Interview: Samy Ben Redjeb – Analog Africa (March 2017)

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When you talk with Samy Ben Redjeb, future and past become synonyms and mingle with each other. The founder of the German label, Analog Africa, has brought vintage sounds coming from all over the African Continent to the present and set free their cutting-edge characters. That’s why, when you ask him to describe his “creature”, his answer is “music from the future that has been created in the past”.

We met the “music diviner” a few weeks ago at the Yard in London before one of his tasteful DJ-sets, and we extensively chatted about the story of Analog Africa, passion for African sounds, and how to run a label in 2017.

The artist that really pushed me to start releasing music was a Zimbabwean musician called Oliver Mtukudzi. He’s now a big star, but when I was looking for his music in 1994, he wasn’t very successful. I remember that I was looking for the music that he recorded in the 1970s, so I went to Zimbabwe to look for that stuff. I really loved and I’m still loving his voice. He was the first artist that I really wanted to release. That’s how the idea about the label came to me. It was related to the fact that I was really passionate about the music that I was discovering and my hope was to share it with people.

After a few years, in 2001, I decided that I had to start working on a label. I went again to Zimbabwe, but the project with Oliver didn’t work out. Even if we became very good friends and he told me that I could release his music, when I was ready to do that, he had already released one of the most successful albums in the history of the country. He also started to have a management team and they were nice people too, but things became difficult for me to publish his music. What I wanted to release was his very first album, which was recorded in 1977 and, until today, has never been released. The reason why they didn’t want to give me the license was because they said that there was too much demand. At the same time, I recognise that I probably wasn’t convincing enough. I didn’t have the tools to be convincing because I was nobody at that time. They already knew that I had the biggest collection of Zimbabwean music worldwide, so when they wanted music from Oliver that they never heard before, they were contacting me. So, they knew that I was going to do a good job with the release, but at the same time, Oliver was in high demand and they’re arguably waiting for a better deal. So, it never happened and I never tried again.”

As the good commentators used to say at this moment: the rest is history…

When I was in Harare and I was starting to think that the project with Oliver wasn’t going to happen, I found another album that was a bit more bizarre. It was recorded by a band called The Green Arrows and that became my very first compilation. As said, it was a bit more twisted and bizarre, surely, they didn’t have Oliver’s voice, but I felt that I could really do something with their music. So, I met the musicians and they were very warm with me. It was a touching experience. They told me a lot about their lives and stories, and showed me many pictures. Basically, it was like discovering their music deleted, a bit like the story with Oliver. I was also realising that the sound I was looking for with Oliver wasn’t a sound that could take off my label in the way I wished.

After the project with The Green Arrows, the political situation in Zimbabwe became quite complicated and I asked myself what I was going to do. So, I went to Benin and, when I arrived in Cotounou, I just needed a few days to find amazing music. I had a feeling that I was onto something and I continued to go back there and I released the compilation titled African Scream Contest. Many people think that it was my first compilation, but they don’t know about the previous two”.

More than a decade later, Analog Africa is a reference for everyone interested in quality African sounds. But what Samy was looking for when he started was something more essential and less exigent…

When I started, my wish was just to be able to make a living with the label and survive on it. I also wanted to release the albums and music I wanted with no constraints. After the third or fourth compilation, I could already see that it was working. Today, I feel that the music we have released has influenced musicians and some young bands. I can see that more and more people are looking at that sound because that’s not something that you can learn in school and it is not easily accessible and available to music listeners. That’s something that has always been nice for me and I feel proud about it”.

Samy also makes no secret that Analog Africa’s success has been facilitated by the growing popularity and, in some way, “mass consumption” of African music.

Today, everybody plays or can play African music, while only 10 or 15 years ago, it wasn’t so common to listen to African records on the radio, I’m also talking about the BBC. Nowadays, every DJ can play African tunes: they’re widely accepted and it’s no longer a shock when they play them. African music has become part of the mainstream, which is really good in some ways. Since it’s such a quality type of music, it also improves the quality of the mainstream music scene. Another fact that I like and has helped Analog Africa is that, today, you can be in Paris, New York, or London and listen and relate to a song that was recorded, for example, in a small city in the North of Benin like Parakou. Even if the song was originally sung in the local language and only people living in that area can understand, you can enjoy it and dance to it. I find it really interesting to take something from total obscurity to the global audience because the musicians who originally played the song are really proud of it and that’s what I really find fascinating. The albums that we release are always of good quality: we are always keen to do good mastering and our works have a good sound. Then, we are also keen to pay the musicians the money they deserve to be paid and they are the first ones who recognise the good quality of the final outcome. For example, in Benin, there was this guy called Antoine Dougbé from Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou. Sadly, he’s now passed away, but he had two sons and they were playing the cd that we released of their father [The Vodoun Effect]. When they played it, everyone around them was like ‘wow, what an amazing sound!’ and they were really proud to tell people that he was their father”.

Despite the fact that running a label and scheduling its releases requires meticulous planning, Samy revealed that it’s easier than it sounds, or at least more instinctive.

