On dance, art, Pisa, London, digging for music on MySpace, imposter syndrome, role models and finding the beauty in water on new EP, ‘Aquamarine’.
“Every cloud has a silver lining I guess”, says Ehua warmly as we catch up over Zoom from her home in Hackney Wick, early on Friday night. “To go from such an amazing 2019 for me personally to then hit such an abrupt stop at the beginning of 2020 hasn’t been easy, but having more time to focus on crafting, and even the new EP that’s just come out (‘Aquamarine’) has been nice.” A passionate and diligent creator who by her own admission ’never gets bored’ — “I like baking, I like sewing, I like drawing, I love to dance, I love making music” — Ehua has cut through the noise as one of dance music’s brightest new talents over the last two and a half years.
Born in Italy but based largely in London since 2009, her own output has not only been shaped by the electronic artists she grew up admiring from afar — everyone from Aphex Twin to Bjork to Ikonika — but also by her own thoughts, perceptions and sometimes, misgivings. As a result, her music is deep but also fluid and physical and intense — it’s built to make people dance but to make people think, too.
“I was born and raised in Pisa in Tuscany and I would say in a pretty open-minded and artistic household”, Ehua reflects, adjusting her earphones slightly. “My mum is Italian and an art historian and my dad, who’s Ivorian, also works in the field of art, but as a musician … he plays the bass and the guitar. I grew up basically with music and art around me constantly, but in a very subconscious way. As an Italian person, art and beauty in the sense of harmony and aesthetics … from a historical or history of art perspective … it’s something I love and cherish a lot.”
“I studied Ancient Greek and Latin for five years at high school as my major”, she continues, explaining how the Italian school system works. “In Italy, you can pick from different groups of subjects. You’ve got the scientific ones like Chemistry and Maths and all of that, but I chose Humanities, which involved Ancient Greek and Latin and Philosophy, History, History of Art and so on. It was beautiful but also very heavy of course at a young age. Now, looking back, I wish I could go back and actually study and do the work and remember everything I’d learned. It would honestly be great because I’m still so fascinated by it all. At the time, I think I was just too young and too interested in other stuff, you know.”
“Pisa itself is a very international city but I was still the only black girl in primary school, high school and so on”, Ehua continues, “aside from some very temporary moments where other kids would come in for a few months here and there. It was good and bad, but it’s made me who I am today. At the same time, I grew up surrounded by lots of love and understanding so it wasn’t all bad for me. The most annoying thing was not having role models, culturally speaking, in music or anything really. The first thing I got into was Athletics when I was eight years old because the only role model on Italian TV was Fiona May, who was a British athlete who’d married an Italian. For me it was like, ‘ah I want to be like her because she’s like me!’ you know, so I got into Athletics. She’s still a G now to be honest and her daughter is also doing so well in Athletics at the moment, which means young girls will now have somebody their age doing amazing things that they can look up to. Of course I quit Athletics a few years later, mainly because I realised I didn’t actually like running and got into dancing instead, which has become my biggest passion aside from music. Reading music, feeling music with my body … I feel it even stronger than making it, I think.”
“The first thing I got into was Athletics when I was eight years old because the only role model on Italian TV was Fiona May, who was a British Athlete who’d married an Italian. For me it was like, ‘ah I want to be like her because she’s like me!’ you know, so I got into Athletics.”
It was her passion for dancing that’d first get Ehua digging for music and more specifically, sounds, as a teenager; “anything I could practise my dance routines to, I was interested in”, she says, smiling. She grew up with music always playing at home and recalls spending time making songs with her two younger brothers as a child, but her fondest memory was of South African singer-songwriter, Miriam Makeba. “She had a song called ‘Pata Pata’”, she recalls, “which is a very mainstream record, but it relates to my grandma on my dad’s side. I only saw a picture of her for the first time in 2015 so the picture of Miriam Makeba on the ‘Pata Pata’ record was to me, my grandma’s face even though we’d never met. Dancing to that record for me was like meeting my grandma and being with my grandma in Africa. My dad has a really broad record collection so from that record, I remember finding Ray Parker Jr’s ‘Ghostbusters’ soundtrack on vinyl and just vibing to that like crazy. There was Bob Dylan, ABBA … he had so much music, but because of his passion for bass playing, the one sound that permeated my home for the longest and still does today is reggae. It’s always been a subconscious fuel for my musical tastes.”
