Under the glow of crimson light, Sofia Kourtesis holds a crowd of 200 fans in the palm of her hand. On this late September evening, the Peruvian producer has accomplished a seemingly impossible task: getting the audiophiles, techno zombies, and European house heads who frequent the sleek Brooklyn venue Public Records to actually dance. Kourtesis has pulled two club kids on stage, and one of them has been voguing to the beat alongside her for the past 20 minutes (she’ll invite the same fan to dance during her opening set at Flume’s concert the following week). As her song “By Your Side” filters out of the high-end soundsystem, the audience throbs, jumping up and down and vaulting their arms in the air, a numinous bliss engulfing the room.
That participatory, audience-first ethos is the thrust of Kourtesis’ artistic philosophy. “At the end, you make music for the people, so the people have to be in your music as well,” she tells me a year later on Zoom, reflecting on the show from her home in Berlin. Kourtesis talks with her hands, and her nails—pointed, white, manicured almonds—seem to punctuate every syllable. Her winged eyeliner is just as sharp, but there’s a softness to her speech that tempers the spikiness. A single rosary dangles in the corner on the wall behind her.
In conversation, Kourtesis moves fluidly between Spanish, English, and German. She’s magnetic and quirky in every language, a daydreamer by design. These days, she is embracing a creative mode centered on sentimentality. “Less perfection, more corazón, hermana. That’s the motto for my next year, professionally,” she explains. It’s a departure from the rigid, cerebral concerns that characterize so much of the techno world. “I can’t really play 140 BPM techno,” she adds, before backtracking. “I can do that and I dare say that I do it in a good way, but I also love to put my heart in this. If the way that I express myself was all the way intellectual, it would not be me, and I would lie to myself.”Kourtesis is a steadfast champion of electronic music’s pleasure principles. Her songs are intimate, euphoric, and full of promise, like climbing up a seaside cliff and gazing out at infinite ocean waters. In 2021, she released Fresia Magdalena EP, a semi-autobiographical collection of iridescent house tracks that conveyed a sense of nostalgia for her hometown of Lima and paid tribute to her late father, who died of leukemia. The EP landed her high-profile sets at Primavera Sound and Glastonbury, as well as an opening slot on Caribou’s UK and European tours last year. While Kourtesis had a local following in Berlin as a curator and performer at the city’s storied Funkhaus venue, Fresia Magdalena catapulted her into the international electronic landscape.
Kourtesis has lived in Germany for more than two decades now, and has gradually cultivated a home in her corner of the Berlin electronic scene. She’s been preparing the release of her debut full-length Madres, which lifts samples and field recordings from a library she’s amassed over the last two years. Like Fresia Magdalena, it is verdant, steeped in color and yearning—the kind of music that thaws any and all frigidity and reminds you of your aliveness.
She left Peru at the age of 17 in part because of the homophobia she faced at her conservative Catholic school after she kissed a female friend. “They sent me to the psychiatrist, to the priest,” she explains. “I remember the next day, girls were not allowed to sit next to me… All of my friends didn’t wanna talk to me, and I really felt bullied.”
A longtime Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders acolyte, she dreamt of studying at the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg. But at 17, she was too young to enroll in the directing program, so she pursued communications instead. “I always say that I’m a frustrated filmmaker. That’s why I make so many collages,” she says of her composition style. “I see the song before I write it. I dream it. From seeing it, it goes into a feeling. And from the feeling it goes to the melody.”Madres reprises that compilatory technique. It is dedicated to Kourtesis’ mother, who was suffering from a cancer diagnosis while Kourtesis toured off the acclaim of Fresia Magdalena. Between tour stops, she would go back to Peru whenever she could to take care of her. One track is named after Peter Vajkoczy, the award-winning neurosurgeon who saved her mother’s life. After several other doctors refused to perform a risky operation, Kourtesis posted a clip of a song on Instagram, stating that she’d dedicate the track to Vajkoczy if he would operate on her mom. Through friends of friends, he saw the story and agreed to do the surgery, which Kourtesis’ mother survived. She invited him and his colleagues out to the beloved Berlin nightclub Berghain one night a few months later as an act of gratitude. “I could see him shine,” she recalls of his dancing. “I didn’t even take MDMA or anything.”
Madres is a conductor of memory and an archive of itinerancy. Before Kourtesis’ father died, he made her promise to travel and document her excursions across the globe. She calls Madres her version of The Motorcycle Diaries, the film based on Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s travelogue—only her expeditions were aerial. Kourtesis chatted with people at marches, or spoke to them on their balconies, collecting their stories and conversations along the way. She attended protests in Peru, flew to Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala, and even visited the Ballumbrosio brothers, heirs of iconic Afro-Peruvian traditions like the zapateo dance and the cajón, which were pioneered by family patriarch Amador Ballumbrosio Mosquera. Ballumbrosio’s son gave her a tour of El Carmen, which remains a stronghold of Afro-Peruvian culture. He also allowed her to include some of his cajón playing and vocals on Madres. “I really wanted to have the people that I was meeting on this journey on the album,” she explains. “I wanted to have a little bit of everything, to make my best salsa electrónica.”
