ISA GT: Musicalia, Roots, Transformation and Bringing Queer Culture Back to the Dance Floor

Before COVID-19 made its destructive entrance onto the world stage, a lot of interviews for The DJ Cookbook were in person, over coffee or tea, a drink, or a meal. A real cause for a celebration was when a DJ invited you to a homemade cooked meal. It was one of those hot and sticky summer nights when we met Isa GT for dinner. On the menu were the flavors that perfectly describe the Colombian-born, British citizen, and Berlin-based DJ, singer, and producer.

The Medellin native was in perfect command of the stove, the bar, and the decks as we drank cold German beers to beat the heat while listening to a wide range of Latin rhythms like bossa nova and old school salsa. We savored a perfectly chilled gazpacho as an appetizer. Next, Isa GT served a tasty vegetable curry that was full of good-for-you ingredients paired with tajadas de plátano maduro (ripe fried plantains) and avocado, cucumber, tomato salad. We ate a delicious meal and had a great conversation about music, politics, and food.

Fast forward to 2020, Isa GT began the year by participating in Berlin’s acclaimed CTM Festival, where she curated room one at the now-defunct Griessmuehle club. She brought her Puticlub night to the festival. She featured a line-up of cutting-edge artists like third gender Mexican rapper Muxxxe, Madrid-based trap singer La Zowi, French singer, producer, and DJ Moesha 13, the diaspora blending sounds of  Lafawndah, and Venezuelan born, London based DJ Ivicore. She was one of the lucky few who was able to celebrate her birthday before COVID-19 shut the world down.

Isa GT has remixed the Tom Tom Club’s Genius of Love, salsa legend Ismael Rivera on Fania Records, she’s been featured on Diplo’s Mad Decent label, and has toured with M.I.A.  Crookers, Joao Brasil, and Dutch Rhythm Combo have remixed her tracks. Bianca Oblivion remixed her track Pela’o and is featured in Daniel Haaksman Presents 15 Years of Man Recordings.

2020 marked the 20th anniversary of her career as a DJ and the 10th anniversary of releasing music as Isa GT. She spoke to The DJ Cookbook about her favorite Colombian comfort food, her love for curry, and how she ditched the NLE’s (non-linear editing system) for the ones and twos. A passionate and staunch defender of women’s and QTPOC rights, she spoke about the imbalance of gender in dance music. She gave us a sneak peek at the artists she’s been collaborating with to celebrate her career as a DJ and producer.

Q: What is your take on the pandemic?

A: We are all still trying to assimilate this situation that has been so shocking. It has disrupted the whole world. We don’t know how long this is going to last. Coming to terms with this virus and how it has disrupted life as we know it and see how it is panning out is very concerning.

Q: Did you do a lot of cooking and drinking during the first lockdown?

A: Yes, I cooked a lot during the lockdown.  I like eating healthy, the lockdown began during the winter to spring transition so it was nice getting seasonal produce and eating a lot of salads.  While it was still cold, we ate Knödel (German bread dumplings) with red cabbage and gravy. I love gravy! I’m down with anything with gravy on it.

I did a lot of baking. I perfected my banana bread recipe, as did everyone else! I baked some bread too, although it’s easier to get fresh German bread from the bakery! My girlfriend and I baked Swedish Saffron Rolls (Lussebullar) and added cardamom (Kardemummabullar). Those took a lot of time and effort to make, but they were delicious.

We did a lot of cocktail drinking. I got a stainless steel cocktail-making kit from my girlfriend as a birthday gift. My birthday was a week before lockdown began, so we got a lot of ingredients for cocktails. I was making amazing micheladas (Mexican prepared beer mixed with tomato juice, hot sauce, or salsa). I was pimping them up with Tajín (Mexican fruit seasoning). I was also doing whiskey sour. I have my whiskey sour recipe locked! You have to be careful with a whiskey sour because it is very intense, you can’t drink them too much if you drink more than two you’re immediately drunk! I see cocktail-making like magic. It has an art and science aspect to it. You go to a cocktail bar and order a cocktail and the way the bartender blends the ingredients is very elegant. They’re expensive, so you drink one or two, and that’s it. To me, there’s a nostalgic and romantic aspect to it. I remember when I was a child, my parents had a nice bar at home with all these bottles filled with colorful liquids. My parents would have guests over and serve cocktails as music played in the background. Music was a very important aspect of these get-togethers.

