Ibiza clubbing: Graham Sahara – A personal journey
On April 24, 1997, a just-turned 20-year old lad from Birmingham jumped on a plane to Ibiza for the first time with nothing more than a suitcase, a bag of records and a dream of becoming a DJ. “I didn’t really think things through back then,” Graham Sahara admits. “I didn’t know anyone, didn’t have a clue about the island… I didn’t even book a hotel, just a flight! I just thought I’d get off the plane and go right, let’s do this!” Thankfully a sensible tip from his mother ensured he found a place to stay for two weeks while initially finding his feet and looking for work, then kismet took care of the rest.
21 years later and Graham Sahara is perhaps one of the most well-known, respected and loved DJs and producers on the island, so intrinsic is his presence to the island’s musical and party scene. As one of the longest-running resident DJs at Pacha Ibiza, label owner and manager of Seamless Recordings, plus director of Pioneer DJ Radio, his lifelong passion for all types of music combined with a tireless work ethic and a distinctly mischievous character have contributed to his longevity in a scene that over the years has become more and more fickle. In 2017, Graham was the well-deserved recipient of the coveted Best Ibiza DJ Award in 2017 – proof that 20 years into his journey, Ibiza’s most famous ginger is still going strong.
It was those early days of pounding the pavements, giving out mixes and looking for work that set Graham up with connections for life in Ibiza. While working in a bar to make enough money to support himself, he was introduced to Mike and Claire Manumission and was instantly enveloped into the infamous party circuit that was Manumission at Privilege, Carry On at Space, Bora Bora and then whatever other adventures lay ahead. During these hedonistic years, Graham met his crew of best friends – all of whom remain in Ibiza and involved in running various other successful island businesses and ventures to this day – and also assimilated himself into local society and the after-hours culture, which back then, was prevalent.
“I learned to speak Spanish because I was the only English person there at an after-hours,” he laughs at the memory of one of his first residencies in the legendary, but now sadly defunct, Konga bar. “It was challenging in the beginning when I didn’t understand someone. I didn’t know if it was because I wasn’t saying it right, if I just wasn’t understanding or if it was just because they were off their nut!” That period of Ibiza’s party history could perhaps be contributed to the island’s reputation as a place with no rules; ultimately, also the era that led to the stricter levels of control that are in place today.
Sahara sees the changes in Ibiza as inevitable, and admits that many of them were much-needed in terms of public safety by the time they were implemented, yet he hopes to see a time in the near future when dance floors become inclusive once more. “We all used to be on the dance floor together,” he reminisces. “Black, white, gay straight, rich, poor… we were all in the same spot and that was the epitome of clubbing for me. A junkie could be next to a Saudi billionaire and neither knew, or cared. It was amazing, totally liberal and madcap, and how it should be. Today, everyone wants their own little VIP space but I think clubbing should be about bringing people together. Sooner or later, another change will come, if it hasn’t started already.”
The more connections he made, the more places he played and soon the young Sahara was a regular in Km5 Ibiza, Base Bar and Es Vive – which were the heart of the island’s thumping party spirit at the time – and The Funky Room at Pacha. Over time, his ability to transcend musical trends and segue from funky and soulful house to EDM and techno has cemented Graham’s place as a Pacha resident since the turn of the millennium. “I’m so happy to still be there,’ he says when asked of the major changes to the iconic club in 2018. “So many clubs don’t last that long, not to mention resident DJs!” He sees the evolution of the club as necessary, to facilitate the change from the days when it was all about the venue, to today, where it is all about whatever DJ or brand has taken over on any given night.
“Content is king these days,” he continues, in reference to the expansion of the main room and demise of the once beloved back rooms. “It’s not about the four walls of the club anymore. To use an analogy, if you went to see U2, you wouldn’t stand in a side room while they’re playing. Now those rooms have been incorporated into the main space, it allows space for more people on the dance floor. The Funky Room is not there as we know it, but they’ve kept Vaghan and the Funky party once a week. What they’ve done has been really good… and the sound system is definitely amazing now.”
