Gambo Stephan Vohito, better known as DJ Stephan, is more than just a DJ. He's part of a select few who use the medium in a different way, crafting mixes that preserve and celebrate cultural traditions, using music as a tool to educate and enlighten.
Part cultural ambassador and part diplomat, Stephan has united Indiana's African population through music and dance for over a decade.
That is no easy task. Africa is the second largest continent on earth and perhaps the most diverse; it's home to more than 50 recognized sovereign states, with well over 1,000 languages spoken.
Developing a working knowledge of the continent's music en masse, while staying up to date with developing trends, is a task of monumental proportions.
But Stephan is up for that challenge and he tackles it with apparent ease. I visited the DJ at his weekly Saturday night African music party at FSA (a nightclub located on the city's Westside) and I was impressed with his ability to swiftly cycle through a dizzying variety of styles.
A popular Ghanian azonto song
"That has been my strength, to be able to unite everybody," he said. "I see myself as a bridge for African music."
A native of the Central African Republic (CAR), Stephan credits his homeland for providing him with an open musical mind. Located in the heart of Africa, CAR is a crossroads for many cultural influences. "Coming from Central African Republic, we don't have a dominant music style. Some African countries have a very dominant style, like coupé-décalé in the Ivory Coast. But we don't have a dominant music, so I learned to play everything."
Stephan's passion for music began as a teenager in CAR.
"I used to always watch Yo MTV! Raps, I stayed up to date with all the American music," he said. Fueled by his love for hip-hop, Stephan began using cassette tapes to DJ parties for family and friends.
But it wasn't until he arrived in America that he began to take DJing seriously. Stephan emigrated to the United States in 1994 to attend college.
It was during his time as a student at IUPUI that he began to notice a need for African music DJs in Indianapolis. "A lot of Africans don't have access to African music when they come here. There was a demand for it and that pushed me into it," he reflected.
Since then, Stephan has become an important figure in the cultural life of Indy's African community, providing music for a variety of occasions, from holiday celebrations to weddings. He also hosts a weekly music program for Radio Tongolo, a web-based radio station located in France.
To get an outside perspective, I spoke with Walle Mafolasire. Walle is a young Nigerian-American entrepreneur who frequently attends Stephan's events.
"I don't know many DJs who can cater to the music and culture of 52 different countries, but Stephan does and that's what makes him truly unique. He plays an important role in the appreciation of African music in Indy," Mafolasire explained. He added, "To appreciate Stephan's work, look at him through the lens of the Americas. Imagine he was Canadian, yet he was able to keep up with all the different genres of music across the North and South American countries."
Despite his accomplishments, Stephan has bigger ambitions. "I have a lot more to do. I want to promote African music on a larger scale. I want to play on FM radio in the U.S. I want to help change the face of African music. That's my main goal."
Stephan's aspirations are in sync with a rising tide of interest in African music. With Somalian rapper K'naan producing a string of hit singles and news of Nigerian star D'banj signing to Kanye West's record label, African music is experiencing an unprecedented level of success in America.
Nigerian pop star D'banj
"We are coming. We are not going to take over, but we are coming," Stephan said, with a smile. "If they show our music on television even one time in America, it's over. Because any time Americans hear African music they like it. It's addictive."
You can hear DJ Stephan on Radio Tongolo every Friday afternoon from 3-5 p.m. and catch him in person every Saturday night from 10 p.m.-3 a.m. at FSA Bar & Grill. Stephan also has a website featuring the latest hits in the African music scene.
A Cultural Manifesto Podcast Volume 4 with DJ Kyle Long:
1. Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba - Bambugu Blues (Next Ambiance, 2011)
2. Mo Kolours - Banana Wine (One Handed Music, 2012)
3. Fatoumata Diawara - Bissa (World Circuit, 2011)
4. Cheikh Lo - Jamm - (World Circuit, 2011)
5. Noumoucounda Cissoko - Noumou Koradioulou (Nomadoc Wax, 2012)
6. Baloji - Karibu Ya Bintou (Crammed Discs, 2011)
@bobp - I would recommend the great Chilean MC Ana Tijoux for starters... for Argentina…
could someone please recommend me some Chilean/Argentinian/Latin American, hip hop? cheers!
Shout out to Chilean Hip Hop!! The man has great taste and an ear to…