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Talkback: Afrodeutsche

Composer, DJ & Producer Henrietta Smith‑Rolla By William Stokes
Published January 2024

TalkbackPhoto: Kasia Zacharko

Henrietta Smith‑Rolla, aka Afrodeutsche, bridges musical worlds like few others. Some may recognise her voice as host of the People’s Party show on BBC Radio 6 Music, a slot she took over from Iggy Pop, and others will remember her work on the Forced To Flee series commissioned by the UN, alongside Max Richter. The crossing of borders has always been a subject close to home for the British‑Ghanaian‑Russian‑German composer, DJ and producer, whose moniker was chosen after an exploration of her heritage.

“I started looking for my father, who I’d never met before,” Henrietta explains. “He had German heritage, so after leaving Ghana he ended up with a scholarship in Germany as an artist. While I was doing the research, looking for an African‑German, this word kept reoccurring: ‘Afrodeutsche’. My German friends agreed it was a historical word, and one that they don’t use. And I did not want to appropriate the word. But what started to happen, when I was playing in Germany, was that African‑Germans would come and they would say, ‘We’re calling ourselves African Germans. We’re saying we are Afrodeutsche!’ which was bonkers! Young people, like, third, fourth, fifth generation.”

At the moment I can’t stop listening to

Radiohead. In Rainbows. I think people are starting to understand that I am an uber Radiohead fan. I tend not to listen to Radiohead’s albums when they release them. I come to them a few years later. And I love that. That was the same with In Rainbows. I can start it and I will listen to every single track in the order. I appreciate the ‘order of service’. I appreciate how it begins. I appreciate how it lulls in the middle. And I appreciate that it becomes so much more indie by the end, you know? The combination of electronics and indie... I play air guitar to Radiohead! I was in South Korea a few weeks ago. And of course, we did karaoke. And I chose ‘Weird Fishes’.

It’s interesting, I think people assume that when you make music for a job, you must listen to lots of music, all of the time. I have to put on so many different musical hats, so often I just focus on one piece of really good music, and it will be on repeat. It will carry me through all of those things. My world is music and sound. I’m a sponge. If I’m listening to things which are great or are by people I admire, I will creatively pull that into my work. And that won’t be by choice. That will be because I’m absorbing things. So, I try to listen to the opposite of what I’m doing.

The project I’m most proud of

I think it has to be the last commission I had. It was called Afrodeutsche Presents Psalms. And they’re songs of love. The preparation for this show was the hardest I’ve ever found it, but I managed to get together a team of the best of the best. I had to teach myself to play my songs again on the piano — and teach myself how to sing and play piano! Then there was the composition for full strings, and then working with Michael England on the visuals. Working with the MIF team as well, the responsibility was insane! They’d opened up this brand‑new building. And there I am, doing, you know, costume changes! The whole thing. I’m proud of it because I put everything on the line for it.

The first thing I look for in a studio

That’s a very interesting question, because it’s a very rare occurrence that I do walk into anyone else’s studio. I mean, for me, it’s the chair. Because I’m like, ‘Where am I in this space? This is your space.’ I’m extremely spatially aware of what is around me. Often my brain processes light in a very interesting way — I have something called Irlen Syndrome, where my brain essentially registers the patterns in light. So, often, I’ll have like auroras over my eye, because my brain has been stressed by how much light it’s having to process. A good example is a fluorescent light, which is actually going on‑off‑on‑off‑on‑off, and my brain will register the on and off. So you can imagine, my brain just gets ‘hot’. Full. And I have a meltdown. So I have trained myself to find the right, most comfortable spot in a studio or in a workplace, so then I can function. If I don’t, my brain switches off.

Afrodeutsche: Other people’s studios really confuse me.

Other people’s studios really confuse me. I mean, obviously everyone works in their own way. Often I find other people’s studios will have huge desks. And a lot of those channels on those desks are not being used! There was a season where I came to understand that about bigger studios, so I wasn’t intimidated by them. I think that was the big change: making sure that the studio isn’t a place that actually stops you from writing or working just because you’re intimidated.

