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Analog Africa: digging deeper into forgotten corners of global groove

Analog Africa: digging deeper into forgotten corners of global groove

Photo credit: Analog Africa

Rob Garratt By

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I can play the vinyl, I can play the CD, and you will not hear a difference — the CD can sometimes even sound better —Samy Ben Redjeb, founder, Analog Africa
For casual but curious collectors of eclectic sounds and global grooves, Analog Africa might be the Holy Grail. Since being founded in Germany by Samy Ben Redjeb in 2006, the Tunisian crate digger's deeply personal and highly idiosyncratic imprint has birthed a steady stream of 40 peerless releases and counting—carefully curated collections of rare and obscure analogue-era recordings which invariably act as thrilling sonic transporters, touristic time capsules and irresistible dance-floor fillers.

The story begins in 2000 when part-time DJ Redjeb began working for a German airline which took him in and out of major African transport hubs, offering the unusual opportunity to scour obscure and forgotten vinyl records which had nearly always never been heard outside of their target market.

An initial fascination with the music of Zimbabwe led to a pair of loss-making debut releases dedicated to the country's most-storied groups—The Green Arrows, and Hallelujah Chicken Run Band—released in 2007, before circumstances took Redjeb to Cotonou, Benin, where he uncovered a stash of thousands of records that would lay the path for the following four releases which define the label for years to come.

Analog Africa's first multi-artist compilation African Scream Contest -Raw & Psychedelic Afro Sounds from Benin & Togo 70s (2008) put the label on the map and in the heart of curio collectors and groove-fiends, and was followed by the seminal Legends of Benin and two complete volumes dedicated to the fabled Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. Along the way listeners became accustomed to the label's distinct coffee table-worthy cover art, filler-free taste, impeccable sequencing and Samy's own rambling, idiomatic first-person liner notes, typically contrasting spontaneous audio epiphanies with the arduous process of tracking down musicians or their surviving relatives to strike a deal for release.

Focused on the pre-digital golden age of the '70s and '80s, subsequent releases have covered 20 countries across Africa and South America, with standalone compilations transporting listeners to hear the rarely catalogued music of Angola, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Senegal, Cameroon and Somalia, amongst others. Meanwhile complete volumes have documented mythical figures including Guinea's Amara Touré, the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Verckys, Cape Verde's Bitori, Colombia's Aníbal Velásquez and Cameroonian soldier-turned-politician Hamad Kalkaba; as well as historical outfits like Benin's Orchestre Super Borgou De Parakou and Somalia's Dur-Dur Band. Collectively, the catalogue captures the collision of heady innovation amid an optimistic milieu, at the moment when traditional forms collide with new trends and technologies in often young independent nations.

Most recently, the label's 30th non-limited release La Locura de Machuca 1975-1980 chronicles, in Redjeb's words, the "story of a crazy producer from Colombia who did really special things." After that, he lets slip, will be a compilation of early '80s Edo Funk tunes from Nigeria's southern state in the thrall of pioneer Sir Victor Uwaifo. But with so many riches already unearthed, after spending much of 2020 delving deep into Analog Africa's existing catalogue during lockdown, this writer was more concerned with looking backwards.

All About Jazz: What is it that makes your ears perk up when you hear certain pieces of music— what, for example, was it about the forgotten Somali disco tunes featured on your recent Mogadisco compilation that you wanted to share with the world?

Samy Ben Redjeb: Sometimes you ask yourself why you like or love this person and you can't put your finger on it, you just like it—I don't really have my own way of describing why I like certain music or not, it's a bit too difficult to translate emotions into wording. You can't put a finger on it sometimes, it just gives you a good feeling.

AAJ: Ah, but for you there's a commercial element— you also need to know that other people might feel the same.

SBR: My label was built because I started to get really excited about Zimbabwean music—I [thought] if I like it, why wouldn't other people? The label is basically a reflection of my own taste, and the people who like Analog Africa are people who trust my taste. So generally the compilations are made for myself, then hoping other people are going to like it—there is no other way. I'm sure there are people who go on Discogs and decide they want something because 2,000 other people want it—but I don't function like this.

AAJ: But you must find some records that you love are less successful in the marketplace ...

