DJ JUAN G. on Afrobeats, Digging for Records in Africa, and Zimbabwean Dancehall

The hunt for the perfect vinyl score is often an involved and lengthy process no matter where you are. But for DJ JUAN G., digging for records on a different continent has the potential to snowball into a year-long adventure filled with unexpected turns. In 2009, Juan Gomez, aka DJ JUAN G., went to South Africa to study photography, but ended up spending his time tracking down elusive records, learning about various local cultures, and even interviewing Ghanaian music legend Ebo Taylor.

Since returning from Africa a few years ago, he’s been running a blog called Digging4Gold where he shares West African records spanning from the well-known Afrobeat to smaller genres like makossa and soukous. He also puts on a party in Oakland at Au Lounge called Mondial Afrique, where lovers of African and Caribbean music can convene on dancefloors on Friday nights. He plays tomorrow night [2/5] for Mondial Afrique with special guests, DJ Tsedi and mbira player, Piwai, from Zimbabwe at Au Lounge and Monday, [2/8] for Sazon Libre at El Rio

[jump] Give us a brief history of how you got into DJing.
I started DJing back in the late ‘90s when I acquired some basic Gemini 1000 turntables from my weed dealer (shout out to Marcus!).  Initially, I couldn’t afford new hip-hop records, so I did the usual thrift store digging, looking for old records that had my favorite hip-hop samples. That was one of the best times musically for me because it seemed everyday I would discover a new favorite tune or genre. When you first hear some classic break or a good Bluenote jazz record or some early James Brown it all seems so rare, like you discovered something new and exciting even though they may be common records for other DJs. It’s a great thing being so wide-eyed. That’s probably why looking for records in Africa some 15 years later felt so familiar. It was me being wide-eyed all over again.

What type of music do you typically spin?
As a DJ, I have a passion for old and new African, Caribbean, bass and Latin music. And it’s always best when they all come together in a set. 
When and how did your love for Afrobeat music begin?
For years, I ran around with my boy Serg, playing mostly reggae and dancehall. Then in 2009, I went to South Africa to study photography. Random, I know, but it was an eye-opener for sure. South African House at the time was going through a creative explosion, and I was fortunate enough to witness it first hand. A year later, I was in Ghana, and again I had the good fortune of being present for the rise of azonto—a style of urban Ghanaian music that ushered in the current wave of new Afrobeats club music coming out of Nigeria. After hearing modern African music in its element for almost two years straight, I was hooked. It was something new and exciting for me. I came back to the Bay and that’s all I wanted to play. Especially the Nigerian stuff since it incorporated both dancehall and reggaeton elements, making it easy for me to sneak it into my sets.

You ended up being in Africa for an entire year. While you must have had some crazy adventures, what ended up being your best memory there?
Hands down, getting to sit down and interview Ebo Taylor by the seaside in his hometown was my best memory. I was doing a lot in Ghana: In addition to looking for old records and DJing a weekly at a club in Accra, I was also trying to track down interviews with old musicians. Ebo Taylor became my white whale, so to speak. I tried to track that man down for the entire year, and three days before I was set to leave, an old club owner finally put me in contact with him. Looking back, it was as if that whole year of digging for music was in preparation for that interview.

Where was the rarest place you ended up finding a record? Was it difficult with language/cultural barriers or did record buying go fairly smoothly?
I once took a torturous three-day bus journey from Accra to Timbuktu. I don’t recommend it. However, on my way back, I stopped in a town in Mali called Mopti that lies on an ancient trade route that once connected West Africa to the North and Europe. However, it's a French-speaking country, a language I don’t speak. Luckily, I had some laminated pictures of records I was looking for. With the help of a young kid name Bubacar, I rode on the back of a motorcycle zipping up and down this old town, knocking on doors and meeting every old man whom we suspected might have some records. Eventually, I came across a stack of old Cuban LPs and some early Orchestra Baobab records. The records were great, but I think the journey was even better.

You started your blog Digging4Gold during your trip. Now in its fifth year, what has been most rewarding for you in running the blog and sharing these rare finds?
Honestly, the blog began as way for me to process the journey I was on when I first went to Ghana in 2010. Since then, however, it’s morphed into a medium for me to continue my exploration of mostly West African music. Knowing folks are enjoying the sounds I’m sharing is just an extra bonus.

Which country or region in Africa has had the biggest musical impact on you?
By far, West Africa has set me on a musical trajectory that I couldn’t have imagined being on 10 years ago. Originally, I went to Ghana to look for old music, mainly focused on afrofunk, ‘70s Afrobeat (not to be confused with the non-related Afrobeats of today), and other subgenres that seemed to be more in line with western standards and musical sensibilities. However, I learned that these genres weren’t always what your average African was partying to. They liked highlife, lingala, soukous, makossa… genres that are often overlooked by record collectors. These genres were the real soundtrack to their daily lives and nightclub experiences. And that music changes over time along with the lives of its audience. That stayed with me: I came out of West Africa with an appreciation and understanding that music isn’t stagnant. So, despite the fact that I went in looking for the past, it was the modern sounds that gave me a real insight on where some of these African countries are and where they’re going.

You're currently getting ready to put out a mini-doc on Zimbabwean dancehall. Can you share with us some details about that?
It’s a cool piece that sheds light on the current music dominating Zimbabwean clubs and radio. Dancehall is big in various parts of Africa—predominantly Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganada—but in Zim they really follow the Jamaican scene like it was their own. Over the past couple of years, Zimbabweans have localized the dancehall sound and it’s now dominating the country. I really wanted to highlight its origins and feature some of the genre’s stars as well as a few new up-and-comers. There’s an accompanying mix in order to give the audience a chance to hear the music.

Also on First Fridays of the month in Oakland we can catch you DJing at Mondial Afrique. For those of us that haven't been, sum up the vibes there.
The vibes at Mondial Afrique are nice! We’re going into our second year and feel that the momentum is just getting stronger. Essentially, I wanted to create a space where African and Caribbean music, especially the newer stuff, was given its proper due while still giving a nod to some of the classics. In addition, I wanted the space to be accessible and welcoming to both folks who know every new tune and those who might not have ever heard this stuff before. I recognize that as popular as Afrobeats have become outside of the African community, it’s still a relatively niche genre. So, myself, along with my three other DJ partners who run the other Friday nights at Au Lounge, are committed to providing such a space for Oakland.

What's important to you in keeping parties like Mondial Afrique and Sazon Libre (which you will be playing on Monday) alive in the local nightlife scene?
Well, to me it’s important to have events that provide a unique musical experience for folks. People deserve to walk away form a night of dancing and feel like it was special. I want people to feel compelled to clap at the end of my set. That’s how I know I did my job well. And I think both Mondial Afrique and Sazon Libre, as well a handful of other parties in the bay, aim to do just that. For instance, this First Friday at Mondial Afrique we’re inviting an amazing female African DJ, Tsedi, to guest with us (a rarity since there’s not many African female DJs out there). We’re also having a Zimbabwean mbira player, Piwai, performing in a lingala-like style during one of my DJ sets. That’s something you won’t see everyday and it helps us stand out from the pack. It’s no different over at Sazon Libre. What Mr. Lucky and Christian are doing with Sazon Libre is much needed in the Bay right now. It’s a party with both vision and purpose. They’ve been very thoughtful about its presentation and musical direction, which is why DJs recognize what a cool opportunity it is to play that party. It’s a confirmation from your peers that they believe in your ability to provide something special for their party-goers.  

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