Remixing Music, Shining a Light



For Sara Skolnick ’04, aka DJ Riobamba, remixing music is a social cause. She uses her place behind the turntable—actually a high-tech CDJ set-up that mixes and manipulates digital music—to amplify and celebrate immigrant voices. Skolnick, who is Lithuanian-Ecuadorian, began performing in 2010 in Boston as Riobamba—named for the city in Ecuador near her mother’s birthplace. She also co-created Picó Picante, a recurring club night and dance party that wound its way through Boston’s various neighborhoods. In 2013, Skolnick received a Fulbright-mtvU grant to study the intersection of digital music and communities in Bogotá, Colombia, and how the democratization of music production and distribution transcends politics.

Now living in New York City, Skolnick recently launched her own record label and creative agency, Apocalipsis. In October, the label will release its first album, Anta, by Ecuador-based artist amaF alaM. The label’s slogan, “ní de aquí/ní de allá,” translates to “neither from here nor there” and speaks to the heart of Skolnick’s mission: to promote artists from diverse backgrounds and cultures who are often subverted and underrepresented in mainstream music.

How did you discover your passion for remixing music?

I found a community of DJs and producers remixing Latin American and diaspora music, which woke up some part of me that identified as a third-culture person, meaning that I grew up somewhere else away from my parents’ homeland. Then I started looking for remixed culture online, and I found clubs and parties where the music was appearing in real time. I felt like I found my people.

Why is it important for you to amplify immigrant voices?

I think it’s essential work now, more than ever. Especially with this current administration and the DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] program being pulled recently. It’s time to step up and really consider what it means to be an ally. And at the heart of our work is, in the most basic way, affirming the right for people to live and thrive here. As far as music, for me it’s about affirming the right not only to exist, but also to be visible, to take up space. And to remind people that associations with the word immigrant shouldn’t imply crime or poverty.

Tell us about Picó Picante.

We said, “We’re gonna have a traveling dance party, and there will be a sound system up on bicycles.” What kind of spontaneous interactions and opportunities for joy would come out of that? We had people that were jumping on the bikes with us, and riding through other neighborhoods, or just stopping in the park and starting dance parties. This project opened up other questions about segregation in Boston, and the geographical distance between communities. This was our dance-party-based solution to cutting through some of that to create spontaneous points of interaction.

What’s it like for you as a DJ when you have everyone dancing?

DJing is actually really meditative. I feel like I’m in my body, and being present, and sort of channeling the energy in the room, and I’m responding to that. When I play music specific to certain cultures and regions, it’s the best feeling when someone recognizes the song and they feel really seen and represented in that moment.

What inspired you to launch a label?

I want to see a broader scope of representation in the music industry. When it comes to Latin music, at least in the United States, the vast majority of representation tends to be male and light skinned. We can do much better. I really want to shine a light, and rep for those of us
that exist between multiple cultures and identities at once, and to celebrate the richness of that experience.

How did your time at Williston contribute to your path in music?

Williston showed me that creativity and collaboration doesn’t have to follow a traditional path. It can be nonlinear, interdisciplinary, self determined for whatever that career path means to you. I think Williston gave me the confidence to know that an artistic discipline can have equal parts of seriousness and playfulness to it. I was also in an environment that valued diversity and social justice, and since day one those have been really essential values to my practice.

What are you listening to?

There’s a remix that just came out from Afro House producer Jose Marquez of a Ray Barretto song called “Indestructible.” It was originally recorded in 1973, and this new remix, via the label Sonia, is a comeback song. It’s about triumphing through heartbreak and the challenges in life, but also the strength that’s shining through. I’ve been thinking a lot about the DACA Dreamers. It’s just something I have on repeat and probably will have on repeat for the foreseeable future.

Photo credit: Guarionex Rodriguez Jr.