We catch up with Ali Colleen, host of Liberation Conversation on-air Wednesday evenings 9-11 p.m., to hear about all the hats she wears off the mic: a music anthropologist and writer, a veteran live DJ and turntablist, a parent and the possessor of one of the most voracious music appetites we’ve ever encountered.
You’re known about town as a live DJ (hello, Willamette Week’s Best DJ of 2018), and you spin under the name Doctor Dakar. How did you first get into live DJing, and how is it different from radio DJing for you? At the end of the day, which do you think you prefer?
I’ve always had a musical heart, and I’ve always been obsessed with putting songs together; as a kid, starting at the age of five, I would record myself doing radio shows on my parent’s sound system at home, talking in between the records into a little mic my dad had set up. I sequenced the records to go together thematically or musically. Throughout high school, I reviewed live music and cassettes for my school newspaper with such success that the local professional newspaper started to carry my criticism — I spent the money on underground hip-hop cassettes and remix records at the Sam Goody at the mall.
At 17, I had already gotten my first college radio show, and at 21, I started to DJ live. Those two worlds have always been confluent for me, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that music is a kind of nourishment for me — I feel it so deeply and so pervasively that I instinctively want to share it with my community. It’s probably the same instinct that hunters and gatherers felt when they returned to their village with a bounty. Feed everyone! Feast! Thrive! Perpetuate the species!
Though I should note that I chose to work with KMHD for two reasons: First, I am in love with the community it represents and the dear friends I’ve made at and through the station. And secondly, I have started working in a non-freelance position that has me at work early every morning, so my club life has become more … rarified.
Tell us a little bit about what you grew up listening to — what are some of your earliest or most formative musical memories? How, from there, did you end up first being exposed to the music you now play on KMHD?
I was adopted shortly after birth by a family with less musical obsession than I had — I found out in my tween years that my birth parents were both professional musicians who requested that my new parents allow me to take music lessons, which I did: piano, brass, guitar and later pedal steel and Indonesian and African drumming.
My parents had the usual collection of ephemeral 70s records on their shelf, from the Carpenters to Sonny and Cher to the Beatles. I found myself drawn to Carole King and Johnny Nash and Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson’s “Ben” — a working-class Midwesterner’s gateway to Black music. So I was already a bit of a music head by the time “Thriller” and “Purple Rain” came out when I was in second and third grades.
By fifth grade, I was known as the kid you could dub rap cassettes from. By eighth grade, I was collecting R&B and hip-hop I would hear visiting my mom’s family in Long Island, house mixes I would dub from my friend’s big sister’s boyfriend (a DJ who had moved to town from Chicago, which was just four hours away), Native Tongues and Oakland hip-hop I came across on Yo! MTV Raps, and British house I would read about in Interview Magazine.
When it comes to the mix I bring to KMHD, I started to make mixes in grade school, and then DJed at my college radio station in Grinnell, Iowa: KDIC, where I started to get immersed in jazz, global, and R&B. I had started with music journalism in high school and college and went on to write across genres for independent magazines and newspapers in the mid-‘90s, and working for music venues, where I started to get deeper into jazz and R&B, eventually moving to the Bay Area to work in the music industry, staff indie record stores, DJ and write articles for the Bay Guardian and SPIN.
I got obsessed with jazz and blues working the jazz counter at Amoeba Records on Haight Street, and decided to move to Mississippi to learn more about all of the musical forms there, eventually writing my first book about the contemporary musical life of the Delta. From there, I’ve spent the last 15 years earning my doctorate and working as a professor of anthropology and music, studying the contemporary music of Africa and its diaspora, and the roots of that music. I did my dissertation work with women hip-hop artists, reggae singers, Sufi praise singers, pop stars and traditional griots in Senegal and was exposed to deep layers of African popular music through those channels, so that’s infused into my work with KMHD.
Your interest in music seems intimately related to your interest in social justice — hence the theme of your KMHD show, Liberation Conversation. What about music, to you, is so naturally linked to activism?
I’ve been involved in social justice for just as long as I have been doing music. The two have always been intimately connected for me: Maybe starting with hearing John Lennon’s “Imagine” on the day he was shot in 1980, into the soul and hip-hop I listened to in high school, through to the union songs I learned when I did organizing in the ‘90s, and the music I witnessed during my years in Africa, which is always speaking to contemporary social problems and imagining alternative futures.
In my work with young rappers, blues and gospel artists in the Mississippi Delta, I documented what we call “traditions of eloquence” — regardless of genre or instrumentation, the ability of the human voice to combine established themes and samples of songs and poetry and emergent, new improvisations that speak to the moment. This simultaneous rootedness and tactical use of speed and song — roots and routes — are fundamental to both radical jazz and radical politics. We have to appeal to what we know, and what binds us, and imagine alternative futures together by creating. Song is extremely powerful and efficient at doing this cultural work. I also think there’s something special about the way sound works on and through the human body.
You first learned turntablism in San Francisco and have studied and written about music and culture all around the world — what, to you, stands out about DJing and being a “music person” in Portland, as opposed to other scenes you’ve been a part of?
Portland is full of music people, and that’s part of why I love it so much. So many people here commit real resources to music for long arcs of time. Like the neighborhoods here represent microcultures — small communities that add up, like patchwork, to a cohesive whole — the scenes here do the same. Something about the commitment people make to that here, with very few financial resources for it or outside attention to it — tells me that Portland values music for what it does for us, here, in this place.
It reminds me so much of the other places I’ve lived where the ethos is similar: Senegal, where 10% of the population are griots or casted singers and musicians who infuse daily life with song and sound; San Francisco’s Lower Haight in the late ‘90s and early aughts, where musical talent (particularly hip-hop and house turntablism) was as thick as the fog and there was a record store on every corner; and the Mississippi Delta, where juke joints were always popping up, and you could drive around with your car windows open and find an underground blues house party any Saturday night. In all of these places and times, there was both space for ad-hoc, independent, and community music-making, and a class of people willing to sacrifice time and income to dedicate their lives to fostering music.
Also, and I think this is really important, all of the places I’ve named hold special space for women, non-binary, or other music-makers who are marginalized by the record industry and on the commercial stage: the women griottes conducting rituals daily in West Africa, women choir directors and blues singers in the Deep South, women and queer artists at the core of emerging Bay Area movements back when it was more affordable. I’ve taught free DJ lessons for women and non-binary groups here in Portland and find this kind of thing happening all over the place here — there is still a lot of work to do, but I am watching this community, and I am hopeful and excited.
If it’s possible to put a name on it — what is it that keeps you so passionate about devouring more and more music, all the time? What drives you?
In Senegal, the women griottes, people born into the caste of musicians and praise singers, would tell me, “Cossan ngiy ci wenn wii:” “Culture is passed down through mother’s milk.” I really do feel that music infuses and nourishes all of us from the core, but some people — particularly those driven by a Western culture that finds music excessive or additive, not essential — compartmentalize music in their lives, segregating it from the rest of their time or experience.
There have been times in my life when I realize that my appetite for music has dropped because of an obsession with a job or the stress in a transition or situation. This is always a symptom of circumstances in which I’m not connecting with my community and my body in ways that are therapeutic for me. Music is a sanctuary that is always there when I need a space of belonging and return. That return becomes a ritual that keeps me healthy.
Preparing for my Liberation Conversation every Wednesday, seeking out new things to play for our KMHD listeners, putting on my coziest clothes, stealing the morning crew’s cough drops and getting my headphones arranged over one ear to cue up a couple of records while I toggle between CDs, all becomes a ritual of return to that primal space. I find so many of my co-DJs and listeners equally committed. Call us music nerds; I think of us as acolytes!
What would surprise people most about your personal life outside of music? Any interesting hobbies or talents?
Parenting. I think that’s my main thing both within and beyond the music. My kiddo has really enriched the ways I understand what music does, ever since I discovered that certain tempos and sounds would get my son dancing around in my womb. He was born to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” on Alice Coltrane’s birthday and seems to have this innate drive to make up songs and play a number of different instruments. In the West, we often experience music separately for our children, or offer our kids “music lite,” but one thing I really loved about Africa and the South is the presence of kids at all kinds of musical events. I bring kiddo to the studio sometimes and he loves it so much! I love being a mom in the club, or letting my kid pick out songs for the show with me.
What are you tuned into when you’re not listening to the music you program on KMHD?
I am a true musical omnivore, so I continue to go to metal shows (I love the local band Danava and still listen to Maiden and Sabbath) and work out to underground hip-hop beats by local producers like Trox and Fritzwa. In the summer, I DJ and attend a lot of deep house music day dance parties, like Your Sunday Best, Native Habitat and Occasion Vibration, because I have 10 hour dance floor stamina! I just love dancing outside, and it’s been cool to find that lots of DJs and dancers in that scene listen to my show. I have a special place in my heart for bass music of any kind because of the time I spent in the South, and try to keep up on whatever’s coming out in the Bay Area hyphy scene, which will never die!
If you could bring someone back to life from jazz history and hang out with them for an afternoon, who would it be and why?
I would choose John and Alice Coltrane so that they could spend another day together on this plane and inspire the rest of us to love like that.
Hear Ali host Liberation Conversation, a mix of spiritual jazz, world music, funk and hip-hop that all celebrates the idea of freedom, every Wednesday from 9-11 p.m. on KMHD.