An interview with Alma Negra

The Figueria twins – Diego & Dersu – have been carving a name out for themselves as well-versed selectors, percussionists and producers over the past few years. With strong ties to Cape Verde, the duo have converged their Afro-Portugese heritage with exotic, swung rhythms from across the Global South and a classic house sound. They also identify early hip-hop as a fundamental part of their journey – a common thread amongst many contemporary DJs who draw from a broad palette.

With their foundations as a collective centring around the picturesque Swiss city of Basel, the pair crafted their sound playing boogie, disco and funk across their home country and Europe, with selections far-ranging and delectable. They now strive to test busy dance-floors with sounds that consciously diverge away from all established comfort zones – dropping eerie bangers and off-kilter jams from the Far East and beyond. 

Like many of the artists amongst their Afro-American influences, they come from a strong tradition of musicianship that started at an early age, with percussion becoming a particular forte that’s now an integral hallmark of the Alma Negra sound. 

With releases spread across a tapestry of reputable labels, their sound’s gained praise and support from the likes of Axel Boman, Ben UFO, Antal, Detroit Swindle, Daphni and Gilles Peterson – regularly featuring on UK-based radio station Worldwide FM

Just after their latest release dropped, we caught up with Diego and Dersu to talk about life on the road and their favourite record shops…

Hey guys, how are you?

Dersu: Hello, everything is good here. Thank you.

Diego: Hello.

So, your latest release – ‘Manta EP’ – has just hit the shelves and is sounding fantastic! Can you talk us through the process and concept behind this one? 

Dersu: Thank you, happy you like it. It’s always challenging to compile an EP. In general we always try to show all aspects of our musical work, even if this can be difficult sometimes, because we work on different things and styles all the time, hahaha. On the Manta EP the focus was to do an EP for the club.

What’s the secret to laying down such sweet percussion arrangements? Is there a rough formula that always works for you when thinking about percussion, or is it something else entirely?

Diego: Well, we’ve been playing percussion from a very early age so I think the feeling for groove is in our blood. Also we have an interest in different rhythms like Sega from Mauritius or Gwo Ka from Guadeloupe and many others, which has a direct influence on our music. We record live ourselves and also work together with different percussionists from our scene here in Basel. Especially when we are looking for something specific. Like recently we wanted to have a Conga Cubana (Cuban Carnival percussion). So then it makes sense to record a professional Latin percussionist who also has all the required instruments. On the other side, sometimes a sample loop can be the solution.

In the past, you’ve described hip-hop as your initial gateway into music. Which hip-hop tracks and artists stood out for you the most during this period?

Dersu: Yes. Artists like NWA, Pharcyde, Slum Village, The Roots, Group Home, Boogie Down Productions, JD and much more. No specific tracks really – we liked everything and were super excited about everything that came out.

When you’re in the midst of a relentless touring schedule, or a heavy weekend on the road, how do you cope? What’s your technique for winding down and relaxing?

Dersu: The older I get, the more I recognise that enough sleep is essential. So when we play a few nights in a row, I make sure to get sleep or a nap before the gig. Also I try to live as healthily as I can. Eat good food and try not to drink too much.

It often feels as if mental health issues in the music industry are commonly brought to light by solo artists that tour quite heavily. How important is it to you and your stability that you’re sharing the experience of touring, performing and building the Alma Negra name alongside each other? 

Diego: To perform and tour for sure is important and always a goal for us. But you know music comes first. The creative process in making music is also very important. And for sure a balance in personal life. Like being in a good relationship and having family and good friends around us can be super important to go ahead to play more gigs.

When digging for records on the road and in unfamiliar places – when time is often of the essence – what’s your approach to finding new gems? 

Diego: Sometimes there’s not enough time, but it’s always good to listen to at least a few records if possible.

Are there any particular record shops around the globe that stand out for you guys? Any that have been particularly important to the Alma Negra experience so far?

Dersu: Yes, there are a lot. For sure Sofa Records in Lyon, Oye Records in Berlin, not to forget Platfon in our hometown Basel. Also, we bought quite a lot from a friend who sells privately. I love Vintage Voodoo in Amsterdam and also Rush Hour. I could name a lot more here… but we are always happy to discover new shops because I think you can find something good in most places when you are open minded to music.

Aside from digging for records, do you ever make time to search for new instruments and sounds to use in your work when you’re touring, given that your tastes adopt such a global perspective? Have you ever sought out unfamiliar studios and performance spaces to capture new material when you’re travelling? 

Diego: Not really, but for sure sometimes you find something new, like recently I got a new shaker from Indonesia which I record now a lot in the new tracks.

Dersu: We are always interested in different instruments but do not specifically search for them on the road.

If you could collaborate with one artist or producer – past or present – who would it be, and why?

Dersu: Hmmmmm, difficult question. I would like to work with people like Airto Moreira or Hermeto Pasqual… Nana Vasconcelos. All those avant-garde and open minded percussionists, but at the same time I would love to do a track with Kerri Chandler, hahahaha.

Diego: Well there are so many people I would love to work with. Maybe Vasco Martins, a composer and synthesizer player from Mindelo in Cabo Verde. That would be very interesting, because we both have the knowledge of the traditional music from Cabo Verde and try to develop this music in new ways with synths and mix it with other music styles, like classical music or jazz for example.

Finally, what’s your focus for the year ahead? Any exciting new things we should keep an eye out for?

Diego: We have quite a lot coming out this year. Next is an EP with Edits on In Flagranti’s Codek Records. Also we do another EP on Detroit Swindle’s Heist Recordings. We have an exclusive track coming out on a super nice compilation and also another EP planned at the end of the year. So a lot to come we are looking forward to.

Thanks guys! All the best for 2020! 

Thank you so much!