• The untold story behind one of the most sampled breaks in history

    By | October 18, 2018

    Who were Skull Snaps and why did it take forty-five years to find out?

    In early 1973, a trio of musicians yet to be called Skull Snaps went into New Jersey’s Venture Sound Studios to record an album. It didn’t take long. Laying down each track in a single take, the record that became Skull Snaps would go down in hip-hop folkore, featuring one of the most sampled break beats in history.

    But while the drum intro for ‘It’s A New Day’ would lay the foundations for tracks by everyone from The Pharcyde, Eric B. & Rakim, Digable Planets, Common, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, to massive chart outfits like The Prodigy, Linkin Park, and even Alanis Morissette, the band behind Skull Snaps – Samm Culley, Ervan Waters and George ‘Buzzy’ Bragg – were written out of history, lost behind that sample and that iconic, unusual, macabre album cover.

    With Mr Bongo overseeing the first officially licensed reissue of the Skull Snaps LP, this extract from new liner notes by VF editor Anton Spice tells the complete and compelling story of the band from Samm Culley’s perspective for the first time.


    Record collectors, producers and crate diggers like a good creation myth, and Skull Snaps’ self-titled ‘debut’ had it all. A mysterious funk trio, who recorded one album under a curious name, housed it in a sleeve that looked more like a proto-metal album, and released it through a label (GSF Records) that folded shortly afterwards? Everything pointed towards the Skull Snaps album as a single totemic object, packaged in a way that predicted its own disinterment twenty-five years later.

    For those who sampled it, myth maintenance was advantageous, both for their reputations and for their consciences. Likewise, an unsanctioned 1995 reissue on Charley Records removed the credits from the inner sleeve to further sever the record from its context – or perhaps because the label couldn’t quite face using the names of artists they had no intention of paying. Either way, owning the record was a right of passage, as Amir Abdullah once wrote: “If you don’t have Skull Snaps in your collection, your collection is weak.”

    But the band itself was real enough, and by the early ‘70s, Skull Snaps’ Samm Culley and Ervan Waters had built reputations as seasoned vocalists. As members of RnB close harmony group The Diplomats, they released eleven 7”s on various labels between 1963 and 1970, performed regularly at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and were among the first RnB groups to play Carnegie Hall.

    Later in 1973, Skull Snaps would appear again under a different name, cutting a cover of Manu Dibango’s ‘Soul Makossa’ for Buddha Records. “They basically asked us to do it overnight, but we couldn’t put our name on it because we were under contract to do something else, so we used the name All Dyrections,” tells Culley, employing the poetic license afforded to someone who has been mythologised out of history for too long. “We went in that night, recorded it, they released it the following day, and by the following night it had sold 35,000 copies.”

    That same year, the trio played on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ ‘Africa Gone Funky’ – a heavy grooving 7” for London Records that would end up on Hawkins’ 1977 album I Put A Spell On You. Skull Snaps were not part-timers, and the record was far from a flash in the pan.

    Instead, Skull Snaps captured a band at the height of their powers; a tour de force trio that would tear through covers and original material all night long, flabbergasting audiences and contemporaries alike with their energy and stage presence. “Maybe twice we ever rehearsed in our whole careers”, tells Culley proudly. Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Barry White – the band could do the lot, playing clubs for weeks on end where they would make three sound like ten; either mimicking an Echoplex by looping Bragg’s drums through the PA system, or performing horn arrangements with their mouths.

    “I remember we did a gig together with Kool & The Gang in New York, and when they saw us set up these little three pieces, I heard them say, ‘What the hell are they going to do with three pieces?’ But when that drum beat started, they flipped around in those seats and said, ‘What the hell is this?’ It blew their minds.”

    Or in the words of Lloyd Price, it snapped their skulls. Although specialising in close harmonies as The Diplomats (so close “there was no way to fit another damn voice in the harmony set-up”), Culley (bass) and Waters (guitar) were no slouches on their instruments either. In hooking up with drummer George Bragg, the band felt it had the best of both worlds: a tight rhythm section that pointed to the heavier, funkier sound of the ‘70s, and the vocal sophistication of doo-wop groups and modern soul stars like Otis Redding. When Price saw them perform one night, in Culley’s words, “he just sat there with his mouth open.” The story goes that Price spoke to the band after the gig and asked: “If you’re not going to use The Diplomats name, what can your name be, sounding like that? Because when I listen to you, it’s like to snap my fuckin’ skull.”

