Yasmine Dubois, the Egyptian-Iranian artist who will never step within her comfort zone. She grew up in Tehran, found her artistic calling in Paris and the US, and now resides in London. For four years now, she has appeared in catalogs of interesting labels and avant-garde blogs under the name Lafawndah, an alter ego that embodies her quest for connection and emotional purification. A strong first EP on Warp Records, a collaboration with renowned composer Midori Takada and the interest of Kelsey Lu, Kelela and Solange made Lafawndah's recently released debut Ancestor Boy one of the most interesting releases this spring. Recorded in five cities, the debut full of electronic tribal pop experiments serves as one of the many means in her artistic mission to communicate with fellow sufferers. But in this mission Dubois often remains unsatisfied in the current musical landscape.
Written by: Dave Coenen
Photos: Mathilde Agius
Eurosonic 2019. In the gigantic 3D cinema DOT, a half-filled hall is waiting for a performance by Lafawndah. It is sweltering hot, the rustle of chips bags brought along can be heard everywhere and the reclining seats do not help the audience to focus. Somewhere in the middle of the hall, four male Flemish industry professionals often drown out the music with laughter and mutual excitement. They gesture jokingly to the woman on stage: not only does her above-average long body sway on the swelling synths and ritualistic drum rhythms along the front rows, but she is also expressive in vocal use and effects. The discomfort becomes palpable; the artist herself, however, does not make a sound. From complete musical disorientation to bruised egos: something is happening in the hall, but both show and reception do not seem to live up to expectations.
The fact that Yasmine Dubois did not like the performance in Groningen at all is independent of the audience and the cinema setting. “Why do I get up in the morning and do what I do every time on that stage and in that studio? An existential question I often ask myself before performances like this one. I'm broke as fuck, being an artist is unstable and scary. The main reason I do this is because I want to communicate with as many people as possible. My resources for that vary. I use music and conceptual visual art, as well as fashion and design. I always felt very isolated in my life, an orphan, as it were. As an artist I want to talk and I look for curious soul mates. I literally ask “Where are you? Make yourself heard!” I'm the town crier, as it were. But within the volatile circumstances under which I had to play at Eurosonic, I found no communication at all.”
Lafawndah couldn't make a clearer entry with her first single 'Town Crier; (2015), in which a crackling synthesizer melody replaces the calling horn. But no matter how simple or clear her message is, it proves difficult to get it across successfully in today's live circuit. “I want to get together. One of the key places for that is the live aspect. For me, music has a social function, in which a space can be created in which people can experience catharsis. Several years ago I lived in New York and now in London, but everywhere I go I find that there is no room for social catharsis in my life. I'm not religious and I don't go to sports games, so I have to find another way. In Western culture, music has always had a cleansing function; for me it is the only way out.”
“Many ways in which you can experience music live in 2019 counteract that emotional purification. One of the main reasons for this is capitalism. Music is an attractive medium to sell beer. You can already tell by the way a music venue is built: you have to go past the bar to go to the toilet. People pay for a ticket to see an artist, but hardly ever know when a show will start. It's all based on drink sales. I think about this a lot. I know that I cannot fight the world alone, but I want to make a conscious effort with my team to create a space in which a moment of catharsis can arise. I don't want to run from town to town where show after show is the same. I don't want people discovering my music in a fleeting showcase festival. I am sorry that the Dutch public probably saw me there for the first time. That's not how I want to meet people."
"I don't want to run from town to town where show after show is the same. I don't want people discovering my music in a fleeting showcase festival."
On her debut album, Lafawndah looks for places for emotional purification in order to provide the music with a cathartic function as well. Ancestor Boy is a nomad: recorded in five cities(!) with four composers/producers (Nick Weiss, Aaron David Ross, L-VIS1990 and Dubois himself). Vocalists and guest artists from several countries are also invited. Gambus player April Centrone enriches 'Parallel' with Arabic percussion, Jamie Woon is co-producer and writer of the melancholic 'Joseph' and Kelsey Lu and Julie Byrne are the vocal reinforcements in 'Waterwork' and 'Oasis'. Special additions and additions, since many of these names on the album move into different musical expertise than the listener is used to. “On Ancestor Boy there is not one narrator of the story. I'm not always in the same role. I wanted more than just my own voice to portray that. The songs on which Julie Byrne and Kelsey Lu participate, for example, are conceived as a kind of Greek chorus with a collective voice. 'Oasis' is far from a classic R&B track, with main vocals predominating with beautiful backing vocals in the background. A lot of people expect that with names like Lu and Julie in the credits, but we gave it its own dynamic.”
The fact that the album was made in so many places on different continents (Mexico City, Los Angeles, London, Paris and New York) is in line with the unanchored feeling that Dubois has experienced all her life. It results in a stimulating, alienating record full of global electronics from all directions. But how big is the influence of her North African and Persian ancestors on a record called Ancestor Boy? “I have no roots. I settle down temporarily, try to find my place, and continue. I describe myself in that sense as an orphan. I feel light, and not as if I have heavy emotional baggage or a fixed place. I float around. Incidentally, the title came to mind after seeing “First Contact,” a 1982 documentary about the first contact between the tribes in New Guinea and European explorers. The word combination sounds like a story, a myth I'm telling. In addition, the words complement each other as a cycle of life and death.”
On Ancestor Boy, Lafawndah constructs a myth full of feelings of togetherness and battle cries amid constant movement, threat and chaos. Even though the messages seem completely different at first glance, her visual concepts and music complement each other in a paradoxical way. For example, there is a short film with the politically charged track 'Substancia', in which an egg yolk plays a central role.
“'Substancia' is about being afraid in every way, a state of general threat. I wrote the song the day the current president of the United States took his seat in the White House. I was in Los Angeles with Nick Weiss and his boyfriend. Many of our friends were in Washington at the time to protest. It felt very powerless for us to be able to do little against the situation from such a distance. It was a very gloomy day. It was quiet in the house, as if we were waking up from a nightmare.”
“Nick had finished a production in the morning and called me to come over. He was sure I would love it. When I got there I was captivated within ten seconds and we immediately started writing. The words seemed to come naturally. I went to the bathroom and improvised something into the microphone of my headset. Normally we take much longer to write a song, but now the final text came out in one go. I was shocked by the result, because I have never expressed myself in such an aggressive way. It was a direct threat to the man who runs our country: I'll fuck you up, is what I wanted to say.
“However, the atmosphere in the house was very different from the weight of my message: we felt oppressed, almost dizzy. Nobody had it in their head to start making noise. And then it came out anyway, completely from my subconscious. Nick's jaw dropped. "Substancia" is my cry, in which I say: we need not be afraid. We can also scare someone else. I tried to put us back in power as citizens.”
The message of the accompanying video is the opposite of a scream: based on the food sex scenes from a Japanese cult classic, two minutes of 'Substancia' are colored by images of two women who take turns passing an egg yolk to each other through their mouths. “At first glance, it seems like a sensual, slightly erotic concept, as 'Tampopo' is also intended. But the main idea is that what happens in the video seems absolutely impossible. The membrane of an egg yolk is so wafer-thin and fragile, and yet for some reason it remains untouched if you pass it from mouth to mouth - even after several times. It is an extremely refined operation that requires a lot of attention. It feels like a caring gesture towards the other. I want to create an image of solidarity over the fear and threat of the text. As if it's a ritual to come together and gain strength, before we're ready to fight."
After the showcase season has ended for good, Dubois is looking more purposefully for places where she can sell her audiovisual creations. She recently did this in a club setting in De School. “I don't see myself as a DJ. Making people dance and sharing music is just important to me. But it seems to happen so little these days. Also in the current club culture I miss something, something physical that has to do with catharsis. As a result, I go out much less than I did before. The sense of transportation, a musical trip that takes you beyond yourself, is so rare that it is almost completely absent from the club these days. I keep hearing the same songs, I'm always in the same musical state. My body already knows exactly how to dance and react to what is happening. I don't want to know how to dance to what I hear in the club. I want to discover, I want dynamism, to be entranced. I'm not saying that's what I'm guaranteed to achieve behind the decks, but I'm drawn to tracks and artists that make you lose yourself."
The lone example of a DJ who can bring that feeling to Dubois is Miami-based club enigma Total Freedom, who recently showed up in a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhxR1GRs874" target="_self"clown suit for his most recent Boiler Room appearance. “There is so much psychological thought behind a good set, and he just has it all. Total Freedom plays with your head. He lets you come closer for a moment, and then he rejects you again. Then you realize where it is going musically, and a track later you are completely off track again. It is seductive, playing with your feelings and your intuition. That's exactly what I'm looking for.”
Lafawndah is an artist with a distinct musical vision, maker of audiovisual experiences full of sensual egg kisses, and a self-described “person without roots”. The last one you'd expect to represent one country in a musical contest, yet there's a chance it's going to happen. The day before the interview, Dubois posts on Twitter that she has been nominated to represent Egypt during the Eurovision Song Contest. "I do not get it. The idea is so strange. If I had to choose, I'd go for Egypt, because that's the country I'm furthest from, the option that doesn't really suit me at all. And that is why it is the most interesting option for me and my unstoppable search. If I can also reach that one housewife who happens to be watching Eurovision with my music, I do exactly what I want in the most unexpected place.”
Ancestor Boy is out on Concordia. On Friday March 29, Lafawndah will play in Paard van Troje, The Hague during Rewire. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.