Thursday, 21 May 2009

Sofrito and the Antilles

On an almost tropical May evening in Hackney, Musik Line met Hugo Mendez and asked him about his involvement with promoting the music of the French Caribbean islands: Martinique, Guadeloupe, Dominica and associated places. Along with the other members of the Sofrito crew – Frankie Francis, Mighty Crime Minister and MC Kwasi – Hugo has been responsible for putting on some of London’s more kicking parties of recent years, rocking east-side warehouses (as well as more overground venues such as Cargo) with rarely heard highlife, calypso, gwo ka and cadence records, as well as releasing some tasty re-edits. He is currently working on a compilation of French Caribbean music, to be released later this year on the respected Soundway label. It’s a part of the world that isn’t that well known in non-francophone countries, so I asked him to tell us a bit about its musical context and styles: about forms such as compas, gwo ka and bele, which flourish alongside more well known rhythms like calypso and beguine. I also asked him about Sofrito, their parties, their releases and his project with Soundway.

- Start by telling me a bit about Sofrito, as a label and as promoters.

We're not trying to make it a world music listening thing, it's meant to be more a club / party thing. We think that the music is brilliant to dance to and it creates an atmosphere in a club unlike any other music. So even if it's quite cheesy, if you play a great old calypso record, people who have never heard that music or anything like it before can immediately identify with it and dance to it. Whereas if you get involved with the old music scenes, the rare music scenes like funk or soul or jazz, it tends to disappear up its own arsehole. People are trying to out-rare each other.

- Same in reggae!

Well at least the thing with reggae is it's all got big bass, it's fat ... but this stuff, it's irrelevant whether you know it or not, we're not trying to make it obscure, we're trying to make it accessible by playing really fun music. A lot of the musicians that have played at our parties, who are in bands that play funk or jazz or afro stuff, they're also into awkward, weird music – not to denigrate it, but they love Sun Ra, odd music - stuff not naturally intended for dancing. The point of the parties is to play stuff that's happy, it's not deep, introspective, weird, it's music to make you smile and dance and if it doesn't do that we don't play it. We might have a few records that are may be rare or interesting in some way but if you can't dance to them it's irrelevant. Luckily we've never had a trainspotty crowd come down to our nights and it's always been a good percentage of women to men. Something like dubstep, which is interesting, very well produced, my experience of going to a dubstep night is it's 95% geezers, stoned, in caps, staring at the DJ and not dancing. The music might be great but that's not my kind of party. I’d rather go somewhere where people are naturally smiling. Calypso, Latin, highlife, beguine, compas, it's not serious music. You can take it seriously in that you're really into it, but you can't be really serious and moody about compas because that's not the point. It's carnival music. So the atmosphere is only really made by everyone involved, not just everyone standing looking at a performance. It's a much more collective thing.

- How long have you been running parties in London for?

Only three years. The first party we did was at Passing Clouds [in Dalston], and it was too busy. The next party was at this warehouse in Whitechapel, which was far too busy, it was a bit bigger than Passing Clouds but it was very narrow. That was a wicked party. But unfortunately the people that ran that place had just started it the week before and we managed to shut them down. The party was so big that they could never do anything there again. Then we did it at the Old Boys Hall [in Dalston], we did three or four there, then again at Passing Clouds, we did one up in Stoke Newington somewhere, then the Empowering Church came along, which is really good, that's been the best venue so far. The Old Boys Hall was probably the best parties that we did but again it was too dangerous, too many people, there's only one exit.

- You generally have some live stuff as well as DJs.

We did put together a band, the Sofrito All Stars, for a while, which was great. We had some of the guys from Heliocentrics and some really great horn players and a guy called Alfred Bannerman, a Ghanaian guitarist who used to be in a band called Boombaya in the 70s, then in Osibisa. But it was too difficult to have a ten piece band. All of them had more financially viable things to be doing and it was very difficult to hold together a band like that for the odd gig. We did a few gigs with them and it was great, we'd love to do something again in the future. We did a kind of Latin thing with some of the same guys and some different people last year which went really well too. It's just a question of getting time to rehearse.

- The parties came before the releases?