    In that moment, Skull Snaps were born. Inspired by American rock outfit Three Dog Night, the concept for the album cover swiftly followed. “At that particularly time, black music wasn’t doing that great, and you had the problem of being able to get the plays that you wanted, especially in the pop areas,” remembers Culley. “So, we decided not to have our pictures on there, so people really couldn’t know who we were. If you went into a record shop and saw that album sitting there and you’re a rock fan, you’d say, ‘Damn, let me take that home and see what it is.’ But when you get it home, you find out it’s not a rock album, but you like the album anyway.” It was a piece of covert marketing, and an indictment of an industry that obstructed black artists in getting their music heard. As a result, Skull Snaps had inadvertently written themselves out of one of the biggest stories in hip-hop history.

    Not that they knew it at the time. When Skull Snaps went into the studio in 1973, they had two main aims: to show off the versatility of their compositions and the energy of their live sets. Between trainee studio engineer Ed Stasium (who would go on to work with Ramones, Talking Heads and countless others), producer George Kerr, and the arrangements of Bert Keys, Skull Snaps pieced together an album that moved effortlessly between conscious, orchestral soul (‘My Hang Up Is You’), the Blaxploitation-era ‘I’m Your Pimp’, slow-burning ballads like ‘Having You Around’ and the classic funk sound of ‘Trespassing’. The arrangements were punchy, and ambitious – Keys drafted in a bemused member of the New York Philharmonic to play the harp on the session – and Culley was over the moon with the end result. “Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. All of those songs are one-take tracks. It was surprising to us, but we were just really ready for it.” And yet for decades, this extraordinary achievement resonated for little more than a highly compressed two-bar drum loop.

  • Skull Snaps’ holy grail funk album reissued by Mr Bongo

    By | September 21, 2018

    Featuring one of the most sampled breaks in history.

    Originally released in 1973, Skull Snaps’ mythical self-titled album is set to get an official reissue courtesy of Mr Bongo.

    Read next: Watch a 30-minute workshop on the history of sampling

    A record that entered crate digging folklore in the early ’90s, as the break beat which opens ‘It’s A New Day’ became one of the most sampled in history, very little was known about the origins of the Skull Snaps album, with its skeletal cover artwork hinting at a proto-metal record rather than the heavy funk held within.

    Recorded by trio Samm Culley, Ervan Waters and George Bragg, Skull Snaps was however just one project for the group, who had achieved relative success in the previous decade as close harmony group The Diplomats.

    And while Skull Snaps is most renowned for ‘It’s A New Day’ – sampled over 480 times by hip-hop legends like The Pharcyde, Eric B. & Rakim, Digable Planets, Common and mainstream chart acts like the Prodigy, and Alanis Morisette alike – the album is something of a masterpiece in its own right, combining close harmony vocals, Blaxploitation-era arrangements and tight funk grooves across nine virtuoso, one-take recordings.

    Much bootlegged in the intervening 45 years, owning the Skull Snaps record became something of a right of passage – as Amir Abdullah once wrote: “If you don’t have Skull Snaps in your collection, your collection is weak”.

    Licensed from Samm Culley, who provides an insightful interview on the making of the album for new liner notes by VF editor Anton Spice, the Mr Bongo edition will make this crucial piece of funk and hip-hop history available more widely for the first time.

    Order a copy direct from Mr Bongo here ahead of its general release on 19th October.

  • Highlife musician Gyedu-Blay Ambolley’s debut solo LP Simigwa reissued by Mr Bongo

    By | August 23, 2018

    Sunshine funk, inspired by James Brown and produced with Ebo Taylor.

    Ghanian musician Gyedu-Blay Ambolley’s 1975 debut album Simigwa is being reissued, this September via Mr Bongo.

    Read more: The story of highlife and Afrobeat legend Ebo Taylor, in his own words

    A member of the Houghas Extraordinaires, Meridians Of Tema, Ghana Broadcasting Band and the Uhuru Dance Band, which he was recruited for by his friend, Ebo Taylor, Ambolley also played with Fela Kuti in Nigeria during the seventies.

