Party Work

Party Work

The upstairs room at 168 York Street Cafe was filled with bodies bouncing, hands in the air, while the music thumped and pealed, rolling from chorus to chorus with locomotive reliability. But if you studied the DJ, a willowy, spectacled woman known professionally as Ch’Varda, you saw the tactical busy-ness it required to keep the train running. She leaned around her mixing board, working knobs, buttons, sliders and jog wheels, scanning the library of song on her laptop, auditing one or two in her headphones, working all the movements into her own dance to a beat she had just set in motion. She was driving the train while laying the tracks in front of the train.

She was also conducting. “I look into the crowd and I try to make eye contact with some of the people that’s in front of me and sometimes I hype them up and try to get them to dance a little more,” Ch’Varda explains. “And as soon as I see or hear everyone in unison singing the song, then I know that that was a good one to drop.”

Song selection is the curatorial job of a DJ, but the cornerstone of Ch’Varda’s art is beat-mixing, the live, without-a-net blending of one selection into the next. Some dancers won’t sense the transition until it’s already occurred, while others will study and appreciate the feat in real time. It can seem like a single song had simply changed its mood, or blossomed a new and more shimmering chorus.

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For that magic moment, practiced DJs will have already prepared the next track by lining up beats and tempos, so they don’t sound like two marching bands arriving at the same intersection. But even savvier DJs will be planning their next transitions like a series of chess moves, selecting and adjusting the earlier track for the anticipated followup. “So when I mix a Bad Bunny song in,” with its Latin trap and reggaeton sounds, “I make sure that I have music in the same range tempo-wise and instrument-wise so that we’re not thrown off completely with the genre or just the change… I feel like it was about two to three songs that I chose before I dropped that one in.”

Then there’s the second-by-second management of the transition itself, crossfading in steps while—for instance—turning the treble knob down for one track and turning the volume and the bass knobs up for the next. EQ adjustments enable Ch’Varda to choose which elements in the two songs will greet each other first, whether it’s the departing hi-hat and the entering bass or soaring vocals and a synthesizer drone. “Sometimes it gets a little crazy… I’m using both of my hands and I’m trying to cue up the song and I’m changing the EQs and moving the fader at the same time. So I use probably about, how many fingers? I have 10; I probably use about eight fingers at once—just for that one transition. All that for a transition.”

The result for Ch’Varda in the York Street parlor that night was a kind of benevolent mind control, spurring revelers who had been casually bobbing in conversational circles into full-on ecstatic shimmying. “I mixed in ‘Amapiano’ . That’s like an elevated version of Afro beats. So I would mix ‘Amapiano’ and the house music together. And when I did that, it was actually pretty dope—to see everyone still kind of catch the beat because it was so tribal.”

The dance party was playfully billed as Meet UR Next Ex by its organizers at East Rock House, a collective for queer and trans artists and patrons. Hired to provide the music for it, Ch’Varda had prepared by downloading some songs—“a party vibe, more love-y stuff”—and categorizing her vast library for a floor of people, like herself, in their 20s. She never predetermines a playlist, but she always has a plan. “I’m not playing the best of the best music so early in the night. I like to be gradual with it… I’m like this hour is going to be more calm, I do ’90s music. And then the second hour, I go more modern—2000, things that people grew up listening to… And then… sometimes I mix it up when I’m going current, between 2018 and 2023…. Afrobeats and house music and just a lot of pop and some hip hop, some R&B.”

Ch’Varda graduated from Southern Connecticut State University in 2017—one year before the music she marks as current—with a degree in Psychology under her real name, Jazlyn Council. “I actually just wanted to be a licensed professional counselor. And get my cert in drug and alcohol counseling so I could serve the community that way. But when I graduated, it was hard getting into the field, so I found myself in banking. I was a maid at one point. And then I just figured that, you know, I just want to go ahead and follow my creative heart.”

Council had been making beats in college, electronic musical sketches that helped relieve the stress of exams and due dates, so she appealed to her uncle—a Grammy-winning producer and veteran Brooklyn-based DJ who goes by the name Muzikman Edition—and he helped set her up with a mixer and software. “My first gig was a divorce party. That was really fun… trying to play songs that will uplift and the people around her… because she got out of a tough situation… I don’t remember the songs, but I remember playing a lot of Missy Elliot. And Beyoncé.”

As DJ Ch’Varda, she makes frequent appearances in the city of her alma mater. She’s played the Arts & Ideas Festival and Seeing Sounds Festival stages as well as Yale Bowl tailgates. Accommodating different audiences expanded her library. Her expanded library then brought new music to different audiences. In the four years since her professional debut, she’s traveled to all of Connecticut’s major cities, most recently New London for the opening of 6th Dimension, an Afrofuturist multimedia exhibition at Connecticut College. “And I found Hyperdub music, a futuristic type of music, and I’m gonna start incorporating that in my sets because, you know, people need to hear this stuff.”

Ch’Varda is equally attuned to the past, “because you realize that every genre is just a continuation of another genre.” Her uncle’s career had begun in the 1980s, when a 2-track mixer was connected to two turntables and an emerging DJ beat-mixed manually, by rotating vinyl back and forth under needles with a razor-sharp sense of timing and placement. Ch’Varda regards this era as foundational. “I would like to learn as much as I can on the turntable so I can integrate that with what I know now. It’s just like showing your work when you’re doing a math problem. When I’m DJing with my controller, I’m not really showing my work… But me being the person I am, I really appreciate that manual process… The writing out your problem and solving it.”

Turntables are a way for a DJ to turn more decisively into a performer. Scratching turns the medium itself into a percussion instrument. And whereas Ch’Varda prides herself on mixes that hide her brushwork, she also plays with what she’s playing, building tension, for example, by ostentatiously slowing a track down or adding reverb. She closed the night at York Street with what she calls “quick mixes”—transitioning into 3 or 4 new songs in less than a minute, every chorus transforming into another song’s verse, to boost the energy level on the floor.

She also performed perhaps her most theatrical effect of all, akin to a plate spinner taking a bow while the plates are still spinning. “I was playing ‘Move Your Body’ by Nina Sky and I went through the crowd. I was dancing through the crowd and I was asking people… ‘Are they having a good time?’ Everybody was kind of surprised to see me there. I kind of popped up. And they’re like ‘Hey, aren’t you doing the music?’”

Written by David Zukowski. Image 1, featuring Ch’Varda DJing the 2020 CT Arts Heroes Awards, photographed by Joel Cintron. Image 2, featuring Ch’Varda at 168 York Street Cafe, photographed by David Zukowski. Image 3, featuring Ch’Varda DJing the 2022 Seaside Sounds Festival, photographed by A Sage Called Sunshine.

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