Track by Track: Kuya James takes us through his debut album ISA

Kuya James

Last week Kuya James released ISA, his debut album, which is a formidable collection of songs and collaborations with some of the exceptional artists from the Northern Territory.

Kuya James is the moniker for James Mangohig. As well as his songwriting skills which are up in lights on this album, he is an accomplished producer. He has previously produced for artists such as Caiti Baker, Stevie Jean and Tasman Keith, so it was exciting for him to be able to showcase his own material in this release.

We reviewed ISA last week, and it scored an impressive FOUR STARS. Amongst the collaborators on ISA was Serina Pech, an enchanting singer/songwriter who released an amazing EP, Please Go Lightly earlier this year. Emily Wurramara also featured, on “Trust”, which was a track of the day, earlier this year. Other contributors were Caiti Baker, Chong Ali, Emcille, Harleni, Stevie Jean and Tasman Keith.

We are thrilled to be able to bring a track-by-track description from Kuya James, and some of the artists who performed on this beautifully diverse and remarkable album.

Press ‘Play’, and do take a read.


Live By New Rules
Kuya James: I wanted to open my record with something a bit wild that showcases my love of early boom bap, DJ Shadow, DJ Krush and even The Avalanches. Dazastah actually posted a loop on insta that I hit him up about and then turned into this tune. I love Michael’s melodic bassline that moves through the whole piece and as always Serina brought a perfect amount of vocal samples and also a cool chant. Caiti Baker is also singing BVs on this one.

Serina Pech: A chant to action prompting one to act on their own desires free from the rules and limitations that keep them stuck or hold them back. Plain and simple when you choose to live by your own rules you create freedom for yourself and space for change in the world around you.

ISA ft. Serina Pech and Emcille
Serina Pech: Of all the stars I am one in a sea of many, each with its place in the sky and its own glow. Just as the stars provide hope and guidance in the dark night, how you shine in the world is driven by your own intention.

Kuya James: I realised the other day I have released over 66 songs in my career (and worked on many more) and I think ISA is in the top 3 favourite tunes I’ve ever been a part of. Serina and I wrote the hook ages ago and then the wonderful Tashka Urban came and played beautiful keys and melody lines all over it.

The song was unfinished for about 18 months before I met Emcille, an incredible poet, rapper, storyteller from the south of the Philippines, the same area as my father. She raps in Visayan. The translation for her rap is incredibly beautiful –

Visayan translation:

You are my treasure
You listen to me
I learned,
You always remember

Dreams never come true
What others say
Why? Do they belong to you?
Who are they? The eyes were glowing
It’s like a snack to eat

Wrong, keep going. Keep going.
In your bosom, carry my love, that you may not be blind

They all watched, took note of the movements
Say here, say there do not know how to color
Son, your voice will be saved
Society is waiting
At a star glow and burn

Well, retreat if you must
But resist the darkness
The blood that dances around your veins
Gold and powerful
Though poor, your strength is rich

Like the fish that are good at sea
Baby boy baby boy
Float in waves according to the method
Screen as you go
For you are my star that will not be broken

Trust ft. Emily Wurramara
Kuya James: Trust is about trusting yourself and your wisdom and inner strength and knowing. It features my signature stomp using Asian samples and huge drums/percussion. As Serina Pech and I wrote this song together, we wanted to have a real spirit of empowerment through the chants over really intense production.

Emily’s vocals perfectly capture the feeling of being soothing but also having a unique intensity on the chants. After hearing her tone for spoken stuff on the Mambali track “Yuwani” I really wanted to capture that over a full song and couldn’t be happier she agreed to feature on this track.
Emily and I share a connection of both being from the NT, but we also both have Filipino roots. This won’t be the last time we work together.

I believe that dance music can be very generic, so I wanted to try and push some of the boundaries of what is considered ‘dance’. The song is about owning situations and choices you make in life and having faith in where you land to create a better future for you and your community.

Rewind Our Love ft. Caiti Baker & Serina Pech
Kuya James: Rewind Our Love is my love letter to Darwin.

I sat there at the beginning of Covid and put on all these scenes from my favourite 80s movies while I started finding nostalgic 80s influenced sounds on my synth. I found a sound called “VHS STRINGS” and the first demo of the song was an instrumental called “Rewind Our Love On The VHS”.

I sent Caiti the beat and said I wanted something cheesy and fun as it was going to be used for a mixtape called DTOWNLOCKDOWN. I was also putting the instrumental over famous 80s film snippets (including The NeverEnding Story) for fun.

Caiti sent back the hook and I instantly laughed at how different it was for her to sing something like this, the next day we showed it to Serina in the studio and she said: “can you get me an early 90s Janet Jackson vox sound on the mic, I got an idea for a verse”.

Love what they did. We thought about using a different mix engineer for this song as it was still at this point a mixtape joint. I remember years ago hearing Luke Million’s “Stranger Things Remix” and when Caiti and him hung out in the studio last year he also mentioned he mixes all his stuff. I love what he brought to it, it’s so different to other things I’ve made but it still felt like it represented a side of me that I often only show to crowds when I’m DJing.

Better Than That ft. Harleni
Kuya James: I first met Jess Harlen over 10 years ago when I was playing bass with TZU and she was one of the backing singers in the band we were supporting. I then heard her debut solo record and instantly fell in love with her voice. I still love this track from her –

She moved to LA a few years ago and I saw she was getting involved in lots of songwriting stuff so when she put online if anyone was up for collaborating I sent her a few beats. I love what she brought to this track and it took a while for me to get the production right but I couldn’t be happier with it all. Michael Hohnen’s bassline really helped set it off!