SBR: Yes, But I know this before I even release it. It doesn't really matter because it's not only about sales, it's about cultures, it's about showing ... I always like trying to compare what I do to someone who makes a lot of spices available for a cook —he takes a bit of this, a bit of that—what I'm trying to do is showcase as much variety as possible. And if possible music that hasn't really been showcased before, it makes it more interesting. It's not a must.

Now I'm releasing a compilation by a label from Colombia called Machuca, which is the beginning of a style of music called champeta, which is basically African music recorded by Colombian musicians. When they started it was very experimental—sometimes a bit too crazy for most— and I know that it's not going to sell as well as if I just release another Afrobeat compilation. But for me it's more interesting to do something different instead of something that's already been done, that I know would sell more.

AAJ: Before you founded the label, you hosted an African club night in Dakar, Senegal—is that what started you digging for these wonderful forgotten records?

SBR: At that time I was DJing in hotels and I was basically playing just the charts, pop music, disco —and at some point I started doing African nights but it was not that kind of music I was looking for. The music I liked was just too raw to be played in discos. The first digging trips I did were not to play music for people but for me to discover music that I really loved.

AAJ: Looking back on the past 20 years digging, what was your greatest single find?

SBR: I have to say one of the most epic moments for me was to find that warehouse in Cotonou in Benin. That's the turning point for my label, really. For example, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo—I think I found almost everything they recorded in that one place. They recorded about 500 records and I think I found 450. The next two or three compilations I did was basically based on what I found in that place. That was the turning point for me—when I was there, going through the records, I understood straight away. I think everyone has like one godly present in their life and I think that was mine.

AAJ: When faced with that amount of material—how many tracks do you listen to putting together a single compilation?

SBR: Well, let's say for Angola Soundtrack [The Unique Sound Of Luanda 1968-1976] I probably listened to 1,000 songs that were diluted into 14. And for African Scream it was even more than that—but it doesn't mean the other songs are not so good. Sometimes I take one song out just to put another song in because it's going to make it flow better, or if one song is too similar to another one. Once you have the songs, putting them into the right running order takes months.

AAJ: How many get away—how often are there tracks you can't locate, or can't afford?

SBR: Let's say from the 500 songs I released so far, there are maybe 10 artists I didn't manage to find. If you don't find the artist, and you don't find the producer, and he doesn't have children ... but generally if you really, really want to find someone, you will manage.

AAJ: You often write about the negotiation process in your notes. How do you decide what to pay an artist?

SBR: Basically what I do is go with an average pressing—generally I would say, if all goes well I would sell maybe 5-6,000 LPs and 1,000 CDs, so let's say that's between 6-7,000 in total. So basically I don't pay royalties—the company who says they will pay royalties is all lies because they don't have the manpower to calculate royalties on every song for every artist every six months. So generally what happens is they pay the first two royalties [checks], and then afterwards it trickles down and you get bills where they tell you have $1.27 or $2.69 or bullshit like that. I don't believe in that, so I calculate, say I have 7,000 units, all are sold, 15 per cent royalties [for physical sales; or 50 per cent for digital] for the artists is say 10,000 euros— which divided by the number of songs gives me 600 to 700 euros, so that's what I offer. Companies don't [normally] do that because they're basically paying all the royalties in advance that way, which is a risk. But I prefer to do it because it gives me a better feeling that I have been correct, and I already know that I will manage to sell this [number], even if it doesn't sell it in a year, it will sell in two.

AAJ: There's an element where your work goes beyond music—the research and storytelling aspect of your curatorial process—it's history, culture, anthropology...

SBR: Sometimes when people help me to write liner notes—for example a professor of Colombian and Brazilian music— I always tell them I don't want them to sound like professors. I don't want them to be academic. I always say, write whatever you want but also remember that the people who create the music generally are not from that field and they need to understand whatever you write. I would find it very strange if, for example, someone from the north of Brazil goes through the liner notes and doesn't understand a single word about the very music that he's involved in. I try to write very basic—the people who read the liner notes may be Japanese, Spanish, Italian—I try to write in my own words. I'm not an academic and I believe that most of the people that buy our compilations are not academics, so I try to write more like a storyteller.

