Toronto Party-Starter BAMBII Brings Political Progress into the Club
Having collaborated with Kelela and DJ'ed some of the world's most iconic clubs, the producer is turning the dance floor into a haven for her community
Published Aug 08, 2023When BAMBII stepped to the decks of one of the world's most famous clubs, she proved not only why she's Toronto's buzziest DJ and producer, but also the power of irreverence.
Like any artist invited to perform at Berghain, she was certainly impressed. When asked about that breakthrough set during a recent phone interview with Exclaim!, BAMBII says the Berlin club was nothing short of "incredible. It's like if someone built a club and actually cared about music," she adds in her tossed-off, comically truthful — and all the more insightful — speaking manner.
Before performing at Berghain in early 2022, BAMBII once went there as a visitor. "It seemed so mystifying, so far away, that I didn't think I'd ever DJ there. Ever, ever," she remembers. Achieving that was "affirming" for the artist — from then on, she could tell herself, "Okay, this is real now."
What could be better than DJing at Berghain after it had long seemed impossible? Doing so on her own terms, of course. "I feel like we have this idea of Berlin and Berlin techno, and people not wanting to break outside of that," she says, adding: "And I think when people play at Berghain, they're trying to adhere to some sort of preexisting purist culture." BAMBII being BAMBII, she began her set and "just tried to be myself. And it was good to know I could do so, even in a place that was such an institution."
Her towering sets at Berghain and other famed electronic music hubs like Boiler Room, along with her extensive contributions to R&B singer Kelela's critically heralded 2023 album Raven, have all made BAMBII poised to build an institution of her own. Her new EP, INFINITY CLUB, skips across a multitude of genres and styles — from strutting dancehall to bone-rattling techno — across just eight limber tracks, as has been BAMBII's wont throughout her rapidly rising career.
BAMBII has plans for not only a sequel EP, but also a physical space for dance-craving attendees and DJs ready to rise to that occasion. Whether it's one of BAMBII's now famous parties, or a longer running pop-up, she has yet to decide. Beyond that, she sees INFINITY CLUB as a creative mindset, telling Exclaim!, "I'm not sure yet what form it'll manifest in, but I definitely want to explore it. It's a kind of place that I want to sit in creatively for the next couple years."
BAMBII is beckoning listeners to that cacophonous, groove-inducing dance floor and headspace. She sees a need for such projects to be sonic, physical and even philosophical; or, as she puts it: "A social and political approach to life that is about dismantling boundaries. Because so many of us are locked into particular roles, whether we're talking about gender or race."
By now, BAMBII's fanbase has come to expect such outlooks from both her and the fellow artists with whom she has shared DJ billing — such as recent Polaris Music Prize winner Pierre Kwenders (at the Moonshine parties he co-founded), or Jamie xx (whom she opened for in Toronto, an experience she says was "very cool. I don't have another adjective for how amazing it was.").
The same goes for her collaborations with Kelela, who invited BAMBII to work Raven, alongside beloved producers like LSDXOXO and fellow Canuck Kaytranada; BAMBII is credited on 10 of the album's 15 tracks. That opportunity unfolded years after the Torontonian for Kelela, and they became reacquainted after the R&B artist responded to one of the producer's social media posts. It sparked what BAMBII calls a "pen pal" messaging dynamic that led to them sending each other music, then full-on collaboration.
BAMBII says she and Kelela share the same values about music, cultural appropriation, Blackness, being a woman and more. Their relationship offers the DJ "catharsis in being able to talk to someone who's older, and doing it on a higher level than me," says BAMBII, adding: "Because sometimes, you can feel a little bit crazy when things happen. You think it's only happening to you. But when you form these mentorship relationships, it feels good when someone knows what you're talking about."
In addition to her production work, BAMBII turned heads with the written word: in 2022, she wrote an essay for Dazed in which she advocated for "the queering of electronic music." She also charted her arc as a young DJ, just over a decade ago, struggling to gain a foothold in a city often known for blockbuster rap and indie rock, and becoming one of Toronto's swiftest rising musicians.
In BAMBII's eyes, it's a new day. At least in terms of "women not getting shut down when they try to be a leader in music and nightlife. I think now, when we're looking at Toronto, the biggest parties are run by women. The biggest parties are curated by women. It's not so foreign. When I started, I couldn't even find someone to help me learn how to DJ. I was fighting for space with boys."
