By Chris Alker
Blowing in from an out of town gig with luggage and equipment in tow, I sat down with my old friend and DJ turned star Devi Mambouka for tea on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Williamsburg. Never one to separate her stage life from her daily one, she arrived draped in black with matching moccasins and long Kumihimo style braids finished with ornate metal clamps. Despite the neighborhood’s irony pregnant inhabitants, she was less hipster and more African princess. We wasted no time catching up, and left no stone unturned discussing everything from Japanese Butoh and her dual cultural heritage, to her near miss as a professional MMA fighter.
Did you always know you were going to be a performer?
Ever since I was young I wanted to be on stage. DJing was a way to learn about music, and get me closer to becoming an artist. Someone told me, “If you ever want to do anything in life, get out of your own way”. Over thinking will stop you. You are limitless; you are as vast as the universe. If you take away what you know, and just plug in, you can do anything.
How did you start working with Dru Barnes aka Jogyo?
I was originally supposed to DJ for Jogyo. I slowly I found myself on stage, then I began contributing vocals, then we became a duo. Due to artistic differences we have decided to separate into two entities, but we have worked on a number of tracks together, including one with Ben Robey of Ninjasonik that will be coming out soon.
You recently collaborated with Dennis “Citizen” Kane and Sal P of the Visitors on their track “Night Fever”. How did you meet those two, and what was it like working with them?
I knew Sal from DJing around, and met through a mutual friend. Dennis first saw me doing a show with Jogyo at Don Hills. A few weeks later he asked me to do the vocals on the new track they were working on together. It was a very humbling experience, they are such great artists.
Do you have any new projects lined up?
Yes, I am working on a new collaborative performance piece that will be recorded to video. I also have another solo performance project that I will record in parts in both Sweden and Africa. Both are under wraps for now. I am also crafting an EP that will be called “Masma”.
What inspires your art and music right now? Does your African heritage play a role as well?
Right now I am studying Butoh. It is a Japanese Avante Gard dance/performance that started right after WWII. It is the driving force behind my art. There are these African rituals that are about being present, connected in the moment. You are performing, but you are seeing yourself perform. When I learned that Butoh has the same spiritual connection between art and dance as these African rituals, I recognized a parallel. I am also half Asian, so that is no doubt a part of my attraction.
You African roots are at the forefront of your art and music right now, when did you begin tapping into that?
It was not easy growing up as an immigrant in the Bronx. It was always difficult expressing myself, so when I finally moved to Brooklyn I had detached myself from my past. Once I started working with Jogyo, I had this flashback. I thought, wait, I am from Gabon!
I see it is truly reflected in your fashion sense. How much does that play into your work?
I love clothes! A lot of artists struggle with living their art. They maintain separate entities. For me there is no separate entity. It is all Devi. I believe in always going out of my comfort zone with clothes. If you find a beautiful piece, wear it! The inspiration is really all the indigenous women of the world. I educate myself on different cultures, and that informs my style.
Do you have any thoughts about the fashion industry?
I don’t read fashion magazines. I think fashion is this psychic wave that we all tap into. I worked with Jenny Hensler who styled me for the Gazelle music video, and I am working with Carry Morrissey who has a brand called I Still Love You NYC.
What do you think about the NY nightlife right now?
I am not as involved as I used to be. The music has changed, at least at the places I used to go, but I grew up in NY Nightlife so it is a part of me. I will start throwing some monthly parties again, but the way I DJ has changed tremendously. I play a lot of world music and post punk. I love combining the raw elements of both.
What is the Heavy Sound Collective, and who brought you into the fold?
It is a DJ collective that I belong to. All the DJs are based out of New York City, Brooklyn and Long Island who came together to work with a restaurant group in Connecticut. We provide all the music for all their restaurants, make playlists, DJ events etc. (DJ) Love Russell from the collective called me up and asked if I wanted to get involved. At that time I wanted to get out of the NY scene for a bit, breathe a little. I had been hustling so much, and I needed a change. The collective is 10-12 people and we all go back and fourth. We also do a monthly party at The Flat on Hooper Street in Williamsburg.
You not only support yourself as a DJ and vocalist, you are doing non-profit work in Harlem. How did you get started?
My brother is the director of an after school program at the shelter on 143rd Street and Lenox Avenue. One day when I was visiting him, he told me they were low on funds and supplies. I thought I could help out, especially since all my friends are artists. I ended up starting a service organization called America Mambouka. I have always done art with my body and my voice, but never a physical object. For our first project I had the idea of making a calendar with 12 New York female DJs to raise funds for the shelter. It was a lot of fun, and the girls were amazing. Right after the shoot, we threw this huge launch party. One of the DJs, Alix Brown, put me in touch with Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono. They donated to the cause, and it was so humbling. It was the sign for me to continue on this path.
When you are not DJing, performing, or helping others, what do you do?
I read all the latest research on cancer treatment. My passion was always biology and science, so I am looking at Ayurvetic medicine from India and holistic living. I also love watching the TED talks videos, they’re amazing!
What you would you be doing if you weren’t Devi Mambouka?
I am a mixed martial artist, and I have been training for the past six years under John Jones’ trainer. I was going either be an MMA fighter or a DJ (laughs). I stopped for a while, but my stepdad has decided to impart his legacy upon me. Now I study Jiu-Jitsu, Kickboxing, Silat, Stick Fighting, Knife Fighting and Grappling. It is good for me, because there a lot of health benefits.
I take it this extends into your diet as well. What do you eat on a typical day?
I love beets, and I juice every day. In the morning I’ll have a smoothie with spinach, kale, coconut milk bananas, and strawberries. Later on, for a snack, maybe one with beets, carrots, ginger, and kale. For lunch I like sushi. I try and keep everything raw. For dinner I’ll have rice and veggies. I like to shop in Chinatown, and tap into my Asian heritage. My mother is from Singapore. I will spend two hours in one shop looking at Wikipedia on my phone, researching vegetables and fruits deciding what to pick up. (laughs)
Devi Mambouka can be seen hosting the 1st Annual Thank You Party for the America Mambouka DJ calendar alongside Ninjasonik’s Ben Robey at Santos Party House May 29th.
Devi Mambouka’s Biography:
Growing up as the daughter of the Ambassador of Gabon and a Singaporean mother, Devi Mambouka obtained a unique perspective on Africa as a source of our essential being. An NYC resident since the age of 12, Devi has sought to inject her music and performance art with her African heritage. She has become a fixture of the New York nightclub scene as both a DJ and a performer, playing prestigious venues like Lotus NYC, Le Souk and Tillman's just to name a few. She also created several mixes including the 2012 Black Ball Redux for the Alicia Keys Keep A Child Alive, her party at Lit Lounge, "Beauty Massacre" was nominated for Paper Magazine's Best Party. What Interview Magazine described as a "star turn," Mambouka recently contributed vocals to The Visitors (DENNIS "CITIZEN" KANE AND SAL PRINCIPATO of Liquid Liquid) track,"Night Fever" and her collaboration with Gazelle and Jogyo on the Single "R.U.N" was featured on MTV IGGY. She is also a part of The Heavy Sound DJ collective and she is the founder of the America Mambouka foundation for the arts