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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

A hip-hop journey through the halls of the Louvre Abu Dhabi

On Wednesday, the artist better known as Lobito Brigante will become the first turntablist to appear as part of the museum’s live cultural programme

James De Valera, AKA Lobito Brigante, is the first DJ to perform at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National.
James De Valera, AKA Lobito Brigante, is the first DJ to perform at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National.

There are a lot of reasons James De Valera may look familiar. You might have seen him tearing up the dancefloor in a sweaty Dubai nightclub, or furiously scratching records at an international street dance competition. Or perhaps spotted him behind the decks at a five-star hotel’s rooftop lounge, or providing eclectic soundtracks to artsy cultural events across the emirates. You might have even caught De Valera on tour in Europe backing vintage US hip-hop group The Beatnuts.

One place you won’t have seen him, or any DJ, before is the Louvre Abu Dhabi – but on Wednesday, the artist better known as Lobito Brigante will become the first turntablist to appear as part of the museum’s live cultural programme, performing over two nights alongside audio-visual cine-pop hybridists Love and Revenge, who pay tribute to the golden age of Arab cinema with a mix of projections and live music.

For his own closing set De Valera is digging deep into his crates – which pack more than 20,000 vinyl records – taking cues from the global sweep of the museum’s stockpiles and exhibition plans, promising to drop Arabic funk, Japanese jazz, Afrobeat and other cross-cultural curios.

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“For me, the true art of DJing is to have enough musical versatility to walk into a space, be inspired and channel something,” says the artist formally known as Break DJ Lobito. “On the technical side, you can get as granular as you want – it’s really all about selection.”

A lynchpin of the UAE music scene for the past decade, De Valera has previously played to five-figure crowds warming up for Snoop Dogg and Sean Paul in Abu Dhabi. But such commercial engagements are not the goal for a nimble-fingered traditionalist who sees DJing as a sacred, if malleable, art-form.

Closer to his heart, the Spaniard was the creative force behind outdoor cultural happening Street Nights Art – which showered Dubai’s JBR and Al Quoz with beats, b-boys, graffiti artists and food trucks – and is the founder of the Deep Crates Cartel, hosts of an influential weekly night at Casa Latina which propelled the underground clubbing movement between 2011 to 2014. “I stole it,” he admits of the Deep Crates moniker, name-checking a pair of obscure hip-hop documentaries.

If you do recognise his face from somewhere, but didn’t recall the Lobito brand, it’s probably not your fault. De Valera prefers to let the music do the talking, and describes social media as a “repository of the subconscious mind” he’d rather live without – like his heroes, crate diggers and scratch DJs from hip-hop’s golden years.

His pedigree in the genre runs deep. While still an Arabic student at SOAS, University of London, De Valera warmed up for visiting A-listers including De La Soul, Slick Rick, Pharoahe Monch, and spoken word pioneers The Last Poets – and found time to play turntables in a band with Cypress Hill’s Eric Bobo, named Cultura Londres.

Arriving into the embryonic UAE scene of 2007, De Valera took a distinctly DIY approach, organising a string of pioneering b-boy battles – including 2011’s Battle of The Year Middle East at The Dubai Mall – believed to be the first of their kind in the region, and was later recognised as a “regional cultural leader” by the British Council. As a promoter, De Valera has brought hip-hop heroes such as Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Public Enemy’s DJ Lord over to spin in the emirates, as well as global groove icon Quantic and reggae legend Horace Andy, and co-organised 2012’s The Do-Over headlined by Aloe Blacc.

“I was forced into it,” says De Valera of his promotional achievements. “When I first came over here and presented myself to people as a DJ, I got zero response. Over the last ten years, I’ve spent time building the kind of events I wanted to play.”

No stranger to gallery crowds, De Valera co-organised Art After Dark at The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai – where he served for a spell as the hotel’s music director – a spin-off of the official DIFC Art Nights after-party, which catered to a certain species of culture vulture. It seems not the least bit jarring that the evening after the second Louvre show, on May 4, he will play an annual tribute to legendary hip-hop producer J Dilla, a PopUpclassics gig at restaurant Tom&Serg.

“I’ve DJ’d to big crowds, in luxury hotels, dive bars and art galleries,” adds De Valera. “It’s all just music, and music is universal. We create these structures and genres, and I guess the ultimate goal is to try and expand people’s perception and taste. If I really boil it down to what moves me at the deepest level, it’s that I have experienced this journey in music, and I want other people experience and discover things as a result of it, too.”

Lobito Brigante performs after Love and Revenge at Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Auditorium Plaza on May 2 and 3, 8pm, tickets Dh150 from www.louvreabudhabi.ae

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