face." Meditating made Devi realise that she'd been hiding behind a mask all this time, and that music-making had been her way of escaping childhood traumas. She decided she could no longer run away from herself.
An intense period of self-discovery followed. Devi was researching psychology and science, ancient world philosophies like alchemy, metaphysics and hermeticism, and reading sacred texts like The Vedas. At the same time, she was exploring her past. She had been raised by her grandmother in a tiny "bourgeois" village in Switzerland. Her mother was an eccentric, now splitting her time between Tunisia and Switzerland via the Caribbean jungle, and she had never met her father, who's Nepalese with Tibetan and Indian roots. She started searching for him, travelling to India, while submersing herself in Tibetan history and culture.
On July 8, 2012, Devi performed at Place des Nations in Geneva for an event raising awareness of the crisis in Tibet. The concert was organised by Franz Treichler, singer of Swiss post-industrial group The Young Gods. It was commemorating the end of folk singer and activist Loten Namling's symbolic walk of freedom, where he travelled on foot from Bern to Geneva dragging a coffin behind him. It was a significant moment during Devi's "search for enlightenment" that made her even more mindful of her heritage.
That winter, Devi's quest to unearth her roots deepened when she visited her mother and stepfather's family in Tunisia for the first time. They live in one of the last villages before the Sahara, and as she walked in the desert, she had a profound experience. Devi decided there and then to bury Kate Wax forever in the sand. Aïsha Devi emerged reborn.
She now needed a vehicle to connect with the rest of the world. When Devi returned to Geneva she set up Danse Noire with three close friends: Raphael Rodriguez, Niels Wehrspann (a friend from art school) and Samuel Antoine. Danse Noire works like a collective and is much more than a label. It's a community of misfits gathered from all over the globe, united in the same revolt against mainstream dance music. In the eyes of the label, the club is a space to experiment and challenge mass culture. The music the label releases is "dysfunctional" by design.
Danse Noire's artists include the Italian Red Bull Music Academy graduate Vaghe Stelle, who inaugurated the label with Out Of Body, an EP of shimmering, euphoric computer music. There's also IVVVO, a Portuguese avant-garde techno producer, and El Mahdy Jr., an Algerian-born, Turkey-based artist and translator, whose impressive Gasba Grime EP worked Raï and other Eastern music influences into grubby grime, dubstep and footwork frames. Devi did something similar on her own Hakken Dub / Throat Dub EP for the label. "I made a connection between a contemporary and an ancestral practice, a way to approach spirituality in the daily life," she says. "Rave gatherings are almost a holistic experience in the body and in the mind, the communion via the music is at the core of the ritual."
Danse Noire symbolises Devi's vision of music as ritual and clubbing as a spiritual act. Clubs are today's temples, she says, and electronic music is the perfect medium for facilitating transcendence, or elevated states of consciousness, in the modern world. Transcendence is what drives Devi and her work. Her music is all about helping us to connect with the non-physical realm (however you want to call it) through sound. Not in an outmoded, new age-y way, but in the context of contemporary dance music—something we can all relate to, which to her is fundamentally mystical.
"For me the best piece of music is something that could last forever," she says. "That's why I work with electronic music and software like Ableton. You can play a loop and you can play that loop forever. You can die and it's still playing, and I love that idea. That's why the repetition in electronic music is so close to mantras. Repetition is perfection"
To really understand Devi you have to listen to her album, Of Matter And Spirit, which came out on Houndstooth in 2015, and captures the emotional and spiritual journey that began in 2010. It's a binaural document of everything she's discovered in that time, condensed into a ten-track excursion of electronic hypnosis, written in a state of meditation and for meditative purposes. It's healing music, to be consumed in a club, ideally with others—because collective consciousness is the key to happiness, she says.
On the record, rave stabs and her highly processed voice are interchangeable. As with "Hakken Dub," she uses a lot of raw, pummelling beats and harsh electronics in her productions—a residue, perhaps, of her riled punk ways. They complement the high-pitched, ethereal vocals deployed throughout, one of the album's many remarkable vox effects. Rarely is she singing in a conventional sense. Her words are often abstract, transcending any language we might know or recognise. That's because it's her own, a mixture of English, Sanskrit, and "magic" that involves the throat, tongue, nose and methods of breathing all interacting differently to form a singular style of communicating.
For those willing to dig a little deeper, Of Matter And Spirit is rich in meaning. In the opening bars of "Aurat," Devi is speaking into a vocoder. She's reading an extract from an Urdu/Hindi poem called "Hum Gunahgaar Auratein" (We Sinful Women) by Kishwar Naheed, a feminist writer from Pakistan. In Urdu and Hindi, "aurat" means woman. In Arabic, it refers to "parts that must be covered." Devi says she named the track "Aurat" to show how language is used by society as a subliminal tool of repression.
It's a glimpse of Devi the anti-establishmentarian. She also has a strong political agenda in addition to the spiritual one, which is less obvious and yet omnipresent. It comes out more clearly in conversation with her. Devi is an activist who sees art and music as leaders of social change. She's particularly influenced by Guy Debord's The Society Of The Spectacle, an influential critique from 1967 on the effects of commodities on modern society.
Frequencies are another integral component to Devi's practice. Much like FIS, who also meditates, Devi is conscious of the transference of energy through sound waves and uses resonance in her methodology. She discovered the corporeal effects of frequencies while studying monks chanting, and has continued to blend science with the spiritual content of her work. She mentions creating music at 432 Hz, or "Verdi's A," an alternative tuning to the standard 440 Hz used in Western music, "which has a cosmic resonance" and, allegedly, healing properties (albeit contested ones).
Since releasing Of Matter And Spirit, Devi has been delivering three types of performance. One is with the Chinese visual artist Tianzhuo Chen, who directed the beautifully shocking video for "Mazdâ," a mashup of commercial and religious symbolism featuring characters from the fringes of society—the "freaks and geeks" of this world—posing in acts of profanity. It's a mirror image of Devi's music and its themes. Pop culture is the link here, the way in which Devi and Chen both like to defile and transmogrify it with their art. They performed for the first time together at Berghain during CTM Festival in 2016, with dancers from the Asian Dope Boys. More recently, they reunited in Lisbon at the Biennial Of Contemporary Arts, where Chen, Beio and Yu Han presented their transgressive theatre production involving costumes, dance (a mix of Japanese Butoh and voguing) and a narrative based on Buddhist and Chinese mythology.
In addition to her solo performances, the other show is an A/V collaboration with Emile Barret, who created Devi's kaleidoscopic press photos, as well as her album trailer and an interactive videogame using music from Of Matter And Spirit that plots a player's ascension to enlightenment. The virtual world becomes increasingly abstract as the player reaches a transcendental state—like one of the narratives of the album itself.
Barret's visual work with Devi is all about being disruptive with space and dimensions. His live projections involve layers of graphics made from video stills of Chen's work, sacred geometry and other borrowed symbolism. It sucks you into the screen as the computer-generated reality unfolds and evolves in confusing chaos. It's essentially drawing you out of your body and mind. Coupled with Devi's voice, which is piercing and emotive in physical form, their show is a powerful jolt to the senses. The most magnetic element of all, though, is Devi's voice. It cuts through flesh, organs and bone and burrows deep into your core.