Ultimately, Madres is a snapshot of Kourtesis’ commitment to vulnerability. “I felt that I needed to break this stigma for other people who are going through similar feelings,” she says of the album’s themes of caregiving, family, and survival. “I was so sick of being in this techno world where everything seems so cool and perfect. ‘Cause that’s not the truth.”
Sofia Kourtesis: My heart and my romanticism will always be Peruvian, but the power to move is always German. [Peruvians are] silly. We’re goofies, you know? Yesterday I went with my mom to my psychiatrist. My mom is very Peruvian, very dramatic [laughs]. Seriously, the conversation started with her saying that I wanted to kill her with an overdose of pills. [In mother’s voice] “She wants to kill me! She’s giving me an overdose of vitamins!” But you know, the way that they say it, they don’t mean it. The guy was like, “Why is she giving you medicine without a [prescription]?” How do you explain this to a German guy? He was completely confused already. It is very funny because they’re more rational and very solution-oriented. And some of my Peruvian family are more dramatic. It’s a beautiful combination.
It was beautiful but painful because [when I played her] one of the songs, “Si Te Portas Bonito,” she had an epileptic [attack] and a heart attack. Every time I release an album, something weird happens. I’m very superstitious now.
But she’s a big fan. She’s my best critic. She loves to dance to the music, so I’m happy that she can come to the live shows soon. But it’s a painful thing to talk about family. I wish [when my dad was sick], more people could have openly talked to me about how they were feeling. Nobody really talks in the music scene about caregiving. And nobody tells you how hard it is. Looking after a baby is super hard. But your parents, when they become fragile, it’s such a horrible feeling.
Latinos, we have our good sides and our bad sides, but it’s very beautiful that we always think that our parents are our pillars. In Germany, some of my friends said, “Hey, would you put your mom in a nursing home and visit her once a month?” I could never do this to my mom. Putting her in a nursing home and just visiting her once a month—that would break my heart. I respect every culture, but one of the beautiful things about Latin America is that we really worship our moms. They’re like our little saints, you know? Even if they tell everybody that we wanna kill them [laughs].
The day I met him, my life changed so much, because he was like a UFO of hope. He said, “I’m gonna do this, and when she gets better, music is gonna make you feel better again.” The way he devotes his life to rescuing people and taking so many risks—if there were more people like him, this world would be completely different. When he looks at you, he really looks in your eyes, he feels you. You can really tell that he cares, you know? It was because of him that I really changed the complete perspective of my life. To value when people are with me, to give them more time, to understand them, to give them all my best.
Because there’s always one heartbreak that will change your life completely. It was 10 years ago, and it hurt me so much because I felt that my life was over. It was so important to write about that feeling now that I’m over it. It’s also important to have a little bit of my individual world next to the most important thing, which is my family. It was a beautiful relationship, but a painful breakup. It’s like somebody’s dying. Somebody that was your companion for five years who you loved immensely, who you would do everything for. Then they’re out of your life and you will never [hear] about them anymore.
I’m my mom’s mini me [laughs]. She always took me to protests, so I knew from [a very young age] how we have to protect our compañeros who are more vulnerable than us. And all my aunts are like that. They’re very communist. If there was a Bernie [Sanders] in Peru—
I feel like I’m not good enough because I’m not as active as they were. Sometimes I feel that I need to educate myself more to really make the right comments. I only communicate, post, and share. That’s not brave enough. Every week they’re out in the streets where the job has to be done. That’s what I love about how passionate South American parents are: They’re for the people.
If I tried to be perfect and a workaholic, I would not be here anymore. It’s very important that people in the electronic music scene know you can be imperfect. Show who you really are. I respect all of my friends who do electronic music beautifully and perfectly. Well-produced and hard. But sometimes I really want to ask them, “Are you not stressed about having to [be perfect] all the time?” You know, doing these beautiful organized posts about this festival and that festival? There is a lot of pressure because it’s an industry that is very difficult to be in and to be [en vogue] all the time.
I used to try to please the industry more. Now I care less. When I was playing in these very important clubs, I felt like, “I have to play the coolest, nerdiest sound.” And then I said, “Nah, I’m gonna combine some of my rhythms, and if they don’t book me again, I will respect and understand that.” But if they book me again, then I can be free to be who I am.
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