I was also making arepas and I had a friend who wanted to spread jam on it and you just don’t do that with an arepa! That’s a sacrilege, no, I don’t want to try a sweet arepa! But I must confess I love a Hawaiian arepa! 

Q: What is a Hawaiian arepa?

A: In Colombia, you can buy arepas already made. As a kid, if I was hungry after school, I would heat an arepa and spread a little bit of mayonnaise on it, add a slice of cheese, ham, and a pineapple slice. It’s like a Cuban sandwich inside an arepa with a pineapple slice!

Q: Another lockdown food highlight?

A: Yes, I have a balcony in my apartment, so I harvested tomatoes and chiles. I have a Mexican friend who gave me chile seeds from Mexico. I am really happy and excited about my harvest.

Q: Do you think the pandemic made us realize how important it is to get back to nature?

A: Yes. It wasn’t until I moved to London that I noticed the amount of plastic consumption used in food packaging. In Colombia, you have street markets or vegetable food vendors who sell fresh produce. They have their trolly and a megaphone that they use to advertise their seasonal produce. The pandemic has also put climate change front and center. The fact that air travel came to a halt was a good thing for the planet. This break was needed. This crisis put a lot of things in perspective and made us appreciate what we were taking for granted.

Q: Have you been working on new music?

A: Yes. I have been working on a lot of new material. I’ve had the time to develop and explore new ideas, also ideas that I had started but never finished. These tracks deserve to be heard and be part of my discography. I’ve been doing a series of collaborations with a lot of interesting people that I’ve met the last few years, mostly artists from Latin America that have been coming to Berlin. I went to  Mexico in 2019 and met some great people too. I am going to be releasing a series of collaboration singles.

Q: Who are some of the artists you are collaborating with?

A: I am super excited about these artists. We have a great vibe together so I wanted to do something with them. House of Tupamaras, a vogue collective from Bogota, then there’s Esla Brava, an amazing rapper and singer from Argentina. There is a collaboration with Colombian electronic artist Cero39, Tayhana, an exciting and upcoming producer who is Argentinean and is based in Mexico.

Q: Comfort food that you miss from London and Colombia?

A: From London, I miss curry houses. I have not found a good curry house in Berlin. I tried a lot of curry places here, but I was disappointed, so I said fuck that! When I lived in London, I used to eat curry at least once a week. You usually eat it for dinner. The owner of the house I lived in, knew the owner of the local curry house in our neighborhood, I could call from any number, and he knew it was me. He recognized my voice immediately. It was great because they would always add something extra, like a chutney or sauce. I miss that sense of community, being part of a neighborhood. It is easier to go back to England, I usually go every two months, so I have not eaten good curry since the pandemic began. I also love HP sauce, it is made with tomato, malt and spirit vinegar, sugar, spices, dates, cornflour, rye, and tamarind (brown sauce named after London’s House of Parliament). Eggs with HP sauce is heaven!

From Colombia, oh my god, where do I start! I miss Buñuelos (cheese fritters), empanadas, Pandebono (Colombian cheese bread). Everything can be deep-fried or baked, you can buy them as street food or in bakeries. We have something called empanadas de iglesia (church empanadas). The empanadas were sold by priests as a side hustle and the proceeds were used to support the local church. You had these ladies outside of the church selling them on Fridays and during the weekend. The empanadas de iglesia are much smaller than the average empanada, it is the perfect snack food. You can buy them by the dozen. The filling changes depending on which region you are in in Colombia. The classic filling is a potato with hogao (a type of sofrito used in Colombian cooking).

It is also very traditional in Colombia to set a big pot of Aguapanela (fusion of water and hardened sugarcane pieces) first thing in the morning. You can drink it hot or cold. You can use it in your porridge. Aguapanela is the base used to make hot chocolate. You use a chocolatera (a metal high-necked shaped pot that comes with a wooden whisk used to make hot beverages) and then you add pieces of dark chocolate.

Then with your hot chocolate, you eat “un algo” (Colombian slang for a snack or something to eat) like the empanada de iglesia, or arepas or some sweet bread. 

Q: When did music become a way of life for you?

