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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

Samy Ben Redjeb's goal to change perceptions of African music

'Most of the stuff that we were listening to, or what was advertised, was the cheesy music of Africa or at best a more naive side,' he says 

Leopold Yeouessi from Orchestre Poly Rythmo.
Leopold Yeouessi from Orchestre Poly Rythmo.

The only thing that could be more entertaining than listening to the thrilling compilation African Scream Contest Vol.2 is talking to the man behind the project.

Samy Ben Redjeb, owner of Analogue Africa, a record label located in Germany, says that the compilation – a sequel to the critically acclaimed first volume released a decade earlier – was close to being shelved due to a mix of misplaced promises, missing musicians and the old industry bug-bears of contracts and copyright.

Like its predecessor, Vol.2 had Ben Redjeb returning to the scene of his earlier success; the West African country of Benin. Once again, he compiled another catchy batch of unreleased 1970s tunes by long-lost artists to illustrate how the country – and the continent in general – was a hot bed of exciting and innovative sounds that freely mixed traditional music elements with western flavours such as soul and funk.

Listening to the collection, which is available on CD (with a lush booklet of detailed liner notes) and major online streaming sites, you can only marvel at the sounds created by musicians with unbridled creativity, and without the burden of commercial pressures.

From the blissed-out psychedelia of A Min We Vo Nou We by Les Sympathics de Porto Novo and the earthy blues of Picoby Band D’Abomey’s Me Adomina to the assured groove and spidery riffs of Le Super Borgou de Parakou’s Baba L’Oke Ba’Wagbe, the 14-track-compilation is one of the coolest soundtracks you will hear this summer and has already garnered critical acclaim as one of the best releases of the year.

Calling the tracker

But as well as Ben Redjeb’s tasteful ear, it took the services of an ex-military hard-man-turned-musician to make it happen. Speaking from his home in Tunisia, Ben Redjeb – born to a Tunisian father and a German mother – recalls having all of the songs together but not being able to move forward with the release due to paperwork. “I had a list of musicians that I needed to find to get the rights for the songs and to pay them royalties,” he says. “I was working with someone who was finding them, but then he became unavailable.”

That someone was none other than Clement Melome, leader of one of Africa’s most enduring big bands Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou (who close Vol.2 with the rumba and soul mash-up Idavi). The elder statesman of the Beninese music scene had to jet off as the group embarked on a run of European shows celebrating their 50th anniversary.

Entering the frame just in time was Lokon Andre, the grizzled front-man of Les Volcans de la Capitale (they appeared in the first instalment of African Scream Contest) who would go on to use his military training as a tracker for the Beninese police force to find the wanted men. “He called me the next day and said I found a couple of musicians and said he would keep in touch,” Ben Redjeb says with a soft chuckle. “The next day he would call and say he found a few more, and basically in a week he found everyone.”

An Africa devoid of cliché

This is just one of the many engrossing tales Ben Redjeb shares with me as he takes stock of his 11-year journey with Analogue Africa – a busy period that had him criss-crossing the continent in his quest to unearth musical gems by faded stars.

African Scream Contest Vol.2 is the label’s 27th release. The previous 26 include compilations from various countries forming the funk belt of Africa from Benin and Congo to Ghana and Cape Verde, with other exotic locations in between. But the story begins two decades ago when Ben Redjeb, who was then living in Tunisia, was becoming increasingly frustrated with the sounds emanating from the region. In his early twenties at the time, he recalls being already fascinated with the music coming from Africa with its penchant for flamboyant, polyrhythmic beats and varied vocal styles.

However, he was frustrated at how that vibrancy wasn’t channelled in popular radio at the time. “Most of the stuff that we were listening to, or what was advertised, was the cheesy music of Africa or at best a more naive side,” he says. “While what was really happening in Africa was a whole parallel universe with music that was more advanced, sophisticated, complex and also not always happy. It was definitely far from the cliched images that we see of an African man smiling while playing on the drums.”

