A third and final extract from Ian Preece’s book Listening to the Wind: Encounters with 21st Century Independent Record Labels, published by Omnibus Press. This time the focus is on Analog Africa, who have made us a fantastic mix to accompany the extract. Listen below or via our Mixcloud page (where a full track list is available).
As an undergraduate in the eighties I bought a copy of Kakraba Lobi’s Xylophone Player from Ghana. Mad, if you were in the mood for extended xylophone workouts – but, in truth, I didn’t wear out the vinyl. Baaba Maal & Mansour Seck’s Djam Leelii competed for time on the post-student shared-house turntable with Screamadelica and Blue Lines. Later, I picked up a copy of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, but Peel favourites the Four Brothers and the Bhundu Boys always felt a bit too shiny and happy for my corner of eighties and nineties Britain. It wasn’t until I stumbled across 2008’s African Scream Contest: Raw and Psychedelic Afro Sounds from Benin and Togo 70s one evening in Selectadisc on Berwick Street in Soho that I began to seriously investigate racks of African records. The African Scream CD looked pretty cool: a 1970s black-and-white photo – the singer in flares and sunglasses; the drummer in a neat white jazz shirt – all tinted with pale green retro lettering. I’d never heard of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, but one blast of moody organ on the shop’s CD headphones was enough – sort of Urban Classics rare groove and funk, James Brown uummph, screaming and grunting – with beautiful, looping and fuzzy electric African guitars. A thick accompanying book of sleevenotes was full of more cool photos and outlined the record-sourcing adventures of label owner Samy Ben Redjeb in Benin and Togo, and how Orchestre Poly-Rythmo would have ‘kicked ass at Woodstock’. Working backwards I picked up the previous two Analog Africa releases. First, a collection of tracks by Zimbabwe’s Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, a resident group who played for copper miners in Mhangura, northern Zimbabwe, featuring groovy staccato mbira (thumb piano)-style guitar and, in their early days, one Thomas Mapfumo on drums (until he was fired by the mine owner in 1975 over a wage dispute). The band were so named as a couple of the members had a neat sideline in liberating chickens and eggs from the farm where they worked day-jobs. I remember playing ‘Kare Nanhasi’ at friends John and Margi’s wedding on a sunny afternoon in Whitstable – a rare occasion of me filling the dancefloor rather than emptying it. My better half still takes that CD into her primary school in east London for the kids’ end-of-term parties, some of the reception class going nuts to the chiming twin guitars of Abdulah Musa and Wilson Jubane, and Daram Karanga’s joyful trumpet breaks on the infectious ‘Kare Nanhasi’, or the choppy, irresistible, mbira-like sound of ‘Sekai’ – smiles breaking out all round.
A few years earlier than the Chicken Run Band, The Green Arrows had also been a house band playing a bar in Mhangura, their joyous guitar pop – bright guitar lines and liberal use of a fuzz pedal – going down a storm with displaced copper miners in 1960s Zimbabwe. Ripped off by the unscrupulous bar owner, the Manatsa brothers, Zexie and Stanley, did a runner: hopping onto a bus with a couple of his Fender electrics, eventually relocating the whole band to Bulawayo then Bora, 30 miles north of Harare, where they would embark on a Friday afternoon jam, playing till dawn at a beer-fuelled pungwe, then fire up the fuzz pedals again on Saturday evening. Zexie paid the bills working as a lorry driver for a prominent biscuit factory – later graduating to salesman. By 1975 the singles ‘Mwana Waenda’ and ‘Chipo Chiroorwa’ were blasting out of every transistor or jukebox in the country but, as the seventies wore on, the political situation in Zimbabwe came to overwhelm the band. A distant ripple of the same political and social hardships a quarter of a century later forced Samy Ben Redjeb to move on from Zimbabwe after the release of his first two Analog Africa CDs there in 2006 and 2007 . . .
When The Green Arrows and the Hallelujah Chicken Run band LPs where first issued in Zimbabwe a release party was thrown in the house of Zexie Manatsa in Harare. ‘Because he had a big garden,’ adds Samy. ‘Zexie [brandishing a 22-page book of sleevenotes and cool photography] was saying, “Nobody has a CD like this in Zimbabwe!” He was really chuffed about it, and I was also really happy.’
Samy brought along a wah-wah pedal as a present – the sound that really defined The Green Arrows. Back in the day Zexie had consumed ‘a lot of weed’, continues Samy. ‘And one day he was dreaming about a frog wearing bell-bottom trousers and he composed a song that became hugely important – “Chechule Wavala Botom” [‘Frog with the Bell Bottom Trousers’] – and when he went on stage he had huge, one-metre leather shoes – like a frog, you know.’
They were smoking heavy stuff. The chorus – ‘Chechule Wavala Botom/Frog with the Bell Bottom Trousers’ is repeated 33 times, with a nice acoustic guitar melody and the occasional interruption of dialogue. At the party, Zexie’s wife Stella opened the wah-wah pedal: she had been a cashier on the door back when The Green Arrows were packing bars and hotels and so knew all the music well. ‘In fact,’ says Samy, ‘she was the memory of Zexie.’ Not because he’d smoked so much weed – rather, after a nasty van accident in the late eighties Zexie lost not only some of the band’s instruments but also parts of his recall. ‘He went from somebody who was popular and healthy to somebody who didn’t have the means to do live shows,’ says Samy. ‘The church picked him up – “Listen, you used to be such a popular figure, why don’t you become the voice of the church?” So he studied theology at university and became part of the church, became a pastor, and they gave him the house, where the party took place.’