    According to Mr Bongo, Simigwa was largely inspired by “the work of the mighty Mr. James Brown, something that is evident from the rhythm section, horns, vocal stabs and percussion breaks throughout the record.”

    The 6-track LP has been remastered from its original tapes and features replica cover artwork.

    Pre-order a copy here ahead of its 28th September release, listen to ‘Fa No Dem Ara’ and check out the track list below.

    Tracklist

    1. Kwaakwaa
    2. Akoko Ba
    3. This Hustling World
    4. Toffie
    5. Adwoa
    6. Fa No Dem Ara

  • Super rare Nigerian boogie record Viva Disco reissued by Mr Bongo

    By | July 5, 2018

    A virtually unknown slice of 1980s sunshine by Tunde Mabadu.

    Tunde Mabadu’s 1980 Viva Disco album is being reissued for the first time, via Mr Bongo this July

    Read more: Inside Mr Bongo’s new beachside record sanctuary

    Viva Disco one was of two albums that Mabadu recorded as Tunde Mabadu & His Sunrise during the 1970s, the second of which was called Bisu.

    By this time, Mabadu was “already a fanciful and continental saxophonist of any language,” shares Femi Ewetade in Viva Disco‘s liner notes.

    Originally released on Afrodisia – and fetching upwards of £500+ – Viva Disco’s euphorically funky, horn-filled six tracks have been remastered for this new reissue.

    Pre-order a copy here ahead of its 20th July release, listen to clips from the album and check out the track list below.

    Tracklist

    1. Alabosi
    2. Disco Press Funk
    3. Amupara Ko Ma Dara
    4. African Parowo
    5. Angelina – Sugar Daddy
    6. Viva Disco (Instrumental)

  • The 10 best new vinyl releases this week (4th June)

    By | June 4, 2018

    A Brazilian “holy grail” 7″, soothing ’80s synthscapes, and primitive punches to raise the roof.

    June may be known as a month of meteorological gloom, but on the records front it’s a different story with balmy, beat-filled boogie from across the musical spectrum.

    On the singles tip, there are dance floor house killers, essential 7″ Mr Bongo reissues, and groove-laden rnb ditties aplenty.

    Meanwhile in albums-ville, Music from Memory’s latest Kuniyuki Takahashi collection has landed, Natalie Prass crafts a glitzy paradise, and Macintosh Plus returns with art, darling.

    Scroll down for our definitive across-the-board rundown of the week’s new vinyl releases as selected by The Vinyl Factory’s Chris Summers, Patrick Ryder and James Hammond with help from Norman Records. 5 singles and 5 LPs every 7 days that are unmissable additions to any collection.


    Singles


    Al Zanders

    Guidance EP

    (Underground Therapy Muzik)

    Listen / Buy

    London producer Al Zanders (aka disco edits whizz Lodger) follows his Phonica There Is Rhythm 12″ with a fresh four-track EP on Roy Davis Jr’s newly resurrected Underground Therapy Muzik imprint. Guidance opens with the percussive funk house of ‘Martha’s Revenge’ before sashaying its way into some boogie courtesy of ‘Television’. On the flip, ‘Likes For Cash’ serves up punchy, glitched out drums to kick things up a notch, before closing with the shimmering roller of title track ‘Guidance’. All dance killers, no fillers.


    O Seis

    ‘Suicida’ / ‘Apocalipse’

    (Mr Bongo)

    Listen / Buy

    This one’s sure to be of interest to anyone familiar with legendary Brazilian outfit Os Mutantes, and indeed anyone interested in the intersections of Brazilian surf rock, folk and psychedelia. A host of musicians, with the core members of Os Mutantes at the helm, self-released this 7” single as a one-off back in 1966, and in very limited quantities. A “holy grail” of sorts owing not only to its scarcity and historicity, but also, and most importantly to the fact that both the A and B-side are absolutely top-notch. Mr Bongo also dropped a trio of noteworthy LP reissues this week: Shina Williams & His African Percussionists’ African Dances – which contains the album version of ‘Agboju Logan’ – one of our favourite 12″s of 2017 – Foster Sylvers’ Foster Sylvers and The Sylvers’ The Sylvers II.


