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Under the hypnotising pseudonym Afrodeutsche, Henrietta Smith-Rolla produces precise and emotional tracks and compels dancers to lose themselves in her intricate sets. One would expect an austere figure behind the sophisticated electro, but the opposite is true. Full of humour, Henrietta happily tells us about playing the transistor organ, her excitement for Dekmantel and a jungle compilation that was stolen at church.

Henrietta, you were born in Great Britain. Could you tell me where the name Afrodeutsche comes from?
Afrodeutsche translates into African-German. I started looking for my dad a few years back and found that he moved to Germany on a scholarship. He was an artist – a painter –, which made me very curious. What was a Ghanian artist doing on a scholarship in Germany in the late ‘50s? This led to more research into the connection between Germany and West Africa, where the word ‘afrodeutsche’ kept coming back. I just felt an innate connection to it.
Is this heritage reflected in your music, either consciously or subconsciously?
Definitely, it’s very intuitive to me. Being Ghanian and born in the United Kingdom is a big part of my identity and that expresses itself through music. It’s almost like a second way of speaking. It sounds really cheesy but that’s just how it works! It might be that people pick up on that influence, but it’s always been innate to me.
You were part of Sisters of Transistors, playing a transistor organ. It makes total sense when listening to your melodic and synth-heavy tracks. What have you taken from your time behind the transistor organ into your music production?
It’s funny you bring this up because when I joined Sisters of Transistors, I couldn’t even play a regular piano. I remember starting out and literally just playing the instruments with one finger! After joining the band, I taught myself how to play. The pieces are quite intricate, so I guess that’s the main thing I learned – composition, arrangement and how to play (laughs). It sounds ridicule! Maybe another thing I took from that is not being stuck in being classically trained. I used my little finger where I could get it. In the music that inspires me today, you can often tell the person who made the baseline isn’t classically trained either. There’s something about that freedom that speaks to me.
Could you give some examples?
My main influences are scores, but what I’ll listen to varies to whichever mood I’m in. I was listening to Radiohead over the weekend, such a great band. But I’ll jump from that to really heavy electro. I love the type that’s heavily orchestrated, almost like modern classical music.
Do you still use a transistor organ in the production of your tracks?
I use a Yamaha DX7 which I put through a transistor app, I find it lifts the sound. I’m a bit impatient and not good at programming, to be honest, so I just use the presets that come with it and manipulate what I have.
Do you remember your first encounter with electronic or club music?
I remember when I was about 9 growing up in Devon, I had a best friend who was a few years older. At the time, there were a lot of free parties happening in surrounding fields and hills, which my friend would attend. She’d bring me back all these flyers and mixtapes and I would listen to them thinking, ‘what is this, I want to be there!’ I also vividly remember taking my jungle compilation mixtape to church for show and tell, and somebody stole it! Luckily, I found one of the tracks recently and have been playing it a lot in sets.
Before, you mentioned your affinity with film scores and also wrote some yourself. What’s the difference between creating music for a film and producing for yourself, if any?
They’re very, very close. What I love about scoring is that you have to translate the visuals as well as a certain narrative and structure. There are technical elements to it, but the main part is translating that emotion into sound. You’re also working for someone else, so it’s a bit of going back and forth with different ideas until at some point you’ll just hit on something that fits perfectly. It’s great when you reach that moment when you help lift someone else’s work without words. The scoring helps with when I’m writing my own stuff as I’m using different techniques, sounds and samples that I learn during scoring. Ultimately, they feed back into each other.

And from that, what’s the difference when playing a set in front of an audience?
Oh my goodness, I shit myself, I get so nervous! I don’t think the nerves will ever go away. In the past, I would have a show once every three months, meaning I would have about three months to prepare and then I’d spend the whole week before the show freaking out. Now I’m playing pretty much every week, meaning I’m in a constant state of freaking out. The funny thing is that once I start playing, all the nerves almost instantly disappear. I’m in a buzz fed by adrenaline and my love for the music.
How do you hope your audience responds to your music?
I hope they have a nice time dancing. To be more specific, have you ever danced to music you love and wondered ‘how on earth am I making these dance moves?’ since you’ve never moved like that before and it’s the music that makes you move like that. Yeah, that’s what I hope my audience does. I want to make people dance weird.
A topic that has been mentioned in the electronic music industry a lot lately is the representation (or rather underrepresentation) of women. Do you have any personal experiences with this?
I can only go from my own experience, which has honestly been really positive. I’ve had such nurturing people around me, opening their homes and allowing me to experiment on their equipment. Of course, there are moments, not necessarily bad ones, which require you to have some understanding and empathy. I’ve worked alongside some older sound engineers for example, who will be very surprised that there’s a female live act showing up. But you have to understand that that’s unusual for them. In contrast, younger sound engineers won’t be surprised at all. And, of course, there will always be people that are dicks, but I don’t blame that on my gender. Men or woman, we all have bad days.
It’s interesting you mention these different sound engineers. As lately, I’ve noticed a shift with feminism in electronic music becoming a full-blown trend. What’s your opinion on this as an industry professional?
 I absolutely agree there is a massive trend and I think everyone that is producing music right now, both male and female, has to be really aware of their output. People are booking and paying you to entertain a crowd, which puts you in a position where you have a voice. As a black woman playing electronic music, there was a point in time where I was… fashionable. I’ve turned down some bookings because of this, where I had the feeling I was being booked just because I fit into a few meaningless criteria. That’s not what I’m about, I happen to be black, I happen to be a woman and I happen to be into electronic music. Ultimately, I think everyone in the industry just has to be aware of the ‘trendiness’ of things and challenge it where possible. I personally try to tackle these issues with a healthy dose of humour, whilst staying brutally honest.
You are set to play at Dekmantel, this is your first time playing there right? 
Yes! I’ve never been to.
How are you feeling, except nervous?
I’m really excited mainly because many of my friends have been going quite religiously. Dekmantel is almost like this landmark festival and it’s quite cool to see the excitement in my friends’ eyes. Another reason for my excitement is that lots of people I admire are playing there. It seems a bit unreal that they asked me, they even asked me to play the Boiler Room stage! I think I just laughed out loud when I read that email.
Can you already tell us something about your upcoming performance?
I’ve got something up my sleeve and I’m trying to figure out if I can make it work. We’ll see.

Marjolijn Oostermeijer
Cover photo
Bart Heemskerk

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