When I DJ, sometimes they invite me into high-society parties and I really hate that, because the music I play is by simple people and I identify very much with them. Obviously it's very interesting when you find a song made for local consumption—it didn't go out of the state or country—and then suddenly you play it in Hong Kong or New York or Berlin, that's very interesting to see. But I also don't like that sometimes you take music totally out of context and play it for people who have nothing in common with the people who created that music.

AAJ: On that note—some of your records can command two or three times the original price on Discogs when they go out of print. How many copies do you normally put out of a compilation, like say, your most recent, Mogadisco?

SBR: We did 4,000 of Mogadisco first, but I think we repressed. I'm in the process of creating; once the compilation is done, I go to the next one, and I don't deal with sales. I don't even have access to my own bank account. I'm employed by my own company. I have a manager, I don't want to receive invoices, to get papers. The five employees are getting paid and we're managing to put out music—it's like a circle, you produce, you sell, with that money you pay your people and the next production —and it's just a circle that basically goes around and as long as that wheel is turning ... if somebody had told me [before], "listen you would be able to survive from your work," I would have signed that straight away. And that is what is happening now and I couldn't ask for more. I'm not someone who is very interested in material things ... I'm not too fussed.

AAJ: Except when it comes to wax...

SBR: Yeah, I'm not even too crazy about wax, it's just that the wax is a format where I find the music I love—but once it's digitized the vinyl loses a bit of the importance, to me it's really about the music. The people that say vinyl sounds so much better than digital or CD— well, it's more about the experience of putting on a record, a vinyl is really fragile so you care more about it, it's gatefold, you have a big booklet—it's not about the vinyl, it's about the experience of it.

AAJ: For real? You're telling me the vinyl versions of your own records don't sound any better?

SBR: I can play the vinyl, I can play the CD, and you will not hear a difference. The CD can sometimes even sound better—-when you cut the vinyl you lose a bit of the mids and highs, it's a bit more round, depending on the record. For the Machuca , I asked my sound engineer especially, "I want it to sound like a bunch of skeletons playing on tins." So the mids and trebles are quite rattley. So when he cuts the vinyl a bit of this is going to go down—so I know already the CD is going to sound better for this particular compilation.

I love vinyl because that's where I found 90 per cent of all the music I release, and when I want to find a song I know it's only going to be on vinyl. But if I found good music on cassette, or on master tapes, I would love it as much. And because in the scene I am in there are so many people who are completely vinyl junkies, I really got turned off by that. I don't want to become like this.

AAJ: A lot of the most exciting African music from the golden period you document took a heavy influence from the funk and soul sounds coming from the US. It may have been a one-way street —at that point anyway—but why did West African musicians especially respond so strongly to Western trends?

SBR: James Brown was something else, because he also had a really strong message which really impacted Africa very strongly, especially in the late '60s and early '70s—but if you listen to Poly-Rythmo and all these other guys it was not just straight funk, it was not like American funk, it was really their own creation and this is what makes it interesting. The thing that is most interesting is when they do funk without even knowing they're doing it, just because the rhythm section improvises it—I mean the funk is not really a style, it's more a vibe, a rhythm, than a style to me. So I'm pretty sure there are African musicians who never came into contact with funk, but the way they play it is just funky because that's what the music is dictating.

When you talk to the musicians they tell me funk is very easy to them, it is never a problem—Afrobeat is a bit more complicated because it's a whole orchestra, you need brass, and not every band has that—but funk was not a problem for any of those bands. Any kind of western music was not a problem for any African bands.

AAJ: What instruments do you play yourself?

SBR: I don't play any instruments. When I started playing I realized I'm only going to reach a certain level but I'm not going to become excellent. Anything where I'm not going to be excellent, I'm not going to do it.

AAJ: At the end of last year you released Mogadisco—Dancing Mogadishu (Somalia 1972-1991), your first compilation from a country in the Arab World; was there any reason you turned to this part of the globe now?

SBR: There is no reason, if they were Christian I would have done it anyway, there is really nothing to do with [religion], it's just [that] I discovered this music five or six years ago and it takes time, it's complicated to do a project like this. First the need to travel—if Somalia was easy to travel to I would've already been there like 10 times, but I've been only once and it's an overwhelming experience—it took me four years to get there, I stayed for five or six weeks and brought back enough [digitized music] to do two or three projects, and then I'll see if I have the courage or the will to put myself into a situation like this again.

