Watch the archived recordings of our Dekmantel broadcast here.
Tama Sumo is someone who embodies all the things that fascinate about house music and the city of Berlin. She is super chilled, friendly, open, humble and welcoming yet so determinately alternative. Her very existence gently compels you to question the norm.
Although she has been a resident DJ of the infamous Berghain/Panorama Bar club in Berlin since the outset, she is not the stereotype you (or more likely your parents, classmates or colleagues) would picture or see depicted in adverts or movies as a DJ. She is openly lesbian, politically engaged and married to Lakuti. Catch her cheerfully strolling the street in daytime, and you would never imagine her to be one of the best disc jockeys in town who graces the most famous club in the world to make the most hardcore dance crowd sweat and scream every month. Well, just how cool is that?
Over the course of the past 6 years or so I’ve known her, I also learned how serious and dedicated she is to the art of DJing, and how strongly she stands for what she believes in. You might witness a glimpse of her toughness when she enters the DJ booth wearing a singular gravity you rarely see in nightlife. She is there to present something that’s important to her, while making them have pure fun with consummate ease.
Ahead of her closing appearance on the Sunday of BR’s Dekmantel 2015 broadcast, I caught up with her soon after her return from Glastonbury on an unusually sunny and warm summer day in Berlin. We chatted in a park for a good hour and a half; simply by speaking with her, it’s hard not to get all excited and proud of what we’re all part of – a dance community – as if it was the very first time.
I wouldn’t mind seeing music reflecting more political subjects or social realities especially given our current climate.
YUKO ASANUMA: Your first appearance on Boiler Room in Berlin two years back left a strong impression on some of the viewers. You had a group of people behind you doing a ‘kiss-in’ with same-sex partners as an act of protest. Could you tell us how that came about?
TAMA SUMO: Yes, a ‘kiss-in’ accompanied by posters with statements such as ‘anger and intolerance are the enemy of correct understanding’. The idea mainly came from Lakuti, and our friends Luz Diaz and Luis Manuel Garcia (a wonderful academic who penned An alternate history of sexuality in club culture). At the time before I did that Boiler Room set, there were a lot of homophobic and sexist comments appearing on the chat, so the ‘kiss-in’ was an attempt to address that. It’s horrible to experience such attitudes in general and considering the roots of house and techno, it is sad that racism, homophobia or sexism have found their way into this club culture.
How was the response?
I got a lot of positive feedback from a diverse amount of people and it was also interesting to see that many of them felt the same. Music can bring people together – it’s a universal language. So let’s work on that.
[Editor’s note: thankfully, the fightback seems to be mostly working.]
Do you feel the need or responsibility to bring back political aspects to the dance floor?
It does not necessarily have to be on the dancefloor, but I wouldn’t mind seeing music reflecting more political subjects or social realities especially given our current climate. But there are also other ways in bringing those topics up. You can be outspoken in whatever medium you use so long as you say something. I admire artists that do that very much. Anthony Shakir, Lakuti, Jennifer Cardini, The Black Madonna, The Knife, DJ Sprinkles, Theo Parrish or Ben UFO for example are never afraid of getting their message across. Artists are connected to many people, which gives us a great opportunity to also discuss the important issues of today’s life.
Parties do have an aspect of escapism, but it becomes more than that when you can take something back to your daily life by way of inspiration.
Of course you sometimes need a break and parties are great places for forgetting some of the harder moments in every day life. A wonderful side effect is that you can also meet and exchange with people from different backgrounds and this again can have an impact on your daily life.
Sexuality has been an especially hot topic in dance music more than ever before given the recent US Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage and several artists being bashed for making homophobic comments in public.
They deserved to be bashed for a good reason. I think it is always the right thing to speak out against homophobia no matter what, and no matter where it comes from.
With regards to gay marriage, it’s great that more gays and lesbians have equal rights now; at least as long as they want to follow this ideal of marriage. This is only one little step in achieving equal rights for all people in the world. We are still very far away from this state and I do hope that the gay marriage topic is not setting us back in our pursuit towards equality for all, regardless of whether you are married or not, black or white, etc.
I feel like you’re in a unique position and a significant figure not just as a DJ but as a person deeply involved in Berlin’s queer/dance community.
I’m very thankful for the support and I don’t take it for granted. Some of my closest friends have been supporting me for ages and this really means a lot to me. Having good people on your side is a powerful motor in many ways.
Two Germans doing a Pub Quiz in the country of Pub Quizzes: ridiculous!
Of course the Berghain/Panorama Bar residency is important, but the Pub Quiz night that you run with Prosumer is another perfect example of that rooting. Two DJs hosting a quiz show on a week night without playing any music is unheard of.
Yes, it’s great fun! We do it together with our gorgeous mistress Misty and the wonderful Mika who is in charge of technical support. For most of the nights we also have a changing special guest. It happens in both German and English every 4th Tuesday in the month except for a summer break at present.
The idea to do a Pub Quiz together in Berlin came direct from Prosumer. He loved the UK’s fanatical quiz culture and we also like the venue Südblock a lot. Besides offering a wide range of diverse subcultural events, they also do a lot of political activities, anti-racist and queer events or talks on immigration issues, for example. Their objective when they opened was to integrate all people: Turkish and Arab neighbours, gays, lesbians, and transgender people and they put a lot of effort into this. So we felt it was the perfect spot for us to do that quiz night and we were happy they were open to that idea.
