Giving DJs 

How an SF jazz singer crashed the electronics-heavy Red Bull Music Academy.

San Francisco jazz vocalist Michelle Amador is organizing an impromptu studio group of backing vocalists for a Latin-tinged dance track. "Okay," she says to one, "that last take sounded great, but this next one needs a bit more of the low stuff." To another: "Try to hit the final note -- you're a bit flat." She smiles, then looks out into the mixing room. "We need you all in here," she says, pointing at the two nonmusicians staring in from the couch in the control room. "No watching."

It's Amador's first week at the Red Bull Music Academy in Rome. She is one of four Americans picked from thousands of applicants to attend the first of two sessions of the annual program (sponsored and masterminded by the famous energy drink), which focuses on producing and performing electronic music, whatever form it may take, from tech-house to mainstream hip-hop. This is the eighth annual session, each in a different city around the world -- last year's invaded Cape Town, South Africa, while the previous academy was held in São Paulo, Brazil.

It's a big jump from these music-centric towns to Rome, a historic metropolis lacking a particularly current dance-music scene. "I think that a project like this, in a country that is also so interested in institutions, can help this culture to move on," says Red Bull organizer Many Ameri, sitting on a couch in the academy's headquarters on a narrow back street of Rome's old Jewish ghetto. The building that houses this year's academy was once a monastery, then a school; most recently, it was home to a city-recognized cultural and music center. "If you look at the Italian music and club culture, you have one part that is very strongly driven by tourism, which led to discotheques and the big megaclubs," Ameri says. "Then you have a tradition of cultural centers and squats doing parties. It's quite interesting to be in a building like this, which was also related to that environment, to signalize that we're not interested in the superficial, glamorous world. We're interested in the people that are into it for the passion."

Instead of trying to train DJs to be world-renowned club-hoppers, the academy focuses on giving a jump-start in a broader music education to up-and-coming DJs and electronic-music producers. Though, in keeping with its substance-over-success attitude, the program doesn't boast about the progress of its past participants, the presenters and instructors' credentials are enough to establish its credibility. In the past, Red Bull has had everyone from members of the hip-hop group Jurassic 5 to Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizer. This year's speakers included Philippe Zdar (one-half of the internationally acclaimed French house duo Cassius) and underappreciated disco guru Leroy Burgess.

For two two-week sessions each year, the academy's organizers invite those established electronic musicians and pioneers to speak to and collaborate with up-and-coming student participants. But the program's focus on the electronics of music makes Amador -- a classical pianist and vocalist who has never DJed before -- both a novelty and a commodity for the program. She applied to Red Bull on a whim after seeing an ad on a music listserv, but admits to initially being apprehensive.

"In the beginning, I wasn't sure that I belonged," Amador says, sitting in the academy's outdoor courtyard. For her application, she submitted tracks from her DJ-tinged jazz band, Michelle Amador and the True Believers. "Just because I'm in a different musical genre, I wasn't sure whether they got that I wasn't playing every note on the tracks.

"It goes both ways," she continues. "I think what intimidated me was my knowledge of the pop world. I don't really know who the best DJ of '83 was. You don't know what kind of environment you're stepping into. In the jazz world, there's some jazz snobs. I'm sure you find that in any musical genre. I think I was worried that I was going to enter into that thing, or it would be like the hip-hop world, where you have to just 'know things,' and if you don't, you're not cool, and you're silently outcast."

But when Amador got to Rome, she quickly realized that having a real, live human to collaborate with was a dream come true for many of Red Bull's participants, some of whom had never used anything but samplers. Even before she got on the plane, they were hitting her up for collaboration potential. Emma Holmes, a hip-hop scratch DJ from Britain, first connected with Amador online. Within the first few hours of meeting face to face, the two were talking about working together; by the end of their first week at Red Bull, they'd collaborated on a Brazilian-influenced electro cut. "She's so sweet," Holmes says of Amador. "It's ... magical."

Maybe so -- or maybe Amador's Peruvian family's long-standing music tradition gives her a bit of an edge. Her uncle, Ezequiel Amador, is a retired classical violinist and former longtime member of the San Francisco Symphony; her father, Augusto, is a lifelong composer and concert pianist. When the young Michelle began to show a serious interest in music, her father set her on a rigid course of his own design -- one she credits as giving her the diligence to pursue a musical career. "I basically was in a boot camp, where it was like, 'Wake up, it's time for you to practice,'" she recalls. "He had me on this total schedule of scales. It was broken down by five-minute intervals -- five minutes you're going to do this, five minutes you're going to do that. It was really hard -- your parents are like, 'You're not working hard enough,' and you're like, 'I want to cry!'"

It was an even greater challenge when Amador expressed interest in singing. Her father told her, "Look, not everyone can be a singer,'" but Amador persisted, and began exploring jazz vocal classes. "They had a live trio, so I could test out my tunes right there. I learned a lot of singing techniques in that class."

Amador has used those techniques with the True Believers, a Bay Area mainstay. Her songs have the sophisticated soul of early jazz singers such as Etta James with the restraint of more contemporary vocalists like Cassandra Wilson, but the band may have more in common with a group like Portishead, thanks to its penchant for downtempo beats and a DJ who provides scratching and samples that complement Amador's voice, rather than distract from it.

Which brings us back to the RBMA studio, where Amador has just finished the final take of her backing-vocal-heavy song. True to form, it's a group effort; though her voice is the prominent leader in the studio, on the track, she ends up a mere part of a wider effort. It's that loosening of egos that gives the academy its free-for-all atmosphere -- an atmosphere that, for a presumptive outsider like Amador, has become anything but restrictive.

"Great job," she says, giving her new collaborators a wide smile. "Great job."

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