These musical tastes started to broaden and blossom once the internet became a de facto music discovery tool in the early 2000s. Glued to her computer, she’d scour MySpace pages for hours looking for new music, burning CDs full of whatever she could buy or download; “I’d always set the soundtrack in the car whenever I was going anywhere”, she says, giggling into the camera. While the Italian electronic scene was dominated by big, progressive trance DJs like Gigi D’Agostino — “I’d definitely be exposed to that sort of music at local town fairs in the summer growing up, DJs would just blast it for hours” — Ehua was far more interested by music that channelled feeling and emotion, music that she could express through her body. “I was lucky to meet a group of friends at the time who were massively into deep house and minimal techno”, she recalls. “They were the first people to ever take me to a proper club night. There was this club in particular in Versilia that had the best line-ups, honestly. From Ricardo Villalobos to Richie Hawtin, Dubfire, Magda … like everyone, you name it. I used to save up and go and see these DJs play every Saturday night and yeah, at that point, it just felt like normal every day life. Now I realise that they were the pioneers of a whole scene that still today, is respected as one of the most groundbreaking in electronic music. I consider myself so lucky to have had that experience at such a young age, you know.”
“There was this club in Versilia that had the best line-ups, honestly. From Ricardo Villalobos to Ritchie Hawtin, Dubfire, Magda … like everyone, you name it.”
Still marching to the weekend beat of Versilia’s big room DJs, Ehua was growing more and more disillusioned with life in Pisa. She’d headed to the University of Pisa to study Sociology and it was there that she made a decision that’d change the entire trajectory of her life. “I was just bored”, she says with a shrug. “I had a few months off over the summer before I had to go back to university, so I decided I was gonna spend a couple of months in London to do some work experience and enjoy the club scene as best I could. Two months quickly became three and a half years, before I went back to Italy briefly to finish university, which at that point I’d abandoned after my first year. I finished my degree, headed straight back to London and I’ve been here ever since. London was an accident, but I guess you could say it’s worked out.”
Initially, Ehua was based in Lewisham where she lived with her parent’s friends — “they were my first family” — before later moving to Gants Hill in Ilford, where she stayed with fellow Pisa-born DJ/producer, Wallwork. “It felt like my first introduction to London was with the OGs”, she says, breaking out into laughter. “That of course influenced me trying to learn to speak English and be understood. I’d always been obsessed with moving to either the States or to the UK when I was little because not having any role models in Italy, all the cool people were mainly overseas. Years later as you get older, you realise that it’s all a bit of a mirage but when I was young, it felt so glamorous and exciting. I’d always been very keen to speak English when I was young and it was one of my favourite subjects at school, but I definitely did not speak it fluently when I moved over. I was literally thrown into the reality of learning London-English with an accent. Even the most basic things, I struggled to understand, but I loved the challenge. I’m now actually a teacher of English as a foreign language. It’s taken over my life, really.”
Eager to immerse herself into London life, Ehua began work experience Caffe Nero as a barista, before moving into retail to work at Levi’s flagship store on Regent Street — “Pharell and N.E.R.D played the opening of the store on my first day and I met him in the shop on my second day!” — and later for a number of different brands in-store at Selfridges during her first stay in London. While back in Italy to finish her degree, she also took studied for her English teaching certificate, allowing her to start work at an international college once she returned to the city.
Ehua’s journey into music started with a new MacBook in 2016. “Tommy (Wallwork) installed Logic for me as soon as I got it”, she says, grinning. “I’d subconsciously watched him making music for years without him actually teaching me anything, so once I got started, I’d made a track in like two hours or something. I was like ‘woah, I like this, I can do it’. It spiralled from there really and my first EP, ‘Diplozoon’ on femme culture, kinda materialised out of that, but I never really saw myself as taking a conscious path into music-making. Because I’d been around DJs and producers I respected and admired, particularly Wallwork and Gugli (TSVI), when I came to calling myself a DJ, there was a lot of imposter syndrome there. I’m finally happy to be in a place where I’m more confident with my skills and my tastes, now. I used to be so paranoid about what other people would think but I’ve learned to trust myself more.”
