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Tigerbalm: sphere of influence

Photo of Tigerbalm wearing a red frilled gown and reaching towards the camera.
Credit: Andree Martis

London’s Rose Robinson, working as Tigerbalm, relied on her global travels as inspiration for last year’s acclaimed ‘International Love Affair’ LP on Ubiquity. Now, with a remix LP in the shops and new music on the way, the world is taking notice

It’s always a bit tricky when artists from the West, the old colonial powers, adopt global influences into their productions. At its worst, it can come off as slapdash, banal, and even exploitative. But when it’s done right, it can feel thoughtful and holistic, adding layers of meaning and depth to the music — and Rose Robinson, working as Tigerbalm, is one of the music makers who is doing it right.

"I’m quite spiritual,” she says, speaking over Zoom from her London home near Victoria Park, “and for me, I see my music as a healing thing. It’s not an ego thing. I want to feel a certain way, and I want to share that feeling. I want other people to feel that goodness. And that’s what I’m trying to put in the music. I want to include everyone and every culture, because everyone’s welcome in my music. There’s no specific formula to what might come out of it as I grow — but there is a political message, I guess, in that we are all equal, and everyone is welcome.”

The debut Tigerbalm album, ‘International Love Affair’ (released late last year on the Ubiquity label), is certainly welcoming. The album’s rhythmic template, generally speaking, falls into the mid-tempo house bracket, but the vibe follows the path of Robinson’s personal travels, from Brazil to Bali, and from Morocco to New Zealand’s Waiheke Island, among other locales.

Ubiquity has just released a full 14-track remix album, succinctly titled ‘International Love Affair Remixes’, boasting versions from a wide range of notables that includes Antibalas co-founder Chico Mann, the earworm-house specialists of Session Victim, cosmic kingpin Danielle Baldelli, and synth-chug maestro Emperor Machine.

“It feels like a real journey,” Robinson says, “but I didn’t think it’d be such a big release. It was during lockdown, and I had so much time and so did other people, so most people I asked just said yes. And Ubiquity was like, ‘Let’s just release them all!’ I didn’t realise quite how much was going to come out of it, but it also is a sign of how many people were wanting to support the project.”

Tigerbalm mixing behind the decks with blue strobe lighting.

Robinson spent her earliest years in and around the musical hub that is South London’s Brixton, but by age eight, her family moved further south in England, to the decidedly more bucolic environ of Groomsbridge, in Kent. “We lived in the gardener’s quarters of an old manor,” she recalls. “Green, green, green, country, country, country, nature, nature, nature.” Her parents had an extensive record collection. Her mother was into disco and funk; her father was more into classic rock à la The Doors and Led Zeppelin; salsa and Afro-Latin were the common ground. It came in handy, years later, when Robinson had begun spinning vinyl.

“I was like, ‘Oh, you’ve got amazing disco,’” she says, “and ‘Oh, you’ve got amazing rock and roll!’ And there was a lot of stuff like Funkadelic and fun, funky rap, and lots of reggae.” In her late teens, Robinson made the move back to London to study psychology and neuroscience. “I ended up going out with this boy who was running parties,” she says. “And that was it. I was immediately out clubbing all the time. It was like, ‘wow, London’s pretty wild!’ And I remember thinking, ‘ooh, I can do this!’ So while I was studying, I bought CDJs and a Pioneer mixer and would do after-parties, basically like living-room parties. Just milling around like that, I just taught myself to DJ.”

Robinson began spinning around town at speakeasies and small venues, eventually gathering musical threads that ran the gamut from ’60s retro material to Afro-Latin sounds to disco (both nu- and real-deal varieties) to electro and house. DJing went on hiatus when, post-graduation, she took on a day gig at the W Hotel as head of marketing and events — but her life was soon to take a turn. She’d begun messing around with production — “milling about with Ableton,” as she puts it — when she met up with Izaak Gray, who ran (and still runs) the hi-fi sound firm East London Audio. The pair became partners, in both music and life.

“We were so connected, totally in sync musically,” Robinson says. “We would constantly be discussing music. I’m bringing records home, he’s bringing records home, playing them to each other, basically me and him introducing each other to sounds — our whole love for each other was built around music. We were just so deep and besotted in the process. And we both loved Italo disco as well! Eventually, it was like, ‘Let’s just make music together.’”

Tigerbalm producing in a blue-lit studio.
Tigerbalm at Fish Tank Studio, Hackney

The result was Earthboogie, which between 2017 and 2019 released a well-received series of EPs and a full-length album, ‘Human Call,’ on the Leng label. The roots of the Tigerbalm sound can already be heard in those releases (with a dose of Italo disco tossed in for good measure) — but as often happens when the personal merges with the professional, it was not to last.

“We were engaged, we’d bought a house in Margate, and we were trying to figure out how our careers would work together,” Robinson says. I was DJing, and wanted to expand on Earthboogie, but Izaak’s East London Audio thing was keeping him really busy. We would book studio sessions, and then he’d be off out doing a rental or something, and it was a lot of tension. I felt artistically frustrated because I couldn’t work at the pace I wanted to work at. I went to New York for a residency, and though he never said it, I don’t think he was happy about that. And when I got back it was like something had changed. It just didn’t work out.” It was a challenging time, Robinson admits. “I had to start again,” she says, “and it was really hard emotionally, but I used all of that sadness and anger, and was like, ‘I am going to make an album.’”

Her first track as Tigerbalm, ‘Ello Koko,’ came out in 2020, and she hasn’t looked back. Following the release of ‘International Love Affair Remixes’, she plans to finish up work on a second album of original tracks for Ubiquity, with an increased focus on live elements and collaborations. When Robinson is asked about what her future might hold, she pauses for a beat and then lays out a stream-of-consciousness action plan.

“I want to release more albums and explore my sound,” she begins. “Making music is like a real thrill for me. And I’m starting to play in the clubs I want to play and the dancefloors I want to play. I want to play the gigs that bring me joy, for dancefloors where I can really share my music. Like when I was playing in Brazil — it was like 4,000 people and, wow, that gave me such a high. I want to keep going, and keep growing. I want to be able to get to that space where I have a connection with the crowd, not on an ego level, but like a spiritual level — the energy you receive from a crowd, it’s just so cool.”

Robinson goes on, reflecting on the happiness that working with live musicians brings her, and her desire to incorporate wellness — ecstatic dancing, therapeutic movement medicine, and the like — into the Tigerbalm experience, and more. In the meantime, there is a summer of releases ahead, including an EP for the Razor-N-Tape label, a Super Yamba Band remix for Ubiquity, and a track on the upcoming ‘Crazy P presents Summer’ comp; the gigs are coming as well, including a launch party for ‘International Love Affair Remixes’ at 17 Little Portland Street in London, and another for the Razor-NTape EP at NYC’s Public Records on 22nd June. The world, it seems, is hers.

Want more? Read our recent feature on how Kelly G laid the blueprint for 2-step garage in the nineties

Bruce Tantum is DJ Mag’s North America editor. Follow them on Twitter @BruceTantum

Studio photo taken at Fish Tank Studio, Hackney