AAJ: What about the music of your home, Tunisia?

SBR: For me I need one song to make me sit up and look for more, and I've never encountered a Tunisian song that I was like, "wow, I want to discover more of that." Despite the fact Tunisia had the most futuristic bands, they didn't have the richest industry, and there was not so much crossover—maybe there was but I have not had the chance to come across it.

Also when you are born into a country you're more curious to see what is happening in other places, areas you don't know, that makes it a bit more interesting, the curiosity to check out if there is something there.

AAJ: So what does attract you to a particular country?

SBR: Just the music, there is no big difference between Benin, Somalia, Ghana, Senegal, or whatever countries I've been to, it just sounds different and that's why I was interested. But it's not a calculated thing, like "now I'm going to do Islamic countries in Africa"—I've never really thought about it, it's just "this is interesting music, let's see if there's an opening to do something with it." I've released music from 20 African countries and I've been to 28, I think.

AAJ: So far you've avoided releasing music from two of the countries which have been most heavily covered, and fetishized, by Western labels—Nigeria and Mali—is that simply because the market's already saturated, or all the best tunes have already been heard?

SBR: Not really. The Malian music that has reached Europe is really the traditional music, but produced by European musicians in most cases. But the music from the '70s that is really, really interesting, I don't think there's so much that has been released yet. There's a producer in France, Syllart Records, and he basically struck deals with different producers here and there and bought the rights to things, and every time you release something he says, "I've got the rights to this, I've got the rights to that," although you don't even know if it's true or not. If it's already a bit too crowded, it's not really interesting you know.

AAJ: What's your relationship like with the other European labels releasing vintage music from Africa and around the world?

SBR : I don't think I can say that. I tend to say I'm part of the scene, but I'm not really in it because I don't deal with record collectors, dealers or other labels. I don't have a bad relationship with any of them but it's not that there is a relationship. I think everybody is doing his own thing and we try not to step on each other's toes.

AAJ: Let's put it another way—I'm a fan of Analog Africa, I've already heard all your releases, what should I listen to next?

SBR: My favorite label is Soundway [Records], for me they are the best. The founder [Miles Cleret] recommended me to work with Nick Robbins who is my mastering engineer in London. He sent me a few records for African Scream. I know the work he's doing and that's absolutely no reason why I shouldn't like him and respect him. Also he's a very correct guy, at some point he knew I was working on a Ghana compilation, and he said, "listen Samy, I'm also working on a Ghana compilation, here are the songs I'm planning to release, let me know if there is one you are also planning and I will remove it from my list." And I was like, okay this guy is really cool. Not everybody would do that.

Someone else I like a lot is the guy from Strut—he's the guy who managed to get me my distributor in the States. One that influenced me a lot is Buddha Music with the Éthiopiques series. And also Ellipsis Art, that went bankrupt because they always used to do huge booklets. These are the labels I'm really close to.

AAJ: It's been a relentless life and a seemingly endless search, do you ever get tired of it, ever think of giving it up?

SBR: Not really, but I think I will get to 50 [releases] and 50 will be the last one. I'm now releasing number 30 ... and I'm now 49-years old.

[Throughout our two, hour-long conversations, the stories behind some of Analog Africa's most important releases slowly unravelled. As good a place to start as any, here are three recommended entryways to the label, in Samy's own rambling words ... ]

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou
Analog Africa have released three complete volumes dedicated to the formidably funky Beninese collective Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou— The Vodoun Effect-Funk & Sato from Benin's Obscure Labels 1972-1975 (2008), Echos Hypnotiques-From the Vaults of Albarika Store 1969-1979 (2009) and The Skeletal Essences Of Afro Funk 1969-1980 (2013)—so what's the power and fascination of this single group?

"I consider Poly-Rythmo to basically be the most versatile and powerful band that ever existed. What is surprising— you know [British DJ, label owner and tastemaker] Gilles Peterson? He's known Analog Africa for many years, but about two years ago, on African Scream 2 [African Scream Contest Vol.2 -Benin 1963-1980] (2018) there was one Poly-Rythmo song and when he played it on his show he said, "I'm pretty sure we're listening to the best band that ever scraped the surface of this earth." At first I was pleased that he also realized the same thing as me—but I was also thinking: it took you only 10 years to understand that!