The label was our effort to get people who were more into their house or dance music to listen to something slightly different. The releases are more on the kind of dance / disco tip. We cut an edit of the first track we did, using it as a dubplate to play out, and percussionists or horn players would play over the top. And then we cut a version of that. We took loops, built it up from the bottom again. The other track on the first 12” is a more recent thing, from Ivory Coast, that's an edit as well, a kind of mystery track. So far there's the two 12s, a remix for Far Out Records which is a Brazilian thing by Sabrina Malheiros, more straight forward and dancey, and then we've done a remix for the Akoya Afrobeat Band from New York, which is coming out soon. They gave us the whole session on DVD, about twelve hours of music for one song. We did a highlife version, got some people to play extra bits and completely changed the rhythm around, trying to take people away from the idea that African music is just Afrobeat. Afrobeat is amazing but actually for me, on the dancefloor, it's not the best African music. Highlife is as interesting, rumba is as interesting, there's a lot of music from Africa that is as interesting as Afrobeat, so we were trying to take it and give it a bit more of a bump. Ideally we’d like to be putting out new music. One of the reasons we wanted to start the label was simply to put out the kind of records that you might play in Cargo rather than a warehouse party, a bit more commercial. That seems to work because people pick up on the fact that it’s not big or clever, it’s something you can play out which has got a slightly different style. It’s the kind of thing you can stick in your bag and play.

- How many copies of the Sofrito 12”s do you press?

It varies. We don't expect to sell many, maybe 500, but we did three times that for the last 12”, and the next one, from the reactions that we've got from people that have heard it, should certainly do quite well. It's got to cross over from people who like African or Latin music to people who like house or disco, otherwise you won’t sell it. You've got to sit a very fine balance. The reason the last one went so well was that there was an edit of a Caribbean cover version of a jazz fusion track by Ralph MacDonald on it. All the jazz heads recognized the tune and bought it for that. That's something that's difficult to repeat. The next one is going to be a Caribbean / African disco thing and a really raw highlife thing, which is more what we play. Hopefully people will be more into the highlife stuff than the disco stuff at some point. Some of the African disco stuff is cool, but I guess for me what I like most is Latin and Caribbean music, calypso, beguine, Haitian stuff.

- Do you find it hard to get?

As long as you're not buying it in England it is – or was – pretty easy to get. No one valued it. Especially in France, people were still turning up shitloads of that stuff for nothing. If it hasn't got a funk track on it then no one wants it. You can go into a shop after someone that's looking for funk and they'll leave all the good stuff and take very second-rate funk records for a lot of money. Then you can go in and buy two-euro records that are great. Listening to bits and bobs on CDs, then going there and finding loads of stuff, meeting loads of people, developing your taste, you find out what you do and don't like. And then learning more about Latin music and understanding the huge exchange between the rhythms and all the different islands and countries. There are such similarities between music from the north coast of Colombia, Guadeloupe, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, it was just flying around. Change one bar of the rhythm and you've got a different style. People were covering each other’s records, and the bands were touring all around, on cruise ships. one of the most important bands in Guadeloupe and Martinique in the '60s was probably Ryco Jazz, a Congolese band. They moved to Paris in the mid-60s and then they were booked by a Congolese guy in Martinique to do a season there and ended up staying for five years. They went to Guadeloupe, did the cruise ships, and they brought Congolese rumba, which was already being sold in the French Caribbean but they caned it, they mixed it, a lot of the players in the band by then were Antillean percussionists and that's how that particular sound came about.

- Where have your own travels in that part of the world taken you?

I've been around a few islands but the main ones are Dominica, Guadeloupe and Martinique. Dominica's kind of different. It was French, then it was English, then it was French, then it was English again. Now it's wholly independent, it's not subsidized by anyone. The biggest investors are Venezuela, Cuba and China, so it doesn't have a whole lot to do with Europe. Guadeloupe and Martinique are obviously still part of France, colonies. There’s a huge amount of problems, and with the riots that were going on earlier this year there's some really heavy stuff going down. There's a fair amount of innate racism and most of the money is held by white old plantation families, Békés. The islands are very different in character. Guadeloupe is more rural, Martinique is more metropolitan. Martinique's a bit richer. But they're very cut off, the only airlines that really fly there are Air France or Corsair, although American Airlines flies once a week. For some reason the French don't encourage foreigners to go there, they keep it in the family. They're pretty neglected places. Compared to a lot of other Caribbean islands they're quite well off but they're more expensive than going to Paris, everything is imported. An average Guadeloupean will make ten times what someone from Dominica will make, but they're poorer because it costs so much money to do anything. The bureaucracy on the islands is stunning. If you're trying to do any work, license any music or anything like that, it's a mixture of French bureaucracy and Caribbean timekeeping, which is a stunning combination. But I've met some wonderful people in Guadeloupe, alongside some very awkward people. The first thing they ask you is "are you French?", and when you say no they're a lot nicer to you.

- So you were out there digging for tunes and looking for stuff to license for the forthcoming Soundway comp?

