Playing African-influenced music came naturally to AJ Holmes. “I was sort of self-taught. I started to write all these songs and then when I was in college I played it to my friend who has African parentsand he was like, ‘You do realise you’re playing African music, don’t you?’” Born and raised in Barking and Dagenham, the DJ and guitarist soaked up his Afro-pop and soukous influences by osmosis. “The African culture just sort of seeped in somehow. I found it a lot more accessible and without me really consciously knowing it, I naturally started playing a sort of Anglo-African style music.” He then honed his skills and love for African music through a chance meeting with the Sierra Leonean guitarist Folo Graff, who has since become his friend and neighbour.
Returning to London after a five-year stint in Berlin where he refined his own distinctive style, he eventually formed AJ Holmes and the Hackney Empire with a few of his talented friends in order to bring his brand of soukous-cum-indie music to the capital.
The core of the Hackney Empire includes percussionist and bassist Abi Bailey, percussionist Sabine Solomon, drummer Gedman and bassist Martyn Potter. However, Holmes points out that “the Hackney Empire is more like a family. We have people that always come and play with the band.” This includes MC Kastro, Nigerian-born grime singer Afrikan Boy and The Very Best’s Etienne Tron who all contributed to AJ Holmes and The Hackney Empire’s debut album, Wedding Me Ware Wo. The album, released at the end of last year, features Holmes’ witticisms backed by funky beats that get your tail feathers shaking and covers a variety of sounds and rhythms – merengue, rumba and palm-wine. The band expect to release their follow-up later this year, which will see them get a bit darker and look more to the rhythms of north-east Brazil for inspiration following a recent trip there by Holmes.
Before they had even released Wedding Me Ware Wo their infectious grooves had already won them the chance to be the house band at London’s regular tropical club night, Secousse. The monthly evening of African dance music has been reborn as Palm City Social and will be returning later this summer after a short sabbatical, where you can catch the band as well as Holmes’ legendary DJ sets.