    Toto Chiavetta

    Magnus

    (Mule Musiq)

    Listen / Buy

    Though he may be less than prolific (the Italian’s sedate strike rate is ten releases in as many years), Toto Chiavetta always delivers on quality, and this latest 12″ for Italy’s Mule Musiq is no exception. Where previous releases for the likes of Yoruba and Innervisions have hinted at the spiritual side of the tech house terrain, the ‘Magnus EP’ drops directly into tribal territories, ripping systems apart with the rugged thump of the title track and laser etched techno of ‘First Day Without Her’, before raising the roof with the future primitive punch of ‘Higher Than A Bird’.


    Dinosaur Jr

    Blue Room Sessions

    (Third Man Records)

    Listen / Buy

    One of a multitude of 7″s out on Third Man. This is a Blue Room session by the reconstituted Dinosaur Jr, proving that they still have all their grungy dynamics and songwriting chops intact. In case you need reminding, get to grips with the balls-out fun and exciting guitar band in our essential Dinosaur Jr records rundown.


    Letherette

    Letherette EP5

    (WULF)

    Listen / Buy

    Pitch perfect rnb jams with a signature Letherette, electronic sample-hued finish. EP5 starts on a high, delivering your future favourite, summer wind down time track ‘Love Lust’ with Olivier St. Louis on exquisite vocal duties. Lest Letherette get too deep in a romantic groove via the first three numbers, ‘Pal Mal’ and standout ‘Pianto’ throw jazz-sampling hip-hop shades into the mix, with echoes of Madlib sprinkled on top.


    LPs


    Kuniyuki Takahashi

    Early Tape Works (1986-1983) Vol. 2

    (Music From Memory)

    Listen / Buy

    Soothing ’80s synthscapes and breezy tropical samples abound, in this second instalment of Music from Memory’s compilation series showcasing the music of Japanese producer Kuniyuki Takahashi. Whereas the first instalment, one of the records had a more club orientated feel, Vol. 2 delves into cinematic territory that carries a Joe Hisaishi touch. An emotive and ethereal essential, whether you’re previously familiar with Takahashi’s tunes or not.


    Eartheater

    Irisiri

    (PAN)

    Listen / Buy

    Two full lengths in a year back in 2015 hit as a bold statement of intent. Now we have this latest effort from Eartheater aka Alexandra Drewchin on PAN records, which ups the stakes in terms of exhilaration and a song form that simultaneously embraces and rejects classic composition. There’s a streak of cold and alluring sound at the core of this one, with some keen production and a host of synths managing to avoid the glut of your more typical ambient sounds, letting the power of Drewchin’s shape shifting voice and the songs’ caustic edges come through.


    Macintosh Plus

    Floral Shoppe

    (Olde English Spelling Bee)

    Listen / Buy

    Undoubtedly the collector’s selection for the week, the long awaited vinyl pressing of Vektroid’s meme-generating vaporwave pinnacle arrives with just as much controversy as any art experiment ought to. After an alleged dispute between the label and pressing plant over financial irregularities, the stock snuck into shops over the last few days, its slurred and slanky AOR crunch only enhanced by any illicit overtones. Whether you love it, hate it or just don’t get it is entirely irrelevant, this is art darling, and you have to respect the A E S T H E T I C…


    S.H.I.T.

    What Do You Stand For?

    (La Vida Es Un Mus)

    Listen / Buy

    We get two long-players from Toronto’s S.H.I.T. in the same week – one being a compilation of everything so far lovingly titled Complete S.H.I.T.., and the other bringing the next chapter in all its raging glory. What Do You Stand For? is tighter, leaner and meaner than S.H.I.T. have ever been before and clocking in at just under 20 minutes, it’s one of the most perfect hardcore albums ever.


    Natalie Prass

    The Future and the Past

    (ATO Records)

    Listen / Buy

    Like everyone else Natalie Pass is pretty upset by Trump, but has used her anger to make an uplifting album of soulful rnb glamour and easy-listen lounge in order to help you through the dark days. A glitzy paradise.

  • Funk group the Jackson Sisters’ debut LP reissued on vinyl for the first time by Mr Bongo

    By | May 29, 2018

    Believe in miracles…

    Detroit via Los Angeles quintet the Jackson Sisters’ 1976 self-titled album is being reissued on vinyl for the first time.