"It's not only their own productions but also the qualities of other musicians they supported. They were able to play every type of music. One thing the founder did—the first few years when he was molding the band—if he found a musician who was better than the musician he had, he would bring him in but he wouldn't kick the other guy out, he would find something else for him to do.

"And Benin is one of the most musical places on earth because it's where Vaudou comes from, and the religion of Vaudou is completely connected to music. It basically consists of about 250 different deities or gods, and every god has his own rhythms, sometimes one or two, and half of the Poly-Rythmo guys grew up with that, they were born into it. So for example the bassist and the drummer used to play Vaudou rhythms since childhood. They have all these rhythms in them—and who's gonna beat that? You're not gonna have someone from Berlin with that kind of musical knowledge—it's simply not possible. You can listen and copy, but it's not rooted in your soul like these guys. It's something from another planet."

Diablos Del Ritmo: The Colombian Melting Pot 1960-1985
Analog Africa's first excursion outside of Africa—and longest standalone compilation, stretching across two parts and four LPs—captures an intoxicating mix of often rustically recorded "Afrobeat, Palenque Sounds, Champeta, Lumbalú, Caribbean Funk... Puya, Porro, Gaita, Cumbiamba, Mapalé, Chandé, Descarga," bubbling together at the point where African and Latin rhythms bleed.

"My trip to Colombia was really to boost my DJ sets—I managed to find a few Latin records and I realized they had a different energy, a different taste—and that's why I went. When I was there I realized young people were really crazy about African music and that's what fascinated me, and something which I didn't experience in Africa. I started going there quite often, taking African records with me and exchanging them for Colombian music, and through the African music I was bringing in I was managing to put my hands on records I would otherwise never get to. And so when I got to realize Diablos Del Ritmo it was more to thank my time in Colombia and all the friends and the love I felt when I was there.

"Before me, in the '80s there was some people who used to go to Africa and bring records—because an airline company at some point sold its fleet to the Congo and they sent their mechanics with the fleet, and one mechanic was a music fan and he was bringing African records with him and he was selling them to the sound systems. These sounds he brought became huge hits on the Caribbean coast. But since then nobody had brought African music back, so all the young people were listening to all the same records that were brought back in the 80s—they didn't really know what else was there, they thought that was everything there was in Africa.

"So when I started bringing these records back these sound systems started to have new sounds and discover new things. The internet wasn't really a thing yet in Colombia—now they're all on the internet, they're connecting with guys in Nigeria who are selling them records—but I was basically a kind of motivator of them to realize there was more stuff and to try to find it."

Mogadisco—Dancing Mogadishu (Somalia 1972-1991)
The result of a years-long quest to secure the necessary paperwork, Redjeb rates Mogadisco, a collection of original pop and disco tunes from the Somali capital's forgotten heyday, as the most difficult compilation he ever put together.

"The thing with Somalia is that all the news you get from the country is only negative news. But when you start with a place like Somalia you don't really understand the amplitude of what was going on until you start talking to people and they started telling you what was going on in the '70s and the '80s. Which is interesting—while other African countries were going down musically and culturally in the '80s Somalia was going up— Ghana in the '80s was completely dead, while Somalia was exploding in the '80s just because the political environment was different in both places.

"I had no idea what to expect. I knew I was not going to come back empty handed, that's for sure, but I didn't know what exactly I would find. That's basically my job—to go into uncharted territory and try to find music that is interesting enough to be released. It took me four years before I could find someone to host me—then I understood later that they would basically have to be responsible for my security and they didn't want to do that. It took me four years to find someone who was crazy enough. I thought the media always exaggerates the situation in a country, that when I arrive there it wouldn't be so bad. But it was bad.

"On the day I was supposed to digitize all the master tapes I was shaken out of my bed by a bomb. I walked on the roof and saw the cloud just passing in front of me from that explosion. But what was very surprising; the guys who always picked me up were always a bit late, but on that day I said 'okay, that's fucked, it's not going to work today.' But then at 11.30am they were there knocking on my door like nothing had happened. I was really surprised."

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