Portuguese hip-hop pioneer? Decades-long resident at iconic club Lux Frágil? Richard Akingbehin hangs out with a low-key legend of the Lisbon scene.
I returned to Lux a couple days later to see Yen's Saturday afternoon set on the terrace. Watching her play, everything we had talked about, and the level of respect dance music fans in Lisbon have for her, made sense. Her cool, concentrated air was of a consummate professional cruising through another day at the office.
Yen started with soulful numbers like Barrington Levy's "The Vibes Is Right" before drawing on foundational deep house cuts like Inner Life's "Moment Of My Life." Thoroughly charmed and impressed, I was left wondering why her reputation hasn't spread further.
Born in Beira, Mozambique, to parents with Portuguese and Chinese backgrounds, Yen moved to Lisbon in 1977, fleeing the Mozambican civil war that followed the end of Portuguese rule. Life as a seven-year-old in Lisbon was hard at a time when Lisboetas weren't used to seeing Africans and would call her names in the street. The resilience that came with migrant life had a lasting influence on Yen. It built on her formative memories of music in Beira to create the kind of character you needed to be a Black, woman DJ in the '90s.
Yen pursued a career in art and jewellery until she found her calling in Frágil, a now-mythical club in Lisbon's Bairro Alto district. "There was a metal door, you rang a bell, and the bouncer would open a small window to look at you," she recalls, "and then they would close the window. You still wouldn't know if they were going to open the door and let you in."
Inside was a simple, tiled space for around 400 people, with a tiny DJ booth above the bar and a ladder going up to it. The year was 1992. Yen was a regular on the dance floor there, the coolest nightclub in Lisbon, full of young kids, intellectuals and people from the art scene.
One day, in need of extra money to spend the summer abroad, she approached Frágil's owner, the late Manuel Reis, who sat on a stool near the entrance every night. "I asked him for a job in the cloakroom. He replied: 'I don't need anyone for the cloakroom, but I need a DJ.' I was like, 'OK! I will try.'"
At the time, clubs in Lisbon bought their own records for the DJs to choose from. Yen went to practice a couple times in the afternoon, then came back on a Wednesday night to perform. "I was shaking and sweating, but I did it. Just fading in and out from one record to the next, playing everything from A Tribe Called Quest to A Guy Called Gerald, Primal Scream or Massive Attack." At the end of the night, the main DJ, Nanao, asked if she could come back the next day. Then the same again. "On the third night, he said 'you're hired.'"
Soon, house music began to dominate the clubs, and with it came the need to play whole sets of beat-matched music, as Frágil's other DJs Zé Pedro Moura and Rui Vargas—who are both still residents of Frágil's successor, Lux—were already doing. Yen needed to learn on the job, which she did exceptionally quickly, playing every week, buying her own records and sharpening her skills.
"When Manuel Reis looked at me and said 'I need a DJ,' it wasn't by chance. He was a visionary and knew from seeing me in the club that I had a sense for music."
From there, things moved fast. While developing her residency at Frágil, another bar owner asked Yen to put on a weekly acid jazz night. "Why do acid jazz? Everywhere is playing that," Yen told him, "I think we should do a hip-hop night. He just said: 'I'm out.'"
Yen decided to do it herself. She took the then-necessary step of partnering with a man and began approaching other bars to do a hip-hop night, with Darin Pappas (AKA rapper Ithaka) as the doorman and Yen as the DJ. "I was the first hip-hop DJ in Portugal," she tells me in a characteristically nonchalant way.
Yen moved her parties to a warehouse in the Santos district, which immediately gained a reputation and was packed out every time. She started flying to London to buy records, searching Mr Bongo or Rough Trade for titles you couldn't find in Portugal. As well as her usual sets, she would play instrumentals and host an open-mic session for budding MCs.
"Word spread fast," she said. "Every hip-hop kid in and around Lisbon knew that this was the only spot to hear the music. I was just doing it because I loved it. Only later when these kids came up to me and said they had been there, I realised we were doing something special."
It wasn't long until nightlife's occupational hazards showed up. "For me, being a DJ was already… you know… but there were a few tense moments that scared me. Hip-hop was a very masculine thing then. I didn't feel safe, not only because they could do something to me, but also because something could happen to anyone at any moment."