The person I would consider my mentor

There are a few! I’ve collected them over the years, and I am pleased to say that they are dear friends. The first person is Michael England: he is an artist based in Manchester. First of all, we have similar brains, similar interests. He would just give me music, regularly. He knew what I would be into. He was the first person to play me Drexciya, over 20 years ago, I remember sitting in that lounge, just amazed. I was stunned, thinking, what? And he knew it! He knew that that was my dream music. And there it was. Endless music. We share a passion for sound and science, and art, translating sound. Putting those two things together. So I’ve worked on scoring a few of his projects. He works at SODA [School Of Digital Arts] at Manchester Metropolitan University, and his work is my favourite. So it was just incredible to invite him to put the visuals together for the show. Gareth Carberry is, like, the hip‑hop side of me. We will dissect everything, and we just have that much fun. Whenever I see him, I learn something new. Gareth and Michael, you will not find anything about them online. They’ve managed to do that. They stay away!

My go‑to reference track or album

I have to listen to so many different genres of music, so that’s a really difficult question for me to answer. Other than Radiohead, I don’t really have any other place that I go, to almost ‘wash’, sonically. I think, in terms of classical artists, Arvo Pärt would be one I will jump into when I need classical that isn’t necessarily Chopin. Even though Chopin and Mozart I love. Yeah, I would say it’s more artists than albums; in the sense that I will jump into parts of their catalogues, if that makes sense. Radiohead, Chopin, Arvo Pärt. And this last one might trigger some people, but [whispers] also Hans Zimmer!

My top tip for a successful session

For me, working in Ableton, setting up the session well means I have a successful session. If I’m working on composition and scoring for something, having every instrument ready to go, just having everything balanced, as much as you possibly can, against each other. Often, when I’m doing orchestral stuff, if the piece is going to be played in a room, I will place each instrument where it sits in that orchestra in the room. There will be a reason why certain instruments aren’t next to other instruments, and why certain things are at the back and other things are at the front.

The studio session I wish I’d witnessed

There are quite a few, but I’m gonna say the Beastie Boys. Something I’ve always said about the Beastie Boys is that I’m just so glad that they met each other and they became friends! Like, it’s one of those groups. And I’m so glad. And you can hear it in the music. But when they introduced Q‑Tip something transformed. The session for ‘Get It Together’. Like, come on! I think the Beastie Boys are just full of joy and humour. So I just imagine sessions with them are hilarious. Constant jokes and constant conversation. And I’d love to have seen Q‑Tip in the room with them. I imagine that he is as funny, if not funnier.

The producer I’d most like to work with

I think, JLIN. She’s an artist that I saw many, many years ago in Manchester, at a place called Islington Mill. And she was doing a live set. She makes, I guess, music in the footwork, trap kind of world. And that’s the only thing I knew about her. And I was so transfixed by her setup. She had controllers all over the place. And she was using CDJs. It was like, ‘How is this happening?’ You know, there wasn’t, there wasn’t anything analogue going on, but it was just controllers with... things! She’d obviously mapped everything. I was like, ‘I think I love you.’ And from that day on, I would just listen to whatever she released. And I’ve heard her production become so completely hers. So executive. She’s moved away from the genre. And made her own genre out of footwork. It reminds me of Drexciya and Dopplereffekt, in that it’s contemporary classical music. It’s just electronic sounds rather than, you know, the cello.

The part of music creation I enjoy the most

I’m going to give you two. I think, the most satisfying part of when I’m working for someone else, when I’m working on a commissioned composition, is when I am rendering the stems. It’s like, the creation has been done, the time has been spent, and now it is at the point where I’m handing this over to a music editor to lay across this picture, this film or this documentary. And it’s like, you realise how much writing you have done. How many cues you’ve written. Hundreds of cues, all with timecodes that span eight digits long!

The second one is just the way it’s one of the only places I have for complete freedom. When I’m writing my own stuff. It’s like, freedom. When I first started making music was I would have that voice in my head that would say, mid‑session, ‘That sounds too much like Carl Craig! They’ll know that you listened to that! They’ll think that you copied it!’ So one thing that I taught myself was to respond to that voice, ‘No.’ I started saying, out loud, when that voice cropped up: ‘No!’ It worked. Just saying no. And that’s where the freedom is.

The advice I’d give myself of 10 years ago

I think, 10 years ago, I couldn’t have expected to be where I am. I think I would have said: persevere. That would be the advice I’d give my younger self. Because I wouldn’t be here unless I had persevered. But it would have been nice if I’d known that then!