Lost in the damp greenhouse with DJ and artist M I M I

DJ and interdisciplinary artist M I M I, who has Maria Muehombo written on her passport, meets us at the platform of the impressive train station Liège Guillemins. The exact same moment our attention is drawn to the colorful stickers at the immense ceiling - attached by conceptual French artist Daniel Buren - she calls our names. Liège is the city where she grew up and studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. She chose Les Serres du Jardin Botanique de Liège as our meeting point, but our unexpected encounter in the train station means we get to familiarize ourselves during the 1.3km long walk towards the gardens. Maria is not just an interviewee, she is also interested in me and photographer Jente Waerzeggers. Her natural flair and calm aura immediately stand out and set a relaxed mood for the rest of the morning we are about to spend together.

Deeply inspired by nature, Maria has chosen Les Serres du Jardin Botanique de Liège for a reason. It’s here that she often has found peace of mind; a place of quiet in a lively city. Even after having moved to Brussels - the reason why we got off the same train - she enjoys returning to the gardens. Before taking a tour through the damp greenhouses, we sit down in the charming indoor terrace of Le Péristyle, an adjacent building hosting the reception, a bar and plant shop. Maria jokes hoping not too many people will read the interview, keeping the spot a quiet and hidden gem just as it is now. We tend to agree.

Maria, why are we in Les Serres du Jardin Botanique de Liège ? Maria: It’s really my go-to place, I come here at least twice a month, it’s a place where I feel safe. I used to study not far from here and then often wander around. I discovered the greenhouses when I was 16 years old, not realizing they were accessible to visit so I was actually illegally entering the perimeter almost by accident, just out of curiosity. With my friends at the time we used to hang out in the park next to it, but no one seemed to be interested in the greenhouses. 

Have you ever done field recordings here?  

Maria: No, I have never worked on music here. Mostly writing and reading. It’s a nice place to think, quietly, without being distracted by other stimuli. 

Is quietness important to you?

Maria: Yeah, I think it is. As a counterbalance to living in the city, being a DJ, working with sounds. I have always been attracted to concerts and music has always been part of my life. My dad plays guitar and keys and my mum sings. Our house was always full with sounds, my parents were always jamming with friends and playing or listening to music from all over the world. Quiet never existed, in a way. Music is my day-to-day habit, but I do appreciate silence as well, I believe it’s necessary. Through my practice for Buddhism, I’m also drawn to silence and its value. 

Can you tell me a bit more about what Buddhism means to you?

Maria: I have always been attracted to the symbols of Buddhism, without really knowing what it was all about, such as the Buddha statue or the Zen practice. A few years ago I really started studying Kagyu Buddhism and found my way to retreats or the temple. Silence is an important part of the practice, often remaining in silence in the morning, allowing my system to recalibrate. 

This reminds me of the life and work of the American artist Arthur Russell. Active in the vibrant New York of the seventies and eighties until he sadly passed away in the early nineties, Russell was also very much inspired by Buddhism, which had a direct influence on his instrumentation. Is your music practice also influenced by Buddhism?

Maria: Yes, definitely. Sometimes I even play mantras in my DJ sets, because it just matches well. And in my own productions I really find a link with sounds that I hear when I’m at the temple, such as gongs, subtle bells or chimes. Amid the silence of the temple, sounds are always performed deliberately and intensely. I’m very sensitive to them. Just as Buddhist practice, music is also very ritualistic. I sometimes compare the role of musicians and DJs with shamans, being in control of the heartbeat of the room. It’s a super powerful position. 

You use samples and sound recordings in your DJ sets and often break out of the four-to-the-floor structure. Is there a specific reason why or goal you have in mind?

Maria: I don’t even know why. When I’m DJing, I’m channeled by something and I don’t know where it will bring me.I do make a selection beforehand, but it’s never very premeditated. Lately I’m trying to analyze my performances, to come to a better understanding of what I do, why I stop a track at this or that point. It happened that an audience was dancing and I abruptly stopped a track to move into another vibe, which is not always very collaborative and engaging towards the dance floor. But sometimes I don’t want the people to dance, I want them to feel. (laughs)

Your DJ-set is a kind of performance?  

Maria: I think so, yes, that’s why I’m very attracted to performance arts as well. I do appreciate spending time in clubs and I can do something also in club spaces, but I find other spaces, spaces that are deconstructed, more accessible and more interesting for experiments.

Are today’s audiences welcoming such experiments? 

Maria: Definitely, the new generation is very open-minded. I really witnessed a change here over the past few years. Maybe it was after the pandemic, that something unleashed itself. It feels quite recent. In Buddhism and spiritualism in general, the idea of the Aquarian Age is often debated, where the new generation is more in tune with themselves and since they are born in radical times, they are less forgiving. They have to think about their future and act.  But I don’t know if there is a correlation between the new generation’s open mindedness and my urge to deconstruct a DJ set. 

How do you relate to contemporary club culture?

Maria: I don’t really consider myself a good DJ. Looking at other amazing DJs, I don’t see DJing as my biggest skill, not in a purely entertaining manner. I’m always trying to find the right balance between entertainment and performance. I sometimes wonder though if my tendency to deconstruct is sustainable in an economical way. Will promoters book me bearing in mind that they won’t exactly know what will happen? Everyone desires to put labels on what they buy and sell, on who they hire for their events. On the other hand we live in an era where the cult of personalities is very important, due to social media. So people follow you for who you are, which is a beautiful and a very dark thing at the same time.

Your musical selections are always very large, as if there are no boundaries. What’s your musical background?

Maria: My parents are citizens of the world, they brought many different styles of music into our house. When we arrived in Liège, we soon met the Angolan and Zambian communities which are respectively the origins of my father and mother. Angolan music such as Kizomba or Kuduro was always around when I was young, but just as well Latin and Afro music or my mother’s love for Frank Sinatra, Hitchcock movie soundtracks and R’nB. As a teenager, my older sister was into rock, so I started listening to rock as well and went deeper into the darker sides of the genre. I used to do screamo in a band and I used to go to Magasin 4 in Brussels to do mosh pits. I was always the only black girl around. (laughs)

So rock, metal, R’nB, gospel, hiphop, Japanese music … I really like music from all angles. Six years ago, when I started DJing, I was thoroughly introduced to electronic music. Put all of this together, et voila.

How much work goes into preparing a DJ set?

Maria: It never ends. If I hear something, no matter where I am, I write it down. It’s a constant creative process. Just as DJ sets feel like channeled from within, my music choice is intermingled with my daily life, who I am. The sound recordings I use during my sets are always self-recorded. I could just as well take the same sound from a sample database, but there is something about the intention of doing things, which also sets the mood. People can feel that there is something different about what they hear. 

I heard a track from you on a compilation called Intentions Vol. 1 for Berlin label NIA. Is that something we can expect more from you?

Maria: Yes, for sure. I don’t know how yet, but I’m experimenting with sounds and we’ll see where it goes. I feel a strong urge, but I also feel very vulnerable, not sure why someone would be interested in the music I create. I’m struggling the most with the purpose of my music, whether or not it should fit in a club for example. 

Maria invites photographer and musician Jente Waerzeggers to the conversation, asking him about his emotions when releasing music. We then descend the stairs into the greenhouse, where she prefers to be photographed in the nofacesky philosophy. 

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