The first time I went there it was more just exploring, to see how the land lies. I had a few contacts but because they're small places if you go and ask one person, they'll know someone else and so on. I made most of my contacts the first time, interviewed a few people, tracked down a few people, found a bunch of tunes, came back and then a year later got it together to go over and license the tracks. The first time I went it was very vague. The second time I had a much better idea, I more or less had a track listing. I hoped I'd find loads of new stuff but I had a track listing and I think about half of the tracks I went out there with are still on the comp and the other half have been replaced by things I found out there the second time. It's going to be interesting to see what people think of the album because although it's similar to a lot of other things, it doesn't tick the funk box, it doesn't tick the Afrobeat box, it's not hip for the people that like psychy African music, it's not hip for the funky people. But it's great music and certainly through DJing now it's the stuff that gets the best reaction.

- So what sort of genres are we talking about?

It's early, we're doing 65 to 72-3, so it's before zouk. It's kind of "roots of zouk" I suppose, but there's some Latin stuff. The Latin stuff has got a particular flavour, it's quite shrill in the horns but it's a really interesting way they treat the rhythm. It's got some heavily Haitian-influenced stuff, it's got beguine, which is the standard style from Martinique and Guadeloupe. It's got some calypso, some raw gwo ka, Guadeloupean drumming, and bele in Martinique which is similar thing, a set dance which is really powerful. Going to see a bele in Martinique was an astounding experience. So it's got some of that. A few Latin things, raw, quite jazzy, a couple of merengues. Merengue comes from Dominican Republic and Haiti but it was picked up massively in Angola as well and a lot of the stuff sounds Angolan, which is practically nothing to do with the French Caribbean, so it’s interesting to see how the rhythms go around. Merengue from Dominican Republic is faster and harder, Haitian meringue tends to be a bit slower, a little jazzier. The merengue now from Dominican Republic sounds like rave music, 180 bpm stuff, much more four-four, much more African. That was big back then as well but it was much more mellow. Then there’s compas, a lot of early compas-style stuff.

- I'm never quite clear what compas is rhythmically.

The best way I describe compas is ragga, "boom ba-doom, boom ba-doom", it's that beat with a slightly different twist on it, it's that bounce, that bump. It's easier to hear in the later stuff. Earlier on it's more complex, big band stuff. That beat is obviously also in Jamaica, but in a sense it doesn't have that much to do with reggae, it's a different rhythm, it's come from the whole Caribbean I guess, in the same way that zouk is a mixture of many different things.

- What's the comp called?

Tumbele. It’s a rhythm, the rhythm that Ryco Jazz gave their name to, a slow bouncy semi-Haitian semi-Congolese rhythm. We put one track Haitian track on the album, although it was recorded in Martinique. We put it on because Haitian bands were touring all the time and they were influencing the music, so it's important to have a track from a Haitian act that recorded there. But a lot of the Haitian stuff that was recorded in Martinique is really badly recorded, it's very interesting music but sometimes difficult to listen to because it's got no bass and it's really shrill, which is unfortunate because some of it's killer. The early Haitian stuff, there's a label called Ibo, and Macaya, they used to record the stuff in Haiti and press it in New York. They didn't press many copies, they might have pressed a few thousand of the early releases. I've found a few and they all tend to be knackered, but there's some amazing stuff. There’s a lot of Haitian music on 78s, really mad shit. A label called Ansonia, which I think was originally based in Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico, put out loads of Haitian stuff, some of which is good, some of which isn't so good. And they were putting 78s out, a long time ago.

- Have you got any?

None of the 78s, they tend to break. The 78s I've had in my hands, the sound quality is so terrible. They're great as artifacts, but I'd rather buy the CD reissue that someone's cleaned up. You can't really use 78s for Djing. But yeah, the Haitian stuff is brilliant, and again it's a beat that's not really known over here, but when you play it people respond to it immediately. It's accessible, that's why people made it, and that's the thing with Sofrito, just trying to be really simple and play something that works.

- Is this a big eBay market now?

I wouldn't say it's a huge eBay market, there's some of it on eBay but not many people buy it. Again, the things that club/DJ people are looking for at the moment don't tend to be on those records, although there are people that are really into collecting old compas and calypso.

- So it's a good time to be buying Haitian and Antillean music?

It kind of was. It's more difficult now. But even so, when there's no sound samples, it's just stuck up on eBay ... there's a guy in Paris, he deals records, and he was playing me some really killer Guadeloupean and Haitian stuff, saying "oh, I've never found another one of these and if I did I'd sell it for this much money...". I thought, all right, well, go and look on eBay, there it is, $5, I’ll have it - that doesn't happen too often, the ebay hype is all down to how things are presented. It's good to be able to buy a few. But I've never been a mental collector, I like to have nice records of course, but I've got other things to spend my money on, I'd rather go out and have a good time. If you're collecting records and you think, "oh, this is worth 200 quid", it's only worth 200 quid if it's mint and the cover's mint, which it tends not to be, most of the time it's going to be knackered. So it's not worth 200 quid, it's worth what you paid for it, but you're happy to have it, there you go. When you start thinking about records mainly in terms of money it gets a bit dangerous because they don't really have an intrinsic value.

