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It was only a few months ago that we were getting our first taste of who Kuya James –translated from Tagalog meaning ‘Older Brother James – is.
In March, the Filipino-Australian producer, known off-stage as James Mangohig, released his debut single ‘Sabaw’ – a collaboration with fellow Northern Territory musician Serina Pech – with a simple mission statement in mind, to “put an Asian face in Australian mainstream culture”.
Speaking on the single and the beginnings of his new musical project, James said, “I want young Asian people and those of mixed heritages to feel like they are represented in spaces they otherwise might feel like they are excluded from. I don’t want them to have to compromise any part of themselves in order to achieve their place in the game…The sounds I create are inspired by a mix of musical cultures, just like my biological heritage. It reflects our Australian existence.”
Now he is showcasing some more of his Kuya James stylings on second single ‘Trust’. Teaming up with fellow Northern Territory singer-songwriter Emily Wurrumara, through a shared Filipino heritage the two deliver a pure, magical moment of Filipino pride.
Both of these singles, alongside more stunning collaborations, will feature on James’ upcoming debut album EST 1987.
While Kuya James is only two singles deep, Mangohig has been involved in the music scene for quite some time. He was half of electronic-soul act Sietta – alongside Caiti Baker– played bass in TZU, and on the producing front he has worked with the likes of Daniel Johns, Jessica Mauboy, Briggs, Gurrumul, Caiti Baker, Stevie Jean, and Tasman Keith.
We sat down with Mangohig to get the inside scoop on Kuya James.
The Kuya James Story
From the beginning
Kuya James: “I started making music when I was really young as I grew up playing bass guitar in the church band. Producing was a whole other thing, I started that when I was 18, realising I wanted to be a part of the overall music and direction of songs rather than just playing basslines.”
What you’ll hear
Kuya James: “I love tough stomping beats and big bass sounds. Being a bass player I always loved the way basslines and the feeling of a sub made people feel things, especially on huge PA systems. The sound I’ve been working on for the Kuya James album is very focused on beats and production to enhance the songwriting collaborations on the record.”
Influences & inspiration
Kuya James: “Musically, fellow Filipino Chad Hugo from The Neptunes has been a huge influence on me and still is. He’s also the reason I started DJing as I saw an interview with him where he spoke about producers needing to DJ, even just for fun to learn about how music impacts different people.
“Other inspirations at the moment are Chef Roy Choi, Ruby Ibara (Filipino American Rapper, Emcille (a new artist I’ve been working with who raps in my father’s language and she’s also an amazing dancer). Pretty much anything Star Wars but right now The Mandalorian Disney Gallery series which is the nerdiest most exciting thing to watch how they put the show together.”
For the love of music
Kuya James: “I love the writing part – I don’t have a specific template on how I do this so it always feels exciting, and then sometimes you just hit this rhythm, chord progression, or melody and the buzz is a solid reminder of why this music thing is necessary in life.”
Kuya James: “I’ve spent the last four years getting to travel to Taiwan and work with different communities over there, which also inspired me to connect with the Filipino community here in Darwin again.
“The reason I feel this is such a highlight is that when you’re an artist creating because you need too, and then you feel this other level of purpose that you get to channel your art into or raise awareness through, well, that is also where music can feel dangerous and part of a revolution.”
The hard yards
Kuya James: “Spending a chunk of time trying to write with a more pop mindset and produce things that didn’t feel as natural to me, all while being completely broke in a very cold and grey Melbourne winter. I acknowledge how lucky I am now to do music full time, so reflecting on those moments is really important to me.”
The year ahead
Kuya James: “My album comes out on Friday 14 August and then I hope to put some different style Kuya James shows together. Working at Skinnyfish Music and Settle Down Records is inspiring but always busy, so time management is key to the plans happening.”
“I’ve only released two songs under Kuya James so I’ll pick something I’ve produced as well.”
Kuya James – Trust ft Emily Wurramara
“I recorded these vocals with Emily in a friend’s lounge room in Hobart three hours before getting on a plane back to Darwin before the COVID lockdown.”
Kuya James – Sabaw feat. Serina Pech
“The film clip was shot in the Houhai Dumpling House in Clifton Hill, Melbourne. The owner only spoke a little bit of English but he turned to me at the end of shooting and told me through an interpreter what he thought the clip and song meant, he completely nailed it and to this day I wish I recorded the conversation as it felt really special.”
Caiti Baker – Worth It
“This song is the theme to the Bird’s Eye View podcast which is the first of its kind, made with women in the Darwin Correctional Centre. I produced the track using mostly sounds and samples created in the prison.”
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