Written by Jeffery Taylor
When you listen to Alyson Calagna, whether on a dance floor in New York, Rome, or Bangkok; at the gym through your iPod playing her latest podcast; or as you walk down the street streaming one of her songs through her new mobile app, you can’t help but move. Her beats are infectious, her sounds sensual, and her mixes sublime. This East Coast DJ with a West Coast soul travels the world connecting people through her music and building an ever-growing tribe of followers.
Calagna recently headlined at the Gay Village, a summer festival in Rome complete with bars, restaurants, crepe stands and gelato booths, as well as two huge stages. Alyson found herself right at home onstage in front of this crowd. “It’s really refreshing musically, because I can completely let go,” says a DJ whose House sound especially resonates in Europe. “There’s so much freedom when you’re playing for a huge, mixed crowd.” This particular congregation is even closer to Calagna’s heart because of her Sicilian heritage. “It feels like a homecoming,” she says.
Her real home was originally Houma, Louisiana, an hour south of New Orleans. From there her family moved to Baton Rouge, then Dubai, then Aberdeen, Scotland, where she first encountered House music. Alyson recruited some guys to back her as Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses in a lip-sync contest hosted by her school. She won, but it was a performance of Black Box’s “Ride on Time” that changed her life. “What is this music?” she remembers asking. “My quest went on from there.”
The following year, Alyson and her family moved back to Louisiana, this time Lafayette. She learned how to DJ from a friend who worked in a local teen club; by age 17, she had landed her first residency at a local bar, Images. After moving to Fort Lauderdale, she DJ’d at Power 96, a local Miami radio station, but couldn’t land any club bookings. While working at a record store, she met a guy buying equipment for a club he was building in New Orleans and gave him a demo.
Having no luck in South Florida, Alyson decided to move back to Louisiana, but almost immediately was ready to decamp to Minneapolis. The night before leaving, Alyson got a call from Mike Mazer, who owned the legendary South Beach club Salvation, asking her to spin a lesbian party. When she told him that she had moved back to Louisiana, he told her he was opening up a new club in New Orleans called 735.
When Mazer called the manager of the new club to tell him about Alyson, the manager told Mazer that he had met this girl in Florida named Alyson and really liked her demo. She got the job. “735 was the greatest residency that I ever had,” says Calagna. “I would play 12-hour sets every Saturday from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m.” The Bourbon Street hot spot propelled her career; before long, Mazer was also booking her at Salvation in Miami.
She particularly loved the Miami sound; Latin percussion and rhythms were what had drawn her to South Florida in the first place. Soon enough, she started to branch out, to Nation in D.C., Miami’s Crobar, and Circuit parties like Miami’s White Party after-hours, Gay Days’ Arabian Nights, Montreal’s Blue Ball, D.C.’s Cherry, Dallas’ Purple Party, Detroit’s Motorball and even Bangkok’s Songkran.
This past year marked two significant achievements in her career: headlining the Winter Party main event in Miami and making her debut at Alegria in New York. “Alegria for me is one of those huge milestones,” says Calagna. “It’s been on the list for a really long time. As far as the U.S. goes, there’s no better place for my sound. I love percussion. I love deeper stuff. It’s what moves me the most.”
An After-Hours Sound
She particularly enjoys the late-night/early-morning slot, going on at 5 or 6 a.m. “It’s like church to me,” she says. Playing at that time at the mammoth Alegria parties is an ideal slot. She says it’s very freeing “to be able to go and play the music that I play to a crowd that just wants it.”
After playing Memorial Day in New York, impresario Ric Sena selected Alyson to play at the first-ever Alegria in Los Angeles with Ralphi Rosario this past Labor Day weekend. Now Alyson is on the roster to share the spotlight with Abel at Alegria Halloween. Abel, whom Calagna affectionately refers to as “Papa Bear,” will start it off, but she’ll get her favorite slot, the closing hours.
“For me, as much as I love vocals, I love instrumentals just as much,” Calagna says. “If you hear vocals all night long, I feel like you’re being told what to feel, whereas when you hear instruments, you are the writer. You hear your intuition. You get to hear what that voice is telling you.”
Spirit of the Beat
Calagna feels a connection to her own inner voice when she’s on the mat practicing yoga, which she started about eight years ago. Her yoga and meditation practice have affected her profoundly, both as a person and as an artist. Two years ago, Alyson released Omtronica: Music for the Seeker, combining the pulsing beats of house music and Middle Eastern soundscapes with Sanskrit chants, the poetry of Rumi, and messages of inspiration. “Omtronica is that mix between my spiritual path and music,” she says. She recently released the second volume, inspired by her experience playing at Buddha Bar in D.C. this past New Year’s Eve.
She was nervous to release Omtronica at first because she wondered what people would think of something so personal. But she decided that this was her expression as an artist: “Now people know who I am on a personal level.” That, in turn, has deepened her connection to her fans, opening up a dialogue between them: “It’s become this really cool exchange of knowledge between what I know and what they know. I didn’t know we shared a lot of the same core belief system.”
Calagna refers to these fans as the Tribe, fellow seekers who follow her on her journey both on and off the dance floor. “It’s so much more for me spiritually than it is just about the music. The Tribe represents that for me, a sense of togetherness,” she says. “We’re all there to go on this ride together.” She communicates with the Tribe via her Facebook page (DJ Alyson Calagna), which has almost 6,500 fans, her Twitter account
(@djalysoncalagna), and through her Omtronica Blog at http://www.omtronica.com where she shares her insights and inspirations.
Firing on All Cylinders
Calagna has kept pace with technology as well as music. She’s developed her own mobile app (for iPhone and Android) that brings everything together in one place. Find out about upcoming performances, access her blog, read her tweets, buy her music — all without leaving the comfort of your phone. You can even listen to her latest podcast, Momentum, from the app.
Momentum encapsulates Calagna’s current club sound. Her original podcasts, House Blend and Sunlife, which Calagna created around the Winter Party main event, are also available on iTunes. The different podcasts show her range and versatility, from sunny, jazzy uplifting grooves to deep, dark, progressive house.
In addition to working in the studio on her own music, Alyson is currently working with producer Flynn Nolan on a track called “Lost in the Music.” She works often with Jose Spinnin in Mexico. She also worked with Barry Huffine as The Housekeeperz; in 2003, the duo produced a track called “Wurkin’” with Ceevox.
To really get the feel for Alyson’s House blend, you have to hear her live, surrounded by like-minded souls as she takes you on a journey through the darkness and into the light. She will be in New York for Alegria Halloween on October 30 at the Nokia Theatre. The following weekend, she’s spinning at Hell & Heaven in Bahia, Brazil. Check her website, http://www.djalysoncalagna.com or he,r app for other upcoming gigs.