I must admit that I was intimidated by the prospect of interviewing Ma Faiza, the Mother of Electronica and the owner of the Masti Music record label in Pune. One of the few queer women in the world (not to speak of the Indian music scene) ruling dance floors solo—and for more than two decades, no less—she commands a great presence: one that is confident, self-aware, and extremely graceful. And so how could Gaysi not cover her? When I found out she was coming to Cal for a gig with Kitty Su, I made a beeline for the show as soon as I could.
While we waited in the big and fancy tea room of the Lalit in Kolkata, my friend and I were drained. We had just concluded another interview and a long long day at the school we go to. Cutlery tinkled fancily and the distant banquet hall rumbled with guests. A few minutes after she arrived (in a severely cool spiked collar and an exquisite looking vest), it was like tucking into breakfast. She filled the room with hearty laughter, and scintillating, effortless conversation.
She’s been interviewed countless times, and she admits, answered the same questions over and over again.
What could I possibly ask her as a complete psytrance dud that was new?
Everything else, of course.
“People are always asking me about my music, or being queer or a woman in music. But DJ-ing is a very very small part of my life. I spend my days doing lots of other things that are really nourishing and where I can be present.”
Before I met her, I prepared for the interview with the anxiety of being exposed for my ignorance of trance music. When I started asking the painfully generic, knowledge-feigning questions about psy-trance music, she replied that she wasn’t really psy-trance.
“Psy trance is not quite where I am, “My flavour is a little bit different. Many times with the psy-trance…it’s way too hard for me. I’ve got my style of the psy-trance that I enjoy…but really really full-on psychedelic with no melody? That’s not me. I’m into more uplifting, melodic, more heartful, powerful, celebratory, bouncy psy-trance, but not like machine guns or death trance.” My brain relaxed. “It’s not really my style. That’s just hideous, nasty, it’s evil! It’s just not me. I’ve seen people dance to that kind of music, it’s just so hardcore for me and the dance floor is not smiling and happy and joyous and that’s not really my sound. I want little fairies and leprechauns and witches and sorcerers and wizards dancing on the floor!”
Back when she had just begun mixing, she used to sell tapes on the beach. She began from (excuse the pun), scratch, when consoles were a fraction of the size they are today, with no qualifications or training apart from a deep love for music. Her kind of music. “For a girl in those days with no name, to make an entrance into big huge parties (playing trance), it was hard to get your leg up on the stages. So I just came in from a whole other direction, just playing amazing chill out music to people. Then from that, I’d maybe get to play a bad timing or an opening or a closing set for a middle or a bigger floor, where I’d do a combination of dance music and chill out. Or I’d start off in silence, or play some ambient music and then work my way. I was booked in the beginning for quite different reasons rather than just banging out on the dance floor, and over time I had more opportunities as a woman to enter the big stages.”
Today, she plays about fifty gigs a year. Fifty because she’s tired of doing a hundred gigs a year. She’s known for her signature way of mixing, and her bright, lively sound. In spite of the unconventional style in an already niche genre of music, a Ma Faiza mix would belong just as well in a small underground venue as it would on an evening on the beach.
“I dip into lots of different genres. I don’t stick to one genre, and I try to make it as an expression and a journey, something different each time. A reflection of me! I’m not in a box and I’m all over the place. I have so many different influences.” And she is. She grew up in London to Gujarati-Kutch parents born and raised in Africa (her great-grandfather was once the Prime Minister of Zanzibar) and moved to Goa in her mid-twenties after travelling solo all over in India. She’s seen tons of different countries and met thousands and thousands of people through her work. And this fuels everything she does, inspiring her unique personality and all the things that make her, her. As music-making technology changed—and it still continues to—she finds a whole new range of potential, many many more ways of expressing her evolving self.