    Though the group failed to achieve commercial success during their career, their music gained a second life thanks to the UK’s rare groove scene, which saw ‘I Believe In Miracles’ making a chart appearance in 1988.

    The tune was later sampled by Public Enemy, Basement Jaxx and Arrested Development, among others.

    Jackson Sisters has been remastered from its original tapes for this first reissue, with liner notes by Charles Waring.

    Pre-order a copy here ahead of its 15th June release, listen to ‘I Believe in Miracles’ and check out the track list below.

    Tracklist

    1. Where Your Love Is Gone
    2. Maybe
    3. Why Do Fools Fall In Love
    4. Day In The Blue
    5. Rockin’ On My Porch
    6. Boy You’re Dynamite
    7. Rock Steady
    8. Miracles
    9. (Why Can’t We Be) More Than Just Friends
    10. Shake Her Loose

  • Finding the original sound of Burkina Faso

    By | April 11, 2018

    What decisions have to be made when reissue labels package regional scenes into neat compilations? And what problems emerge in doing so? Nick Thompson spoke to Mr Bongo as they got to grips with the previously unexplored music of West African Burkina Faso.

    “Burkina is much less known for myself and for other people, so this was more of a journey,” admits Dave “Mr Bongo” Buttle, who along with Florent Mazzoleni has helmed a new compilation exploring the music of the land-locked nation tucked between Mali, Niger, Ivory Coast and Ghana.

    Burkina Faso is a former French colony with an intriguing history and musical tradition, typified by a political and musical entanglement unlike any other: the pan-Africanist, Marxist revolutionary and former president Thomas Sankara used to play in a jazz band with his political usurper, Blaise Compaoré.

    Before Sankara stole power in a popular uprising in 1983, the nation he would rename from Upper Volta to Burkina (which translates to ‘Land of Upright Men’), experienced an explosion of musical productivity and innovation, a golden-era that would soundtrack the political and cultural revolution that took place after independence in 1960.

    As a nation comprised of sixty-odd ethnic groups and as many languages, Burkina has resisted the influx of popular music from America, Europe and more dominant African markets, with folk music styles still popular among the Burkinabe.

    Balafon bands utilising an elaborate, percussive idiophone dating back to the 12th century like Farafina have been popular since the ’70s, as has Mossi music which originated from Ougadougou and reached a wider audience via groups and singers like by Koudbi Koala’s Saaba, and latterly Amadou Balaké. Djembe drums, comprised of a single piece of wood, are also commonplace in Burkina’s musical tradition, which shares many characteristics with neighbouring Mali.

    It’s in Mali that Mr Bongo recently launched a new series of compilations loosely termed around the concept of locating a country’s “original sound”. Unlike Mali however, Burkina Faso’s musical history has received little international attention. So how does a compilation like that come together?

    “One consideration was obviously to try and cover the best periods of Burkina Faso music, the best artists, the most influential, and also have music that people would react to, would connect with,” explains Buttle.

    Another key consideration is sound quality. “We were a little bit hampered by that,” Buttle says. “The quality of the music had to be consistently high, because obviously if you had one that was a poor sound quality it wouldn’t work with the rest of it.”

    Yago Abdoulaye & Volta Jazz

    The “best” period of Burkina music Buttle refers to are the decades immediately following independence from French colonial rule. Those years up to and including the early period of Sankara’s premiership were especially vibrant for musical and cultural expression and witnessed the emergence of Burkinabe sonic driving forces Abdoulaye Cisse, Volta Jazz and Amadou Balaké, with particularly strong records emerging from the nation’s second city, Bobo-Dioulasso.

    However, while Sankara placed a near obsessive importance on cultural output, seeing music, performance and dance as the main methods of transmitting meaning and messages in a largely illiterate society, the curfews he imposed on the nation killed Burkina’s music scene. As a result, Burkina’s golden era went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.

    “For Burkina Faso, no one really knows anything about this country,” says Florent Mazzoleni, who has written numerous books on music in Francophone African regions, helped research and compile records for Mr Bongo and has produced his own, among other things. “Our aim is try to gather together all these musicians and to help people discover about the life of Tidiane Coulibaly, or Volta Jazz, or Abdoulaye Cissé.