I don’t follow any path when it comes to Analog Africa’s releases. To be honest, it’s all about my taste. It reflects what I like and where I go. Last year, I checked and listed all the countries that I’ve been and where I researched music and I counted 28 of them. Most of them are in Africa, while some others are related to the African diaspora or influenced by African sounds. For example, the project called Siriá is related to the sound that was created by enclaves of slaves who run away from Guyana and Suriname. They went to the only place where they couldn’t be caught, which was the Amazon and they created quilombo also mixing Indian and Portuguese influences”.

During our chat, we eventually discovered that Analog Africa’s final ambition is indeed to shine a light on the countless acceptations and exceptions of African music.

I don’t look at the music we release using a political or social lens. However, in the linear notes of my compilations, I always want to explain the situation in the local and world music industry and in which situation the album was recorded and presses, which is also a reflection of the state of the affairs of that specific country or region. That’s because, in some countries, it’s quite difficult to record stuff. For example, I released two compilations in Angola when the civil war was starting. All the music I included was coming before the civil war, but at the same time, everybody knows what happened after it and how the situation in the country was. So, in the end, all of that plays an important role.

Anyway, I’m not entirely sure if people can take a sense of the political or social situation of a country through my compilations. I doubt it because I don’t feel that’s my real duty. If I’ll release an album of Angolan music after the Independence, obviously that’d be different, because a big part of the music recorded in that period has strong political lyrics. Then, there are also a few Angolan musicians who went to prison because of those songs. So, yes, that’d be something I’d be keen to precise in the liner notes. Another example is Funanà music from Cape Verde. Funanà was banned by Portuguese and, in this way, it’s a kind of political music, but I don’t think people would buy that album because of its political meaning. They mainly buy it because of a matter of taste and because it’s a different sound. That’s eventually my aim as I could also spend my time releasing afrobeat or afro-funk compilations and I would sell more and more albums, but that’s not what I want. I want to show people that there are many different music spots in Africa and each one has its own style…I want people to try to listen to them!”

After 16 years and dozens of albums released, we can say that Samy is fully honouring his aspiration and label’s purpose. But, when it comes to Analog Africa, you can easily understand that you’re dealing with a “different” record label since you consider its market placement.

To run a record label nowadays, it’s a double-edged sword. As a matter of fact, a lot of people download music today, so you can’t sell too much. At the same time, your music reaches audiences that you wouldn’t be able to reach if you were using traditional channels and you can also promote it in different ways. So, there’s a sort of balance because you can sell using digital platforms and information travels much faster. Of course, there are many negative aspects too. I’d sell more and more physical records without internet. I reckon that, 20 years ago, I would have sold two or even three times more albums than I sell today. On the other hand, not as many people would know about the label and relate to the music I release.

When I started, it was more or less the exact moment when the download thing started too. It was the precise moment when people were saying ‘now it’s the worst moment to start a label’. That’s when I launched the label. I also remember that, when I created Analog Africa, I had a distributor in Munich and worked with them for seven months and then they went bankrupt. I lost all the money because they had all the stock and I didn’t get any cash back. But I was doubly lucky because my London distributor [Proper Music] bought everything they had and because in that way I also started working with one of the the best distributors in Europe.

Today, Analog Africa is also a well renowned DJ-set. Next to travelling all over Africa to seek, discover, and record new/old music, Samy and his music partners travel around Europe and the States to share it with gig- and club-goers. It goes without saying that, if you’re passionate about African music in all its forms, you should experience one of Analog Africa’s live sets, starting from their next London appearance happening on the 9th of September at Total Refreshment Centre. So, we wondered if Samy could tell us what the sets are about.

Fun, it’s really about fun. While doing DJ sets, we can travel and connect with people. It’s also an occasion to link our two jobs together because, for example, I’m also working on mastering my next project here in London, so I seized the opportunity to do both, DJing and production. Then I also went to Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide FM…so, yes, it’s definitely a way to connect with people and the music scene”.

When it comes to planning for the future, Analog Africa is an active and fully-operating process. Next to the recently released Pop Makossa compilation, focussed on the Cameroonian dance music scene of the late 1970s and early 80s, the label will release two other albums before the end of the year.

The plan is, after the Cameroonian compilation, we are going to release a Brazilian album in September and the second volume of African Scream Contest in December. So, yes, we have plenty of work to do.

…and luckily, we will have plenty of quality music to listen to. Because if there’s one thing you can be 100% sure about, it is the total commitment and respect that Samy has for the music he releases. That’s because Analog Africa is something more than Samy Ben Redjeb’s record label, it’s also Samy Ben Redjeb’s attitude

I tend to say that Analog Africa is music from the future that has been created in the past. Sometimes, it’s very futuristic and advanced music that it’s hard to believe it was recorded in the 1970s or even earlier. I wanted to create the label because many people had an idea of African music that was very far from the reality. I remember when I was a teenager that I listened to a lot of music and sometimes I was listening to funk, rock, reggae…so you could listen to all kind of music, but never African music. That is something that’s stuck in my head since then. I remember that the impression that the media and advertising agencies were giving of African music was that it was really cheap! Today, we’re finally getting better. It’s happening slowly, but people are finally starting to understand that it’s a totally different type of music what they originally thought”.

 

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