In 1992, the same year Yen started DJing, local hip-hop outfit Da Weasel approached her to be part of their group. Through a connection made at Frágil, she was also invited to Berlin to be a resident at WMF club. She used her month-long holiday allowance from Frágil to visit Berlin but returned from the cold hoping to find her place within Da Weasel, singing or finding samples. With a rollercoaster first year in music behind her, she left Da Weasel, content that the blossoming residency at Frágil should be her sole focus.
In 1998, Frágil moved to its current home, Lux, in need of a bigger space. Lux's three stories are adorned with abstract artworks and have the air of a creative playground where anything goes. The bar staff wear bright, colourful jumpsuits. Every visiting DJ's name has been inscribed onto rainbow-striped pillars. There's an enormous moon hanging above the stairs, and the words "I was here the whole time" have been carved into a wall by a local artist.
The magic of Lux's predecessor continued almost instantly, helped along by Prince playing there a month into the new venue's story. For the first ten years, Yen played all vinyl, all night, every weekend, cementing her place at the core of her second home. "When we moved here," she remembers, "I had the feeling that I could do what I wanted musically, that I could experiment. Downstairs it was clear that it was going to be house music, but up here, I could open up even more."
Every Lux resident plays both upstairs and downstairs. The luxury of a large group of residents means the bookers Rui Vargas, Pedro Fradique and Dexter can choose based on the guest, rather than the resident having to bend into shape.
"The staff and DJs were really chosen for a reason," Yen says. "That's why the team has stayed together since the beginning. We had to learn to work with each other. It's the only way a place like this can stay alive for so long."
It was refreshing to hear Yen speaking in such collective terms. The club's manager, Lúcia Azevedo, is her boss. She has a yearly salary, obeys the club rules and feels no more or less important than any other staff member.
Yen has had her residency every week for 30 years, which works out roughly at around 1,500 sets. There's a whole room in her home for the records she had to buy each week to keep it interesting. "You need to inspire and challenge yourself to keep on doing it," she said. "It's not always something new every time you play, but you have to keep on searching. Doing what you do but trying to sound fresh."
Yen's niche among the club's ten residents, most of whom play some form of house or techno, is an open-minded interpretation of modern Black music. She honours her African heritage through a love of rhythm and the simple philosophy of making people dance (and through her designer African wax print kimono brand, Curry.) Whether playing four-on-the-floor music downstairs or more eclectic selections in the concert room and terrace, she wants people to know who is DJing from the moment they walk in.
All these years into Yen's story with Lux, there are certain tracks that the club's faithful will forever associate with her, such as "Days Like This" by Sean Escoffery, "Tessio" by Luomo (AKA Vladislav Delay) and a handful of Omar-S records. These are Yen Sung classics, heartfelt house tracks she has made legendary sunrise hits in Lisbon.
Photonz, AKA Marco Rodrigues, a renowned DJ and producer from Lisbon's younger generation (and Yen's collaborator on new label Alphabet Street), joined us at Lux and helped shed some light on Yen's influence when she was too humble to go deep.
"She is an icon," Photonz told me as Yen shyly listened. "Her sets are always a surprise. When I first started going out, Lux had just opened, and the residents here exposed me to a whole different attitude towards dance music. Everyone has their club and their story of a eureka moment. For me, Lux and Yen were a huge part of that. She played without barriers, maybe some Phil Asher or Masters At Work, and then would just go straight into a funk classic or Neptunes production. I remember being here with my older brother, listening to Yen play, and looking at each other like, 'how is this viable?' The whole atmosphere. It was so genuine, different and daring. Her sets embodied that pure love of dancing and DJing."
Rui Vargas, the club's lead programmer and resident, told me his first impression of Yen in the Frágil days was the way she could keep the party going with ease and a smile. Nowadays, if he is "looking for a more organic sound of house, rooted in the history of Black music, Yen's the one."
"The musical identity of the club was developed over the years by the residents, above all," Vargas continued. "Yen is an important piece of the puzzle, bringing a feminine, intuitive approach to music, anchored by the knowledge and understanding of Black music."