Behind the scenes, Graham has also been running his record label for ten years now – an opportunity that came to him through a partygoer handing him a business card and asking him to play in London many moons ago. Rather than being an empty promise – as many connections are in the heat of the Ibiza moment – Graham found himself playing at The White House in Clapham, then one thing led to another and he was working as an A&R manager for Seamless in addition to running the label. “We’re best known for our beach compilations,” Graham says. “Double CDs where one is a chillout mix and the other is more of a party starter for the evening. We also have a desert version of this, which we’ve been doing for about ten years but we are about to put a fresh twist on it to reflect the current trend for afro and ethnic influences.”
His other professional gig sees him running the cutting-edge radio channel, Pioneer DJ Radio, a role he took on in 2015 and one that allows him to champion forward-thinking sounds. “Pioneer DJ are thought of as a big manufacturer of equipment, but they really want to be progressive so people can discover new sounds and become inspired, rather than listening to the same big commercial radio tracks all the time,” he says. “There are enough stations playing hits – we get to do something more inspirational.” This work sees him organise live broadcasts all over the island, in addition to global projects such as broadcasting from BPM Festival, Miami and other musically-inclined worldwide destinations.
As for his own musical tastes, Sahara says they run far and wide. “I like everything. A good track is a good track, whether it’s underground or commercial. So many people have a misconception of me, because I developed a particular sound for The Funky Room at Pacha and I played there for 20 years, but I also come from an after-hours background where you just don’t play funky house. I recently played for Cocoon in Switzerland and people were surprised but really, those who know me, know I’ve been playing techno for years.”
For Graham, it’s all about taking the clubber on a personal journey through a unique selection of underground tracks they won’t have heard anywhere else – a skill developed through an entire career spent uncovering new artists, tracks and labels, in addition to producing his own music. “It’s easy to play hit after hit after hit, but that’s just not my thing,” he says. “I want to take you on a journey through my personal taste – it’s something no one else can replicate. I prefer to play much more underground and share music people are yet to discover. That’s my style now.”
Having never returned to the UK (aside from family visits and to collect all his personal belongings), Graham recalls thinking there was no way he’d leave his island home unless it was for love. Fortunately, 12 years ago – after almost decade spent living the party lifestyle of a bachelor DJ, love found Graham Sahara in Ibiza. Today, he’s a happily married man with two kids and life – albeit quite different – couldn’t be better. “Trying to juggle working in nightlife with kids is a challenge,” he admits. “Sometimes you’re getting home from work just as they’re are getting up for school… it’s not an ideal changeover. I stopped drinking in the last few years and that makes life easier. I certainly don’t miss the hangovers! This way I can juggle all my work, think clearly and spend more time with the kids.”
Seeing the island as a wonderful base for his children to grow up, Graham says he probably spends more time on dad duties at kids’ birthday parties than he does dancing till dawn in the clubs these days. “When I go out now, I’ll go to Paradise Lost – I’ve known Jimmy for 20 years and I’m so happy he has his own bar now! I love it there – there’s no house music, for a start. I listen to that all day every day, so I don’t want to listen to it when I go out to relax.” That being said, he’s always got time in his schedule to see DJs like Carl Cox, Laurent Garnier, Cassy and D’Julz when they’re in town. When asked to define a track that encapsulates Ibiza for him, Sahara is (almost) lost for words before landing on Energy 52’s Café del Mar. “That’s pretty difficult. There are so many huge tracks across all the genres – from the soulful funky house you used to hear on the Space terrace tand the Euro trance days to the techno and minimal era… if I had to do a mix with the biggest hits of Ibiza, I’d end up playing for as long as Marco Carola.”
Graham sees himself as someone who was born and raised in England but became an adult in Ibiza, having now lived in Ibiza longer than he lived in the UK. “I identify with being British but when I go back there, I find it quite strange,” he says. “I’m more at home in Madrid or Barcelona. Spain, Ibiza, is my home now.” He cites the cosmopolitan culture as an inspiration when it comes to bringing up kids (“Both my kids have classmates from over 15 different countries at school.”) and creating a chilled lifestyle alike, believing it breaks down barriers between nations instead of creating them. “I just love living here,” he concludes. “I love the way of life, it’s so chilled and relaxed, like a sleepy village. I couldn’t imagine not being here. It’s sunny, you wake up and open the curtains and think ahhhh, this is beautiful. It would break my heart if I had to leave.”
Find Graham Sahara on social media: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and also on Spotify where you can listen to specially curated playlists for meditation, poolside relaxing, dinner with friends and prepping for a big night out.