- Do you find when you go to Martinique and Guadeloupe that people are quite attuned to European record collectors coming over and looking for stuff?

Not really - because no one's interested in records over there, the people that would have bought records back in the day have binned them all, they've gone; and all the people that are really into their music have got the records, they don't really care what they're worth, they are never going to sell them. I've dubbed stuff off people over there. I'm more interested in having the music than the object. Of course everyone loves a cool record, but it's not the be all and end all. And people get a bit funny about records.

- Very true! And presumably for every couple of days digging you have to spend months of licensing.


- How do you do it?

Mostly luck! And they're small places, so if you have one contact, that person might know everyone you need to know. Or they might know someone that knows someone else that knows someone else.

- Do you run into the classic kind of problem that you have in Jamaica of disputes over copyright and ownership? Because in Jamaica famously it's all pretty messed up.

It's messed up pretty much everywhere. The law has changed since the music was made and people have a different understanding of copyright ownership in different countries.

- Give us some background on the general music scene on the islands.

If you go to Guadeloupe or Martinique, they’re split into communes, like small boroughs, a lot of them are pretty rural. Each commune has its own celebrities and bands and music. In Martinique they have a bele, a drumming thing, on different nights. It's not a big concert, it could be in a car park, by someone's house, outdoors somewhere - it's just something that you do. This stuff's being going on for hundreds of years, you see people going down there and they're not wearing their national dress for tourists, they turn up in their tracksuits. They've been running or they've been to a bar or something, and they come down, hang out for a little bit, dance, go away again. It's just a part of what's going on and it’s not really trumpeted.

- Is there a sound system thing going on there as well? Do people set up stacks of speakers and play cadence and stuff like that?

Yeah they do. Zouk, cadence, ragga's big, there's a lot of live bands playing over massive sound systems as well. Then in Dominica, there's a couple of clubs in Roseau [the capital of Dominica] where they will invite DJs over from Martinique or Guadeloupe and the rest of it is they'll have a jam in the village, string up a small set. They don't have sound systems in the way that Jamaica will have many different named sound systems, you just go down to Melvina's bar and someone will be playing some music. They'll play bouyon, soca, ragga, a bit of reggae, cadence. And in all the villages they'll have a little thing now and then, get a barbeque going, sell some beers, play some music. It's not big enough to have clashing sound systems although there's some really good DJs. The bands all tend to be local bouyon bands, which is a bit like soca but even faster, with no basslines and lots of air-raid sirens. It’s super jump-up music, it's pretty intense but it's fun. There's two main bands on the island, WCK and Triple K. WCK are slightly older, Triple K are the youngsters’ band. They always play at the Creole festival, it’s in a big park with a stage, everyone's jammed in there, there’s a small gate so it's all ringed off. I've seen Triple K play maybe five or six times and most of the time they play there's some kind of fight in the crowd. They hype it up a bit, it's kind of the badman thing and all that, it's not for me. It's good fun to dance to but it's pretty relentless.

- Are the DJs playing CD or vinyl?

It's all CD and it’s all ripped. CDs are expensive there, if you want to buy an official release it will cost maybe EC$60, about £20, but you can go to someone, they'll make you a compilation of what you want for EC$10. So people tend to do that. And limewire. People have got internet, they're downloading stuff all over the shop.

- But it's all 128 bit mp3s?

Yeah. Played in bars through a slightly knackered sound system that's had one too many rums poured on it. It's interesting.

- Any other thoughts you want to add?

Music from South America and the Caribbean and Africa works so well in a club, and if you don’t tell people exactly what it is – this slightly nebulous idea that you could call tropical music – people love it. I think it's kind of a collective thing. If you listen to the raw gwo ka stuff from the Caribbean, or Afro-Venezuelan stuff or some of the Brazilian stuff ... it's capturing a moment in time. It's not just a band that have written a load of songs, sat in a studio for ages, polished and polished and spent like seven years making their magnum opus. It’s more pragmatic than that. I've always thought that, without getting philosophical about it, the greatest art is craft. And this stuff is not people trying to make some crazy record or anything like that, they're just knocking it out and this is the sound of what they do, capturing moments. And it’s a great sound.

(Photos courtesy of Hugo Mendez.)