Published December 5, 2016
“Thank you for your story,” said the American afro-house producer Osunlade to DJ Yamaho after her set. “When he thanked me for my story, I knew he got it,” DJ Yamaho says. “I want to take you on a journey with my set.” On December 10 Yamaho is booked to play Berghain for the legendary Berlin techno club’s twelfth birthday celebration. “I will take them on a journey,” she says confidently.
Never catch me slippin’
The first time Yamaho visited Berghain was in 2004. “I get goosebumps thinking about it now,” she says. “I remember walking in and my mind was blown. I thought ‘I have to play here.’” She had just gotten her start in Reykjavík as a DJ at a club called Sirkus. “There was nothing like Sirkus,” she says. “The energy and the group that found a home there was so unique to that place.”
It was 2001 when Sigga Boston, the owner of the still-standing bar Boston, first acquired Sirkus, transforming it from a French wine bar into Reykjavík’s hub for anything-goes. Rock was the rage, and dance music condemned at the time, Yamaho recalls. “When I would play there, I’d find the disco or the electronic sounds I wanted to play, and I would slip them into my sets while everybody was already dancing,” she remembers. “Then I’d go back to playing what they wanted.” But Sigga was tough and vocal. She’d yell across the bar if she heard something she didn’t like. “CHANGE THE SONG!” Yamaho fake-yells into the quiet back corner of Kaffibarinn, where we sit.
The desire for dance music has always run strong with Yamaho. “There was this one club in Reykjavík, Tetris, that played hip-hop upstairs and dance music downstairs. I’d never heard anything like it. I was only seventeen but I’d do anything to get into that club. Of course, I stick out like a lightbulb,” she says, waving her hands over her wild, curly hair. “The bouncers were always pulling me out. I’d hide under tables. One time I called my friend and asked to borrow his ID. He had a mustache and everything, but you know, desperate times. It didn’t work. But I tried.”
The last time Yamaho left Berlin was a life-changing moment. Her grandfather, who raised her and supported her musical habits—“he gave me a new instrument every year for Christmas”—was ill. She left everything, flew home from Berlin, and spent her waking hours by his side in the cancer ward. “I saw two things there—people who were completely at peace, and people who were completely devastated,” she says. “I talk to people, I chat. Sometimes I would meet these people who would tell me, ‘Oh, I wish I had played an instrument, or I should have…’” After her grandfather passed away, Yamaho knew she had to go all in. “That was life-changing,” she says. “I had to go full on.”
She stopped flirting with DJing and committed. “After that, doors started opening,” she says. “I started to have the time to do the things I wanted to do.” She left business school and started studying sound engineering. She built her home studio. She got sucked into the hardware.
No story straight
Yamaho isn’t hiding under tables and slipping songs into her sets anymore. In 2013 she won a DJ contest and landed a set at the world-famous Pacha in Ibiza. “I drove myself completely mental preparing for that set,” she recalls. “I was so stressed out by the end I felt like I didn’t know how to DJ anymore. Like I needed DJ lessons.”
Yamaho is determined not to let the upcoming set at Berghain break her down the same way. “It’s a trap you can fall into: start imagining what people want. Then you cease to be you,” she says. “Some DJs have everything planned out. I don’t do that. I need the interaction.” For Yamaho, it’s always been about the journey. Where’s she’s heading—whether in a set or in a career—that’s up to the crowd. And how she’ll get there, well, it’s still being written.