“When I first started putting my music out, I didn’t want to put my picture up anywhere on social media either”, she continues. “Everybody thought I was a man, of course. People would hit me up on Soundcloud like ‘hey man, nice tunes’ and I’d be like ‘thank you xxx, Celine’ just to make sure I pointed it out. The femme culture thing really helped and also starting to DJ, which Suleika Mueller, TSVI’s partner, helped me with. She’s a photographer but also a DJ and once, she had a club night that she invited me down to play at. Everyone was always saying that I should learn to DJ to help push my own music so I thought, ‘do you know what? I’ll do it’. It all started that night and now I love it.”
“People would hit me up on Soundcloud like ‘hey man, nice tunes’ and I’d be like ‘thank you xxx, Celine’ just to make sure I pointed it out.”
How did that first DJ set feel, I ask? “I was petrified”, she says, gritting her teeth a little. “It was at The White Hart in New Cross. I mean it’s this tiny, wooden pub and it felt very chilled, it wasn’t anything big, it was just my friends there and a few drunk people that kept asking me for drum & bass. I was like, ’No, I’m really sorry, I’ve planned this playlist sooooo carefully and I don’t have any drum & bass, I’m so sorry’. It was a lovely icebreaker looking back, but to this day I still get the jitters sometimes when it comes to performing.”
As she began to blossom as a DJ, Ehua soon joined the Nervous Horizon ranks as a producer, contributing her track ‘Meteora’ to the label’s ’NH VOL 3’ compilation in 2019 alongside artists like DJ Plead, Tzusing and object blue. It was her first output since the release of ‘Diplozoon’ the previous winter and laid the foundations for ‘Aquamarine’ — a vivid and conceptual new six-tracker released on Nervous Horizon only last month. “I get annoyed when people say that club music doesn’t really involve feelings or emotions”, Ehua explains as our conversation shifts to the themes that underpin her own music. “For me, a lot of club music soundtracks your life. Your first kiss, your birthday parties with your friends, your first escape … that’s how I see it. My tracks are club tracks but they also have another dimension to them which I see as very personal. I write while imagining my body moving to them and there’s also a whole thought process linked to the sounds that I use. In the case of ‘Aquamarine’, I had this binding idea of water and it’s in every track. I feel like lots of the layers in the tracks are like waves, you know. The ocean is a sonic environment that I think is amazing, it’s magnificent. The sound that the creatures of the ocean make are incredible … a lot of them operate on frequencies we can’t even perceive! It’s amazing. I really hope there’s a lot more science and research into the sounds of the ocean. There’s this whole idea that we don’t really see what’s in the water so we just see it as one huge expanse, but the variation and the detail and the magnificence of it is wonderful. I wanted to put all of those feelings in these tracks and the sea just kept coming back to me as I wrote. Basically, these are club tracks but there’s en emotional side to each to each of them, which I expressed through the metaphor of water. The idea of being invisible but hyper-present. I mean it’s everywhere, we’re made of water but we never think about it. Presence and absence, I guess.”
“There’s this whole idea that we don’t really see what’s in water so we just see it as one huge expanse, but the variation and the detail and the magnificence of it is wonderful.”