Before she began that uphill DJ career at 23, Kirsten Azan grew up in a Jamaican family that had been part of a wave of Caribbean immigration to Toronto. In a 2019 interview with i-D Magazine, she recalled being raised in the church, having a special bond with her Jamaican great grandma, and her mom's wide-ranging love of everything from house and '90s dancehall to jazz, reggae and classic rock. Her childhood strolls were soundtracked by Bollywood music blasting from her neighbours' speakers. Young Kirsten even enjoyed an indie rock and punk phase, and she still revisits those genres on occasion.
The breadth of that musical backdrop during her formative years makes BAMBII's DJing and production grippingly unpredictable to this day. Even back in 2016, during a Q&A with NOW, about her already-legendary JERK dance party, she was thinking about genre segregation and hierarchies, and the larger ills they speak to. At the time, she said, "JERK is an ode to my Caribbean heritage, but also a product of all my exposure to the indie, Black, brown and queer arts scenes. It pushes subversive new sounds and gives some serious nostalgic moments."
Today, BAMBII tells Exclaim! such queer parties are at the forefront of social change. "There'll be a crossover of community members involved. An element of social justice in the event, or a connection between organizations," she reflects. "I feel like at straight parties, nobody's thinking on that. Queer spaces are a bit more political, just through the nature of being queer."
There are powerful opportunities in that regard. But they can also weigh an artist down, especially after years of toiling in systemic margins. "Personally, being already Black and being already queer, I don't really like getting asked political questions all the time. I don't mind speaking about it. But it's also something that I would love a break from," BAMBII admits. "When I'm playing at a club, I'm not trying to put some sort of political idea on top of it. It's inherently political because it's from me, and my life is politicized whether I decide it is or not. I'm aiming for it to be more freeing and less exact, or fixed."
And yet, stateside bans on drag shows and other such clawbacks on social progress add gravitas to even the most apolitical sets by BAMBII and other artists contributing to the "queering of electronic music." Of course, she didn't think about that while creating INFINITY CLUB. Instead, she focused on making the title track entrancing with cavernous opening percussion, before imbuing the song with high notes that ensnare the ear, regardless of politics. When asked about that high-pitched sound that acts as the instrumental track's hook, BAMBII recalls simply distorting a sample, and "warping it literally four times over. It's not really anything. It's like a found melody that I flipped backwards and threw a bunch of reverb on, and then played it through a sampler."
Modest as she sounds when describing her own work on INFINITY CLUB, BAMBII is far more eager to heap praise on the EP's range of guests. She calls featured MC Sydanie "a powerhouse rapper and vocalist, and someone that I feel represents what Toronto is in its most authentic form." BAMBII backs up Sydanie's acrobatic Infinity Club vocals with hopscotch-skipping percussion that amounts to the most playful song of the summer.
Then there's Aluna of AlunaGeorge's contribution to highlight "Hooked." BAMBII dubs her a "house and electronic music legend whom I've listened to since before I began DJing. Featuring her feels like a full-circle moment where I'm tapping into things that inspired me, and then also new things and new people."
So yes, BAMBII also thinks about how, as a fan listening to elder artists (and would-be collaborators) like AlunaGeorge or Kelela "I'd use music to feel something. Or not feel something. Or to motivate myself, or explore something. I know it's so corny, but I really feel like music is the thing that helps me do certain things every day. How I get through particular moments that were really tough, or really testing. I think everyone who makes music hopes for that."
And she hopes that INFINITY CLUB, and its forthcoming physical incarnation, can be as meaningful and helpful as its songs can be entrancingly catchy. When she looks at nightlife in Toronto, particularly queer nightlife, BAMBII says that what happens outside of the club is just as important as what's happening inside it: "So trying to bridge the gap between the values that we're talking about during the day, with even the small moments in our sets at night, is something I try to do."
She thinks that's especially crucial as conservative backlashes become more common, and as inflation and economic pressure squeeze the most vulnerable. "When we're talking about what cities are starting to feel like, what people's work weeks look like, what people's lives look like, I think people are finding a lot of escape from the way things are in these nightlife spaces."
But what BAMBII pushes against is nightlife and music becoming a way to ignore the issues that matter most. "It's cool when a musician is politicized and they have something to say," she says. "But I think there are so many people doing the very unsexy work: academics, activists and writers. We need to uplift those people. Those people should become celebrities in our communities. I want activists and academics to be just as famous as models or musicians. We should be redirecting attention back to those people who do that kind of work in our community."
As BAMBII strives to inspire with music and platform artists long contending with reductive gatekeepers, she is the first to admit, "I don't have big answers for things happening in government, or things happening around the world. I don't think anybody does. We have limited power.
"But I think if we can treat our friends well, and apply our politics to the people that we love, both in the daytime and at night, in all kinds of different spaces — I think that's what we can do, right? I couldn't think of another answer. That is what we have."