At the end of the launch party everybody went home and Stella and Zexie pulled out an old photo album full of pictures of them getting married in the Rufaro national football stadium in 1979 – with 68,000 people in the crowd. Samy had never been sure if that was just a myth, or a true story, but felt honoured to be taken into the Manatsas’ confidence: ‘That showed me that this is how you should do a compilation. This is the respect. Obviously, when you do a compilation of 15 people you can’t put that amount of research into every musician – that’s impossible, you’d spend two years on them – but at least you show the respect, make them understand that you’re handling everything with the kind of the respect the music deserves.’
Back in the seventies the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band were playing at a time of revolutionary struggle: ‘That’s when they started to have their own identities. They started playing Zimbabwean music. Thomas Mapfumo started singing in the traditional style. He started playing what he grew up with, with what was around, his grandfather’s thumb piano. And that’s how the Shona modernisation started. They were the first band to take traditional music, the Shona traditional music, the thumb piano. It was very important for me to release that album – a fantastic band with a lot of diverse music, and not just Shona tradition, but a lot of other fun stuff. All the modern music is a rendition of traditional music. Good African music has to have a traditional base – depth. If it doesn’t have that it can be good, but it’s not long lasting, as far as I am concerned.’
After negotiating the Friday afternoon rush-hour back to La Marsa in a kind of dusty-van-cum-communal-minibus/taxi – some impressively fast driving, random rules for payment, and a lot of yelling and gesticulating (mostly from other drivers) – we later hitch a lift to the club on the shores of Lake Tunis with Samy’s co-DJ for the night, another Tunis exile from Frankfurt back in Africa spinning discs, Kais, who laughs when I mention the taxi journey: ‘Ah, the yellow hornet . . .’
Once at the club – a large swimming pool outside; a packed bar-cum-restaurant with a dancefloor inside – he and Samy are a formidable pair on the decks: fluid, speaker-shredding beats, with the odd Afro-Latin number thrown in. Musically, we could be in London, Detroit or Berlin, but the young Tunisian crowd hang around the DJ booth, checking out records, nodding their approval and throwing shapes. It proves, however, a long night for a 50-year-old man – but Omar, the club owner who we met in the Medina at lunchtime, goes out of his way to check on me while I’m reading my book, making notes and sending long texts home, in the process fixing me a fine vegetarian platter. Omar must be six-foot plus. He’s shaved off his afro after persistent hassle from the police. Samy’s brother and sisters turn up; Souheil tells me you can get three years for possession of just a small amount of weed in Tunis. After three beers I attempt to negotiate the docket system at the cocktail bar. Samy is not too happy with the briny concoction I return to the decks with. All the younger members of Samy’s family seem to be here. He’d told me earlier that, after a couple of great holidays with his younger twin sisters and Souheil, with whom he’s always remained close, he’d returned to his flat in Frankfurt alone. Sitting at his kitchen table, smoking too much weed as the nights drew in, engaged once again in the solitary occupation of writing sleevenotes, he realised ‘the energy my family was giving me was not there anymore’. It was time to reconnect with the sunshine of Africa and his Tunisian brethren.
I play a game of table football with a young Tunisian clubber (a 4-4 draw; I would have won but for a last-minute own goal). Suddenly Samy is at my side. ‘Where the fuck have you been? I’m back on in 20 minutes.’ I apologise, and we resume the interview. I recognised only one Analog Africa track in Samy’s first set, a song from Space Echo: The Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cape Verde Finally Revealed. I wonder if, over the course of recent releases, there hasn’t been a gentle shift away from the fiery James Brown-style psychedelic soul of Benin and the African Scream records towards a lusher, seventies dancefloor sound?
‘Well, it’s down to saturation, simple as that,’ says Samy. ‘I’ve done too much Afrobeat, I’ve done too much Afro-funk – but it’s something I’m going to continue doing because there are people who were kids, say, 15 years old ten years ago, now they’re 25, so you always have a new generation coming through. I will never release bad music, but let’s say I’m going to release a really good funk compilation from Togo that I was crazy about ten years ago . . . I’ve heard so much of that stuff that now . . . If I release an Afrobeat compilation I’m going to sell two times more than something like Camarão’ – an Imaginary Soundtrack to a Brazilian Western, complete with Portuguese dialogue and plenty of accordion. ‘But money has never been a reason for me to do something – never,’ he continues. ‘Obviously, I want a record to be a success, but money is the last thing I’m looking for. Success is lots of people discovering it, lots of people enjoying it – I guess that’s why Analog Africa has soul and heart. Camarão, even before I released it, I knew it was not going to be a commercial success but I didn’t give a shit, because for me it was a different flavour . . . it’s a bit like cooking: when you cook you need different spices – you have salt, pepper, curry and so on – and for me a label is basically a collection of spices. That’s what I want to achieve. A DJ can have a bag of Analog Africa stuff and he can move from one thing to the other; he can complete a whole night and people will say, “Wow! That was very diverse.” And that’s my goal: I will continue releasing diverse music, although it might not be an adventure commercially. Hopefully people will say, “This guy, he tried to cover a lot of ground.”’
Listening to the Wind is out now, published by Omnibus Press. You can order a copy here. Read a previous extract on Frances Castle’s Clay Pipe Music label, here, and another on the Sahel Sounds label here.