A: I’ve had a love for music since childhood. My parents had a great record collection and I listened to music all the time.  I would record myself singing boleros over my mother’s cassette tapes. As a child, I was always writing lyrics, very simple but I was always writing. It was later in life when I decided to be a musician. I ditched my studies as an industrial designer and moved to London, I always thought I would work as an industrial designer. I also studied theater and did some acting. I loved making films and videos too. I saw Djing as my hobby. The first time I realized I could make a living as a DJ I was living in London and I met the !WowoW! art collective. I met this crew and they were all going to Camberwell College of Arts in south London. In London, I was making videos and I started working in post-production. I was working in Soho, I wanted to work as a producer and ended up working as an editor. This collective was squatting in a building and they were dedicated 100% to making art. They didn’t have jobs and didn’t want to pay rent. It was all about making art. I never lived with them but I hung out with them a lot. It was a very creative environment. During that time, I always had a video camera with me and I got to document a lot of that. They would find these amazing places where they would do exhibitions. Whenever they did these events there was always a party and Matthew  Stone and I were always DJing. Coming from Colombia, I was still in that mind-frame that you need to have a career and make a living, and DJing was not a career. In my head, I had these social hang-ups, I thought that I just can’t be an artist, I couldn’t be a DJ! Once I started hanging out with these people and saw how they were completely going for it, I realized that yes, I could be a DJ if I wanted to. That’s when I quit the job that was going to take me somewhere I was not interested in going to. I didn’t want to become an editor and end up in an editing suite, being in the dark all day, editing commercials or series for other people for the rest of my life. That’s not what I wanted to do. That’s when I decided to pursue my artistic side, making videos and DJing. Once  !WowoW! collective ended, we created Girlcore Collective, and we curated all-female line-ups. I knew I could be a DJ but I thought I couldn’t be a musician. A musician for me was somebody that had been studying and practicing music since they were 4 years old. Now, technology is so accessible that using a digital audio workstation is easy. You also don’t need crazy amounts of money to be in a recording studio, you can have your studio. You can improvise, be more resourceful and experiment with what you have.

Q: What were you playing at those parties?

A: I was playing everything. Baile funk, reggaeton, new wave, house. We also started experimenting and making our edits and remixes.

Q: Isa, the 9 to 5 employee is gone and now Isa the DJ is born, how would you describe your sound or your style?

A: It is very cliche to say this but my sound is very eclectic. It is very eclectic because it is the sum of so many different influences. When I was younger I listened to a lot of new wave music and then I started DJing house music. I grew up in Colombia so I love all those Latin rhythms like Salsa and Merengue. I’m from Medellin and Medellin loves Salsa, like old-school Salsa, Fania. I’ve always been very open to music. There are not many rhythms or genres that I can’t stand. I just think what’s important is the way music is delivered. There are ways to present music to people, if the music is good, people will know and feel that the music is good. If you move from this to that smoothly you can embark on a sonic journey. I can never be stuck in one genre of music, I just love all types of music. My roots will always show up in my work, for example, if I’m doing a remix it will sound like techno but with a Latin twist. To always be in one direction or to be in a certain music genre, I just don’t find it exciting. I just do what comes from the heart.

Q: You moved from London to Berlin and began to carve out your corner within Berlin’s electronic music scene. You hosted a radio show on Berlin Community Radio called Musicalia and began a series of club nights. Can you tell us the concept behind your Delicia Latina and Puticlub parties?

A: I had a night in London called Musicalia, the concept behind Musicalia was to play a specific genre of music. For example; Musicalia Miami Bass, I would invite someone who would only play Miami Bass and I would create a DJ set based on that, or a Musicalia 90’s new jack swing or a cumbia Musicalia. Once I moved to Berlin, this idea was always in the back of my mind. I got together with a friend and we created a party called Delicia Latina as an excuse to see each other, invite our friends and play the music we loved. Another reason was that as a queer person I wanted a safe space for queer people to enjoy themselves. Whether you’re in Latin America or abroad, Latin parties are dominated by macho culture, kinda tacky, hook-up places for straight people. So with Delicia Latina, I wanted to have a fun queer vibe. We did Delicia Latina for about 4 years. Puticlub, which began in 2019, is a QTPOC Latinx night where I wanted to explore the Latinx culture, a party that created a safe space for a non-binary, non-gender conforming audience. Puticlub is a party where you can be you. I named it Puticlub because I am pro for the legalization of sex work.  We bring and support this type of talent to our parties. Another reason that influenced my move to Berlin was seeing things more political. These parties have a political background to them, people come and support them because they feel represented by our concept and support the causes behind it.

Q: Can you explain what perreo means? 