To find those sounds, Ben Redjeb knew it required a deep dive into the continent. And with its familiar climate, crazy traffic, the Friday prayers and the fact “they also ate couscous”, the Senegalese capital of Dhakar was the ideal location to begin his quest.

In addition to working as a diving instructor in a hotel, Ben Redjeb also took on DJing duties in the venue’s club and managed to build a popular weekly party dedicated to local tunes and those from South Africa and Zimbabwe.

A hitchhike to success

It was through recommendations that Ben Redjeb discovered the music of Oliver Mtukudzi, a pioneer of Zimbabwe’s jazz movement. “I can’t explain it really. When I first heard the music I knew I was in love with it,” he recalls. “I decided to travel to Zimbabwe to find this man.”

After selling off his furniture and fabrics in the market, Ben Redjeb used the money to relocate to Harare in 2003, where after a few inquiries in the local music scene, he eventually found Mtukudzi.

“When I met him he was in a bad state,” he says. “But he had just lost his brother and his cousin and he was going through a really bad patch and he was playing in hotels in front of 50 guests.”

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In what can only be described as bittersweet for Ben Redjeb, the relationship he was to form with Mtukudzi coincided with the rehabilitation of his career, which came about, thanks to a new manager. By the time they got down to discussing Ben Redjeb’s goal to release Mtukudzi’s forgotten debut album – dating back to the early 1970s – he had become one of Zimbabwe’s biggest-selling acts and his management team declined the request.

Despite being stung by the setback; the friendship was eventually responsible for Analogue Africa’s debut release. Enamoured by Mtukudzi’s favourite band Green Arrows, which Ben Redjeb’s described as “Zimbabwe’s best bar band” during their peak from the early to the mid-1970s, he sought out the mercurial front-man Zexie Manatsa in order to obtain the rights to release a self-titled compilation of the group’s music.

Ben Redjeb says the situation came with its own share of challenges. “I managed to find an old stock of records in a mine three hours from Harare,” he says. “On the way back, the car broke down and in order to make it on time, I hitch-hiked in the middle of the night until I made it back in time for the meeting with Manatsa. He was happy with the idea but his wife took some time convincing about what I was trying to do.”

Stories in sound

Such was the case with all of the Analogue Africa releases. Each project tells its own tale of Ben Redjeb’s adventures from South Africa to Somalia.

After landing a job as a flight attendant with the German carrier with Lufthansa, he managed to make over a dozen trips to Africa each month for meetings with a generation of forgotten musicians (or their descendants) in family homes, shop stalls and clubs as he attempted to convince them that their work matters. “Some of them were surprised when I showed them the songs I wanted to release because they weren’t popular at the time. They were like, ‘are you sure you want these songs?’” he says.

“There were also people who refused. A lot of these acts embraced religion and they called their former music the devil’s work and that was that.”

In the case of Benin’s Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou, Ben Redjeb discovered them after finding a treasure trove of their recordings in the capital Porto-Novo, in a storage room owned by a former Beninese customs official (“he was not a nice man”).

Ben Redjeb would go on to re-release many of these tracks in various Analogue Africa recordings – including 2009’s sterling compilation Echos Hypnotiques – From the Vaults of Albarika Store 1969​-​1979 – and as a result, the group received renewed interest and touring opportunities, which explains why Ben Redjeb was not too miffed when Melome jetted of on tour instead of assisting him in finding the artists for African Scream Contest Vol.2. “They are busy now, I am glad,”

he smiles.

As for his own fortunes, Analogue Africa is now a full-time gig for Ben Redjeb with a small office in Frankfurt and a small team of dedicated staff.

While the label remains a niche business venture, Ben Redjeb says it is ultimately serving its purpose.

“We have a small and dedicated team and we are doing okay,” he says.

“But ultimately it allows me to make a living from doing what I love. That for me is the main thing. I am satisfied.”

And with another African musical expedition planned next month (Ben Redjeb can’t reveal the location to protect himself from rivals) we can expect even more musical treasures from the continent coming to light.

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