“Some people see me as a man, and some see me as a woman…I’ve been mistaken to be a gay man..that I’m south-american..many different places. All my life it’s been very hard to put me in a box. I’m born a woman but I have a size 46 shoe. That’s more than a really tall man would have.” I look down at her shoes. Each shoe has a lace of a different colour. “Everything is a bit out of the box for me as a person. My message through my music has always been just to be who you are, be authentic and real and believe in yourself.”
Ma Faiza is in mind, body and soul, a maker. She loves cooking and design and hand-makes an array of interesting things. She pulls out her phone to show me a few. She used to make hats (which at one point, she sold for charity), and most recently, got very into lamps. She makes modular ones that you can assemble and reassemble, and whose shades are constructed from glued sawdust.
“When I’m talking about design I mean I’m putting myself into everything. When I buy a shoe I have to mess with the shoelaces, when I’m doing up my room I’m expressing myself everywhere…in that corner or behind the curtains, everywhere…because I’m different!”
Her personal aesthetic of embracing chaos and unconventionality extends to her views of the world and her acceptance of things that are different and those she does not immediately understand. It is perhaps what makes her so versatile and adaptable in the age of fast-advancing music technology. Her views on almost everything else reflect this. And so do her personal measures of excellence and musicianship. What makes a good DJ?
“Any artist, if they’re sincere if they’re present. If they’re professional…that is if they can sing or play the instrument or actually know what the fuck they’re doing,” cue head-shake and chuckles all around. “Because there’s a lot of blabbers out there, who don’t know jack shit but they’re on a big stage. Like Paris Hilton who’s actually a model but is now a DJ and obviously she should not be there because she’s known for something else and now she’s…anyway, as long as you’re passionate about what you’re doing and you’re present and you’re real and you share your truth, you can really apply it to anything. Whatever you do, if you’re an artist, or you play music or you do opera or ballet.”
Like a true creative adventurer, Ma Faiza is loath to have favourites. “Whenever people ask me ‘what is your favourite…anything’ I’m just like, all of it!” Greedy to add to my musical collection (who better to ask than a DJ?) I picked her brains a little bit more to find out what she thought made “good music”.
“Loving a particular song or music is like loving your favourite daal. It’s at your favourite restaurant or your mother’s dal and you’re thinking, this is hands down, the best fucking daal ever and maybe it has nostalgia or something attached to it. You’re emotionally connected to it. It’s the same with music. Sure I’ve got a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience but it’s also personal. Music is very, very, very personal. If you and someone have similar tastes, even if your computers have the same music from the same bands and you give them your collection, there will still be certain songs that they don’t feel connected to. It’s about finding your own vibration and finding yourself within it. Even when they sell us a phone, they want us to feel connected to it. We have to want to touch it, and make it our best friend and sleep with it and you can bring that to everything! It’s about making people feel connected and it’s more important than technicalities.”
In the age of the smartphone and multiple avatars for multiple social networks and media platforms, many would agree it’s harder and harder to be authentic and to, as Ma Faiza earnestly believes, bring one’s true self to a conversation, let alone a creative piece of work. “We live in a world now where there’s a lot of fakes. I keep telling people that nowadays, fake is the new real.”
The long night (at Kitty Su) ahead of us was daunting, and must have been so more for her, after a tiring flight and an interview and three acts before that. In a field as competitive and tiring as hers, reinvention is the bare minimum expected from an artist in the business for the long haul. But she doesn’t seem to feel the pressure. “I’m still finding out more about myself every day as I get older and have more experiences. It’s not a static thing, is it? Static would be *snoring noise* BO-RING and some people are like *cue uppity Brit man accent* ‘That’s just me, that’s who I am!’ and I mean, do you really want to be that for the next thirty years of your life? Tonight is about people being who they are and putting it out there!”
I came to do an interview with an ultra-cool queer DJ making a mark in electronic music but left with something more fun. The portrait of a musician as human. We were doing impressions of people and laughing, and making lively chatter—mostly about the authenticity of expression and the vast and inspiring range of experience that life can give you, only if you take charge of the whole self of you: even the bits that cannot be stuffed into a box.