A: Un perreito! Perreo is how you dance to reggaeton music. There’s a lot of grinding involved but you can perrear alone. Or it can mean to get it on with someone. Like I had a perreito with this person! There’s a bit of sexual connotation to it but it is mainly used to dance to reggaeton music.

Q: A perreo could be like a hookup? 

A: Yeah, a perreo can be a hookup as well!

Q: Do you think the dance music industry has become too complacent? Given everything that’s happened with the #metoo movement, BLM, and recent news about famous DJs being accused of sexual harassment, do you think it’s time for the electronic music scene to also change?

A: Definitely! There is a lot of accountability to be had. These people need to be held responsible for all the shit that they’ve done. Is good that women are coming forward and speaking out against these rapists. As a woman and a woman of color, it has never been easy so I am really happy that there are so many female DJs now because before there wasn’t. There was a time whenever I DJ’d where there were always these dudes with crossed arms in front of the DJ booth watching my every move, to see if I was DJing, they were just waiting for me to fuck up.

Q: Did you feel you were being judged by the boys club?

A: Yes. For many years the role of women in dance music was just as a singer. Your voice was used but they weren’t open to women being DJs and producers. Electronic music is also a reflection of society. These social movements and campaigns have begun to change the mind of promoters and curators, now more women are being featured in club nights, in festival line-ups, and parties. Groups like Female Pressure have been campaigning against the disparity of women in electronic music. The industry has started to give more opportunities for POC, not enough but at least it’s a start. I think that it is really good that all these things are coming out in the open because we need to change them. Take the outcome of Red Light Radio in Amsterdam, they don’t exist anymore because of how they treated the talent. We need to create a new conscience, a new way of thinking. Change is happening, slowly, but it’s happening. 

Q: Do you think that eventually, the dance music industry will become less elitist? 

A: I hope so. The whitewashing, the abuse, and cultural appropriation are like a never-ending cycle of colonization. We need to push forward these ideas of anti-colonialism. I am very open and vocal about political issues that I support. For example, with Puticlub, we were donating proceeds from the entrance to Ni Una Menos Berlin (Latin American feminist movement against gender violence).

Q: Does dance music have the power to make a dent in society for the better?

A: Yes. Let’s use Berlin as an example, for years this city has been making so much money due to nightlife, clubbing, to club tourism. People got organized and created the Berlin Club Commission (a network for Berlin’s club culture). Gentrification has become an enemy of nightlife. An increase in rent makes it impossible to keep a club open so real estate developers seize the opportunity to tear down these buildings and develop luxury housing. These people got together, collected the data and statistics and met with the government, and presented how much revenue the city was making due to club culture. So the club commission creates the conditions to preserve and develop Berlin’s club culture. Organizations like these can be very useful and can help push to create a change. 

In February, I invited a Colombian collective called La Pachangona to Puticlub, the last Puticlub party before the pandemic began. La Pachangona created the campaign Perreo Conciente, the main objective is to promote the freedom and expression of the body, highlighting the importance of reggaeton’s sensuality. People are very critical of reggaeton because of the lyrics but who’s saying that the lyrics have to be interpreted against you. You can sing it and not be offended by them. 

Q: Colombia has claimed its place within South America’s electronic music scene, now it’s just not only Argentina and Chile setting the tone. Bogota has become the capital of hardcore and drum ‘n’ bass, what has been happening in other cities?

A: I don’t know much about Cali, I’ve hardly been to Cali. For me, Medellin is the capital of reggaeton. You have world-renowned musicians like Maluma and J Balvin who come from Medellin. Given Colombia’s violent history this resurgence is not new to us Colombians. As soon as more people began traveling to Colombia word got out about the Colombian music scene.

Q: How proud were you to see Shakira play the Superbowl LIV Halftime Show?

A: I love Shakira, I love her so much! I don’t follow or like American Football but to see Shakira live on that stage and to know the whole world was watching was so exciting, I remember I cried, I was so proud!

Q: What did you think of her music choices, the mix of genres?

A: The fact that she brought out Afro-Colombian dance rhythms to the world stage like mapalé and champeta was amazing to see, it was a proud moment for all Colombians! Mixing her hits with rock n roll classics like Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir or salsa classics with reggaeton was great! For me her show was flawless, a lot of thought went into her performance.

Q: Isa, that’s it! Thank you for talking to us.

A: You’re welcome! Did we talk enough about food?

Q: We sure did, so much that I’m hungry!

Isa GT Website
Isa GT Label
Isa GT Soundcloud
Isa GT Radio Show
Puticlub