Hot off the back of ‘Aquamarine’, Ehua is also set to release new track, ‘Venom’, as part of a multi-artist, percussive-driven 12” via Sicaria Sound’s Cutcross Recordings label on May 14 — a nod to how far her sound is starting to reach. “I’m really happy about it because I respect Sicaria Sound a lot”, she notes. “They made a big impression on me as a DJ duo when I first started to get involved in the London scene because their mixing skills are amazing. I just remember wanting to be like them to be honest, so when they asked me to be a part of this project, I was like ‘absolutely, yes!’. ‘Venom’ itself is a 140bpm track and very drum-focused. I wanted to try and play this game of making a dubstep track that doesn’t sound like dubstep and so there’s this double-rhythm going throughout. There’s the main rhythm at 140 which feels kind of bouncy and then the drums kinda break everything and make it feel like a 70bpm techno dancehall track, which I find very interesting. There’s a tabla drum that creates a crazy polyrhythm in the first drop, which I love, and I use my own vocals too. I usually speak in Italian backwards because I don’t want people to understand what I say when I speak in my tracks. ‘Venom’ is actually the first track where I speak in Italian forward, not backwards, and I say ‘I eat insects and spit venom’ which is the nastiest thing I could think of because I was in a mood when I made the track! Another fun fact? I also played the flute that I first learned in middle school on it, so that’s another achievement.”
“I usually speak in Italian backwards because I don’t want about people to understand what I say when I speak in my tracks.”
“I like to sample a lot of my own percussions generally”, she continues enthusiastically. “In some of the songs on ‘Aquamarine’, I sample kitchen tools. For example, the main metal sound on ’Xantho’ is me tapping a Thermos flask with a butter knife! It’s a lot of fun for me to do stuff like that, so I’ve just bought a whole new set of egg shakers, a new cabasa and a load of other percussive bits. I’ve felt the need to be very hands on with things lately, rather than working with VSTs or analogue equipment.”
“In some of the songs on ‘Aquamarine’, I sample kitchen tools. For example, the main metal sound on ‘Xantho’ is me tapping a Thermos flash with a butter knife!”
Away from her own music, Ehua is also a core member of GRIOT — an online magazine, collective and all-round creative hub founded by African-Italian, Rome-based creative director and cultural producer, Johanne Affricot. “She hit me up in 2016 because I’d written an article for Noisey about gqom”, explains Ehua. “I saw it as a cultural hub for people like me, a place where I could finally see and surrounded myself with loads of role models on a daily basis across art, photographer, fashion. Every field in arts and culture was covered. I thought it was amazing that it was run by an African-Italian woman like Johanne, who I respect so much, so I joined straight away. We have the online magazine and as a collective, we also run projects for others, whether that be private companies or public bodies and organisations. One of our biggest projects was called ‘MIRRORS’, which was basically a tour of South Africa, Ethiopia and Senegal we put together on behalf of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We had a team of 10 artists, as well as dancers from local dance companies in each country we visited. They’d come along and join in workshops and come together for a final performance, which ended up varying from city to city because so much was down to individual improvisation. I got to write the soundtrack too, which was an amazing experience because the sounds were inspired by every place we visited. It’s the sort of cultural work that’s very much needed in Italy. We’re basically a team of Afro-European heads doing post-colonial research, music and cultural production and it’s a beautiful family to be a part of.”
It’s then that our conversation briefly turns to where the name Ehua derives from, as we start to wind down. “Ah, it’s a really funny story actually”, she says. “Ehua is my real family surname. There was a mistake in my dad’s papers when he moved to Italy from the Ivory Coast and his middle name ended up being registered as his surname, which is the name I now have on my papers too. It meant our family name was erased, so when I happened to need to think about an artist name, I decided to use Ehua. It’s not only my connection to the Ivory Coast, but it’s beautiful and I really love how it’s spelt and also how it looks graphically, too.”
Now content with her life in London — she’s based at Nervous Horizon’s studio, a Narnia-style treasure trove of instruments, hardware and seemingly limitless collaboration — and driven by a determination to explore her creative self to the fullest, Ehua’s journey feels like its only just beginning. With clubs on the cusp of reopening in some capacity, her latest tracks will now have a space to fill and with them, her message deserves to be heard loud and clear. “I want to be the role model that I wanted to see when I was a teenager”, she affirms, just before we sign off. “I want to make my eight-year-old self, proud. I really feel like it’s a mission of mine, not only as part of GRIOT, but also as an artist in general. Things have to be better for all of us.”
Ehua’s ‘Aquamarine’ EP is out now on Nervous Horizon:
‘Venom’ is out via Cutcross Recordings on May 14 as part of V/A 12”, ‘With The Pulse’: