Raised on the East Coast dance music tradition in the 90s, Jenifa Mayanja is seen as one of the first ladies of deep house. She got her first break as a buyer for Joe Clausell’s now-defunct Dance Tracks Records – where she also worked behind the counter with one Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy – and went onto play at Body & Soul (Claussell’s party with Francois K and Danny Krivit), helping establish a 25+ year DJ career. Ugandan-born, her African roots remain integral to her musical outlook and, now based in Berlin, continues to be a spokesperson, role model and educator for a new generation. Not just passing on the lessons learned from Claussell, but the experiences gained through running and self-distributing Bu-mako Recordings, Sound Warriors and EDJ Records, co-run with husband Jus-Ed.
As she readies a new album and EP for Sistrum, we caught up about an exciting 2017 for her, the challenges facing women of colour in music, her new album and throwing multi-sensory parties. She’s also put together an outstanding hour mix of deep, spiritual and jazzy deep house.
Hey Jenifa. How’s things going? What have you been up to recently?
Hey. I have been up to a little bit of this and a little of that! Adjusting my mind, spirit to my new surroundings in Berlin.
First, our usual ice-breaker. What’s your first musical memory?
My first musical memory I think was sitting in the living room while my dad put a Nat King Cole record on our huge beautiful piece of furniture record player. I remember being kind of hypnotized by Nat King Cole’s voice but also by the record player spinning around.
The Zuflucht parties in Berlin that you put of with Jus Ed seem to be about engaging taste (with free food) and smell (burning incense). Why do you like to offer this multi-sensory experience?
We both came up in the tradition, style of dance music experience where it is more than showing up to a venue to dance. The venue was a vessel that contained a potential community and to create a solid community. You need to have something more to offer than just a club experience. Simple things like food, incense, welcoming door people help people feel safe to be themselves which can be the basis for a lifelong community of music lovers and friends.
What are some of the best parties you’ve been booked to play in the last 12 months?
Hmmm…not a fair question as it’s so subjective. I will tell you some places I have had fun. Canavans in Peckham – dope energy, vibe, down home people. Djoon was fantastic, one of the best clubs still supporting underground house music. Tel Aviv is also one of my favourite places. I just played at Rex with two other dope women Zozo and Maayan Nidam and that was also quite an energetic night.
What was the last stimulating conversation you had which went on to inspire you in a musical or creative sense?
Good grief, I have had a lot of stimulating conversations and that is not an exaggeration! I do enjoy conversing, listening, engaging and advising. I will tell you that recently I had the opportunity given to me by a friend, Sky Deep, to be a guest lecturer at BIMM. I was talking about my experiences running three record labels and offering solid tips, advice, technical points and the young people were so grateful. It did give me some hope and energy to keep doing what I do. Mentoring, teaching is very important to me and I am actively pursuing how to achieve this goal.
You’ve talked before about removing yourself from the music you make, as a creative stimulation. Away from house music, what do you look for as inspiration?
Movies are always inspiring and the scores of movies can really tantalize me in a good way. Also just walking around , looking at people, being in nature these are all good sources of inspiration.
Your African roots are deeply important to your musical output. Do you keep an ear out for contemporary sounds coming from the continent?
Yes I do keep an eye out for new music coming out of Africa, absolutely! Also my dad sometimes turns me on to the latest Congolese tunes and also other dance tunes on the scene. I have to say though I am pleasantly surprised lately just how much electronic dance music has caught on in East Africa. It’s pretty amazing how far the music, house music has gone around the world.
When you arrived in New York in the early 90s, you found it difficult to get noticed as a black, female DJ and record collector. What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing women (and especially women of colour) in dance music today?
The same crap as in the 90s. Some people like to believe women are invisible, good only for sexy album covers or wailing vocals. Lately though the new norm is to pretend that everyone knew about sexism all along and now women just need to sit down somewhere cause now the problem is identified, it will be all fixed.
The music industry wants to allow only a certain amount of women through and heap praise on them endlessly, then say there are not enough women making music and DJing. I wonder why!! When you are hyper focused on say ten women out of thousands, you create a bubble narrative that just not enough women care enough about being producers or DJs! Too add insult, almost all the women chosen by this invisible force are not women of colour. So invisibility is one of the biggest challenges.
Colleen Murphy is another female DJ who’s flourished in a male-dominated world, and someone you worked with behind the counter at Joe Clausell’s Dance Tracks Records. Did you take much away from working with her?
Colleen was a great role model for me starting out as she was one of, if not, the only woman I saw working in a record store. It gave me the courage I needed to be part of what was considered a boys only club at that time. We had a great time working together and we became good friends.
Sound Warrior is your label that releases music exclusively by female producers. What steps do you think can be made to encourage more women to take up making music?
Ugh women are making music, have been making music for as long as I can remember. Women need support from peers and beyond, resources and equal amounts of exposure as their male counterparts.
You’ve spoken at length about how important Joe Claussell was as a mentor in the 90s. Have you become a mentor yourself to any young producers?
I like to think I have been a mentor to young producers coming up. As O mentioned I like to talk and I always do my best especially with any artist I am directly working with to offer business advice, input and give them any education I can. In particular I give as much personal and business advice to any woman I work with and offer an open door to assist in any way I can.
Who are some of the young female producers and DJs who are exciting you most at the minute?
One of my favorite women I have had the pleasure of now putting out her music for the second time is Lilith. Her production is such a sleek, soulful but hard hitting style of techno. Also Lady Fingers from North Carolina who is also appearing on Sound Warrior has this jacking sampling house sound that could really hit!
How’s the making of your third album coming along?
The making of my third album is going to end up becoming the making of my fourth album as now I have more material and I keep changing my mind about what fits where. But I will have a special digital version, along with a vinyl remix album to come later in the summer. So please go to the Bandcamp for preorder of the digital version.
Could you tell us about the mix you’ve made for us.
This mix was like a bullet train: a smooth journey, getting to the destination without realizing you had even left the station. I did it all in one take, all vinyl, coming in and out of several genres. I enjoyed myself making it!
What are you most looking forward to in the coming months?
I am looking forward to the release of the Sound Warrior Warrior Loves double vinyl in May. The release of my album What A Strange Dream” in the summer. Exploring ways to teach my music business knowledge, securing my DJ residency and going to the States with my kids for a visit.
And what else is coming up on the horizon for you?
I have some really good releases coming up this year. I have an EP coming out on sistrum, three cuts with a remix by the man himself Patrice Scott. Also I have a mini-LP coming out on Deep Art recordings of some leftfield, balearic style material. Also some nice DJ bookings for the fall.