It’s becoming quite popular nowadays.
Yes, it’s become bigger than we expected and has a nice mixture of people attending. There are people we know from the nightlife as well as other people that I’ve never seen in clubland. We also loved having the opportunity to do the Pub Quiz at Block 9 at Glastonbury this year. Two Germans doing a Pub Quiz in the country of Pub Quizzes: ridiculous!
It was a quite new and entertaining experience for us as the circumstances were different to the ones at Südblock. We were on early afternoon straight after a DJ set. The people were of course still in a party cloud and then we came on, stopped the music and tried to explain quiz rules, which was a bit of a challenge [laughs].
With regards to your approach to DJing, you create a warm and friendly atmosphere and so much positive vibes in the room. Do you have a vision of an ideal dance floor that you try to recreate?
Thank you for your sweet words! I don’t really make plans to create a certain atmosphere. I do like different shades of music and try to create an atmosphere out of those various musical aspects. Maybe my vision of an ideal dancefloor is the combination of diverse music and moods under the roof of a mainly positive vibe.
When you select records for your set, what goes through your mind? How do you hand pick the records out of your massive collection? You seem to be playing very different records every time.
A few factors come into play. It depends on my actual mood. I have days where I’m more into darker techno; days when I feel like a disco trip. Sometimes I buy a new record or re-discover an old record that perfectly fits my actual mood, and I group other records around it. The kind of venue and who I’m playing with also affects my selection. But I would say the main factor is my personal mood and how I deal with it.
I couldn’t stick with a signature sounds in my sets. That’s just not who I am or how I function. I need variety to keep it fresh and interesting – not just for the crowd, but also for me. Besides, as a DJ you learn about music every day by exchanging with others and research and those new discoveries can give your next set another drive. So yes, I spend a lot of time going through records which is also a reason why I hardly produce music.
You know, my ears just also need a rest.
The perfect party is a give and take between the crowd and the DJ. It is always thrilling when this common experience works out.
It also surprises me how you still get very nervous every time you DJ.
Oh I hate it! On one side, I think it’s a good thing because it’s a form of energy that you can work with. But on the other side, it does get on my nerves how tense I can get before a set. Maybe it’s slightly better than ten years ago, but I still have those days where those panic moments like “I don’t know what to play today!” or “I took all the wrong records!” sneak in.
I think that shows –
How insecure I am?
No, how sincere you are about each set.
Well in my opinion the perfect party is a give and take between the crowd and the DJ. It is always thrilling when this common experience works out.
It’s interesting how you mentioned about producing music, because I wanted to ask you about that too.
When my next record is coming out? 2020. [Laughs]
Hah! No, I was going to point out that you’re one of only a handful of DJs who are successful without having a hit record. Nowadays DJs struggling to breakthrough tend to think they need to produce records.
The compulsion of the combination of producing and DJing in my opinion is not really helping the development in both artforms. I can hardly imagine that you create something interesting or meaningful if you feel that you have to. I think your personal need to do it, to express yourself in a certain way would carry more of a chances for creating something out of the ordinary.
Both are also quite different activities that require different skills and a person that is very talented in one field does not necessarily have to be as talented in the other. The ones who are outstanding in both are the rare geniuses. I think it refreshes nightlife if we break away from this idea of expecting people to do both.
We are maybe missing out on a lot of great DJs, just because they don’t produce and therefore get no media attention and therefore hardly any bookings? DCDJ Soulmind from Brescia, for example. He is an amazing DJ that can take you on a musical journey to a lot of different places. Very excited that we’re playing at Dance Tunnel together!
It is exciting big time when Lakuti and I each discover new music. We often shout to one another from our respective work rooms like, “look what I’ve discovered!”
I’ve also been wondering how we could change the general situation. Now with all the new technology including streaming platforms like Boiler Room, podcast mixes and online radios, I don’t think it’s such a difficult task to give a chance to genuinely good DJs.
The new technologies could probably help to change this situation, yes.
I have a feeling it starts to change a bit already and all sides that are somehow involved in clublife have the possibility to contribute in supporting those changes: Promoters, bookers and club owners, by building their own resident DJs; from the DJs by recommending unknown colleagues that they like; from the media by writing about ‘pure’ DJs; from the crowd by being open to new names that have no media attention. Those things are starting to happen already but maybe can be pushed a bit further.
You regularly program nights alongside Lakuti in both London and Berlin where you have been inviting your favourite artists, which is a start.
It is a great opportunity that we have been given and this year we are doing it three times. I think at Panorama Bar it started a few years ago on my birthday – I couldn’t have wished for more on my birthday night! Later on we started doing that outside of my birthday at some point. Dance Tunnel offered me this opportunity when they offered me to play there regularily every three months. Curating nights is an interesting challenge and we are happy to have been given those opportunities.
Something like that is a great way to introduce less known good DJs.
Yes, it’s perfect.
I’ve always wondered: what is it like having another DJ at home as a partner?
I love it! It’s beautiful to share this common passion for music. We have a lot of exchange also as we come from very different backgrounds. It is fascinating that we somehow find each other appreciating the same things even if we came to that point via very different routes.
It is exciting big time when we each discover new music. We often shout to one another from our respective work rooms like, “look what I’ve discovered! You need to listen to that!”
The only danger of this combination maybe is that we end up getting even geekier than we already are. But why not? [Laughs]
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