Harlen: Better Than That touches on how even the most beautiful person ‘you’re a pretty girl’ will inflict the same pattern of pain onto others ‘don’t take it out on me’ if they haven’t done the conscious work to heal. The song speaks to the nature of the ‘messed up world’ we live in, in that we all have unresolved trauma but are mostly unconscious to it. Therefore we easily get caught in others unhealed cycles ‘you’re on my side of town tonight’ and allow it to continuously hurt us, but we ‘shouldn’t be down’ even though we see the potential of their inner beauty ‘you’re better than you know’.

Mermaid ft. Serina Pech
Kuya James: The word for mermaid in my father and Serina’s mum’s language is “sirena”. It’s how Serina got her name. We were reading about old Filipino folktales and came across stories of mermaids and shipwrecks. This song is inspired by those tales. Serina had an idea for “this driftwood keeps drifting” and wanted to really develop that into something, it became the outro of the song. The chorus has no words, just some “mmmh” harmonies with some extra vocals by Caiti Baker.

Serina Pech: A sailor is stuck out at sea after his ship crashes. Suffering terrible losses he is fighting for his life and clinging on to his survival with what strength and determination he has left. What fate will he accept as the wreckage drifts him further across the vast and unknown open ocean?

Why Dem Pills? Ft. Stevie Jean
Kuya James: Serina and I wrote this song in my home studio over a year ago. She was laughing so much imitating Aussie hip hop rappers, but the more she jammed on lyrics the more I could feel we were writing a really fun song that could have a dark and a light side.

Having worked with Joel Ma aka Joelisitcs for over 15 years on and off I thought it’d be cool to do a writing session in Melbourne with him while we were down already shooting the SABAW film clip. We had a lot of fun piecing it together.

I’m so lucky in Darwin to be surrounded by the incredible artists on our label – Settle Down Records. I really wanted to feature Stevie Jean on my album, we’ve been pretty deep in her debut record so I asked if she’d be interested in singing something Serina had already written. She listened to the demo and vibed with it all, within a week Stevie Jean, Serina Pech and Caiti Baker hit the lab together and nailed the vocals in 1 session. I love what they all brought to it and Stevie completely owned the song.

Why Dem Pills is a journey of a long night, questioning substances floating around at a party to a society that so quickly embraces taking pills to solve everything.

Goodbye ft. Chong Ali
Chong Ali: I’m desperate to connect with my parent’s motherland. At the same time, I want the land I call home to accept me as her son.

That phrase swam around my head when I first heard Kuya James’ moody strings over the eerie synths. They reminded me of a distant memory embedded in my DNA, only accessible through conversations with my parents over steaming jasmine rice and crisp lager. It also had a strange comforting aroma that felt like home. As the strings poked through Serina’s haunting ‘Goodbye’ vocals, the vibe tugged at me to set the scene of my parents escaping the Vietnam war, with the image of an overcrowded boat leaving the coastline playing on repeat in my mind.

I kept the lyric clear and succinct and I wanted the story to be easily translatable into other languages (ie. Vietnamese). In the last verse I used the Vietnamese terms ‘ba’ (dad) and ‘mẹ’ (mum) because that’s how I refer to them at home, and I wanted to be sure they knew who this song was for. I also employed the term ‘anh chị em’ (brothers and sisters) to connect with my diaspora family not only in Australia, but also with other Viet communities around the world.

Digging for clues of who I am over the years, most of the information ended with my grandfather’s stories. Before that, there is no written history tracing our family tree and no real idea of our ethnic heritage. Dad doesn’t talk much and mum has never really gone into detail about their refugee journey so I’ve always wanted to sculpt the bits and pieces that they did share into a complete piece of work. The only thing for sure about me is that my parents escaped the Vietnam war as refugees and settled in Australia. I wanted ‘Goodbye’ to be the beginning of our story here in Australia and for our future generations to understand that we may have started as refugees, but it doesn’t define us.

Sabaw ft. Serina Pech
Kuya James: Sabaw is about overcoming suppression, realising the power and beauty in our true natures even the dark or difficult parts of it. Reaching our depths and transforming like the nature of life itself. No idea is fixed. There is a higher perspective and version of “us” that exists beyond mental and physical conformity. We can be free in this way by not limiting ourselves to what we think the world expects from us because there is a vision always outside of that. This knowledge is our birthright.

No Country ft. Tasman Keith
Tasman Keith: No Country stems from my father’s thought that we as Gumbaynggirr men can never truly carry that title because our right to be initiated was taken away. The traditional act of Initiation was our transformation into manhood. The last person to have the right to initiate members was my great uncle Pudjah who was forced to stop this process as a means to end the practice of our traditions and unfortunately died before he was able to pass down the act of initiation to someone new. The song speaks on being lost in a sense, lost in that thought, and lost in a country that at times can no longer feel like yours. It speaks on never aging but still carrying the wisdom of 60,000 years.

When I wrote this song I never intended for it to have connections to the Bowraville murders, but as I started writing and listening back I noticed how much these lyrics related to the tragedy that was and still is those murders. Growing up and coming from a community where there is still no justice for those murders and seeing the burden it carries on your cousins, it’s embedded into your brain – this song was my mind venting that trauma.

We will never be able to age in our traditional way, and those kids that got murdered will never be able to grow old, both of these tragedies were something out of our control. Now we live with it. Justice for Clinton, Colleen & Evelyn.

ISA is out now.

You can follow Kuya James on FacebookInstagram and Spotify

Bruce Baker

Probably riding my bike, taking photos and/or at a gig. Insta: @bruce_a_baker

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