    “To me some of these of songs are so amazing that they need to be heard. And thanks to Mr Bongo we can do this, because in the Burkina volume, I think there’s everything: there’s some Latin music, some mandingo music, some punk. It covers a wide range of styles and influences.”

    Georges Ouédraogo

    In that sense, both the Mali and Burkina compilations are described by Dave as “an introduction”, with the label choosing to include tracks that have more of a dancefloor flavour.

    “Who’s going to buy a double vinyl? More likely a DJ-oriented person will buy that. So you’re making a vinyl more towards that market. But obviously you’re having to leave stuff out, and there’s times I’ve had to leave tracks out and had a lot of complaints,” Dave adds.

    “But we’re still trying to cover quite a wide range of music styles. We were trying to cover different districts of Mali, and the same with Burkina – different areas, different musicians, different musical movements as well.”

    Tidiane Coulibaly

    Sound quality, musical representation and dancefloor appeal aside, some of the music included still comes down to chance personal experience.

    “‘Whiskey et Soda’ by ‎Amadou Balaké is interesting because Florent wasn’t aware of it,” says Dave. “I used to go to this club called the Sol Y Sombra in the early ’80s, a guy called Dave Hucker was a DJ there, and he used to play it, and I loved it! In those days you took years to even find what the name of the record was, even to find the record, so I managed to get it, and it was on one of my favourites.

    “It’s just nice the way it fell into place that we could put that track on there, it’s a real groove, what they call chiranga, with the violin on there, kind of a salsa-chiranga track.”

    Abdoulaye Cissé

    “In the Burkina Faso volume, there is this song called ‘Jeunesse Wilila’ by Abdoulaye Cissé, and basically it tells the story of how the youth have to build up their own country,” Florent explains. “To start all over again, to create the new Burkina, and that’s what happened when Thomas Sankara came to power in ’83.”

    Pierre Sandwidi

    Florent’s favourite on the whole compilation is the Pierre Sandwidi and Super Volta tune ‘Yamb Ney Capitale’, “a terrific track with political overtones as well… It tells of how the new political elites basically stole the power from the people and that was what made Pierre Sandwidi a great artist.”

    However, the most rewarding part of the process of making compilations like this, Florent says, is ensuring credit where credit’s due, even decades after the fact. “Pierre Sandwidi knew someday that people would recognise his talent and his musical abilities overseas,” Florent explains. “At the time he wasn’t heard outside of Burkina Faso, but now it’s time for him to be heard across the world.”

    Photos by Sory Sanlé

  • The story of highlife and Afrobeat legend Ebo Taylor, in his own words

    By | March 22, 2018

    Ebo Taylor’s new album, Yen Ara, marks the Ghanaian highlife and Afrobeat legend’s 60th anniversary as a professional musician. He talks to Chris May about hanging out with Fela Kuti and the Beatles in “swinging London”, the importance of jazz in shaping his style and the changing fortunes of West African highlife.

    Confusion surrounds the exact chronology of Ebo Taylor’s lengthy career, and over the years he too has been flexible with dates and events. A lot of water has, after all, passed under the bridge. There are some certainties, however. Taylor was born in 1936 on Ghana’s Cape Coast, where he still lives, in Saltpond City. Around 90 road-miles west of Accra, Cape Coast is home to a string of fishing villages where traditional Ghanaian music continues to be part of daily life and where Taylor grew up listening to the roots highlife that has always been at the heart of his style.

    Tayor came of age during the golden years of highlife, an era dominated by the pioneering saxophonist and trumpeter ET Mensah and his band The Tempos. After leaving college, Taylor joined the Stargazers, a highlife band led by saxophonist Teddy Osei and drummer Sol Amarfio, who were among the founding members of the hugely successful British-based Afro-rock band, Osibisa. When Osei and Amarfio broke up the Stargazers to form the Comets, Taylor played with, and arranged for, a succession of highlife bands on the Cape Coast and in Accra.

    From 1962 to 1965, Taylor lived in London, where he studied at the Eric Gilder School Of Music. In 1965 he returned to Ghana, where he set up the New Broadway Dance Band, leaving them in 1970 to form the Blue Monks. Both bands, at various times, included the singer Pat Thomas, another alumnus of the Stargazers, who was soon to find fame across West Africa with his own band, the Sweet Beans. Taylor and Thomas have since frequently recorded together. In the early 1970s, Taylor also became the in-house guitarist, arranger and producer for Dick Essilfie-Bondziea’s prolific and influential Essiebons label.

    Among Taylor’s uncommon attributes is his affinity for both highlife and Afrobeat, which have traditionally existed in near-parallel universes. It is likely that Taylor developed this talent while working at Essiebons, which recorded a wide variety of West African musics, from Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Guinea and elsewhere. His cultural inclusiveness began, however, in London in the mid 1960s….

    The Eric Gilder School of Music was then located in Soho’s Wardour Street, bang in the middle of London club land (the Marquee club moved into the building immediately next door to the school in 1964). Like the Nigerian saxophonist Peter King and (then) trumpeter Fela Kuti, who were also studying music in London and both of whom he soon got to know, Taylor learnt more about music by listening to, and sitting-in, with club bands in Soho and Notting Hill – then countercultural and socially marginalised areas on different planets than they inhabit today – than he did by attending college lectures. “There was one particular Soho club called the Abalabi which featured highlife,” says Taylor. “Fela and I used to go there and jam a lot.” Both musicians also absorbed a lot of live jazz.

    “It was fun to be in London,” says Taylor. “It was the swinging ’60s and I hung out in clubs with musicians like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. They were good times. But highlife music wasn’t popular with English people then. They enjoyed calypso and ska but not African music. I think they thought that, unlike Trinidad and Jamaica, Africa was primitive, with people living in trees in the jungle. They didn’t come across African music in their social life and they weren’t interested to seek it out, so they never really heard it. But highlife was very popular with Africans in London! It was a powerful reminder of home.”

    Living in London in the 1960s, did Taylor ever dream that African music would break out of its niche and gain a wider audience? “I had hopes that it would catch on with English people, but I never really thought it would happen,” says Taylor. “Twenty years later world music changed all that though. English people started having more interest in records from Africa. Today there may be more Afrobeat bands in Europe than there are in West Africa. It is remarkable.” (Today’s crop of mixed-ethnicity Afrobeat bands was actually preceded by similarly inclusive highlife bands in London in the mid 1980s, when the world-music movement was emerging. Among the most prominent was Hi-Life International, who recorded for the label run by the specialist record shop Sterns.)

    In 1964, the year before he returned to Ghana, Taylor formed by Black Star Highlife Band, which included his onetime Stargazers bandmates Teddy Osei and Sol Amarfio, who were also studying music in London. The Black Stars fused highlife with elements of jazz. “Fela used to say to me, ‘Why are we Africans always playing jazz?’,” says Taylor. “He said jazz was for the Americans and we should be doing our own thing. But of course jazz later played a big part in Fela’s Afrobeat, just like it did in my music.

    “Fela often came to my flat in Willesden and we would spend hours playing records by people like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and analysing them. Jazz has been a big influence on me, especially guitarists like Wes Montgomery, George Benson and Chuck Wayne – I actually named one of my sons after him. Also Kenny Burrell, he has so much soul. I feel like I’m still playing jazz but with Ghanaian rhythms. There are American influences in my music but there is African culture behind it. Along with jazz, James Brown and funk brought changes to my music. Fela introduced it to Nigerian music and I did the same sort of thing in Ghana.”

    Alongside today’s ever-increasing interest in West African music, says Taylor, a new generation of Ghanaian musicians are rediscovering traditional highlife. “It is still a minority of people who are interested in traditional music,” he says. “Most young musicians in Ghana are getting their ideas from overseas, and maybe mixing in some highlife or Afrobeat. But some people are looking back into earlier forms of music. There’s a new wave that is related to the highlife of the ‘40s and ‘50s. All the older styles got forgotten or ignored during the colonial era, especially in big towns like Accra, where you mostly music from Britain in the clubs.

    “That attitude continued even after independence. But in Saltpond City, and all along the Cape Coast, they have never forgotten the traditional music. You can still hear the fishermen singing the songs while they mend their nets on the beach. I do believe that it is important for music to progress, otherwise it just becomes something for museums, but you have to know your traditional culture before you start adding things to it.”

    A balance between tradition and innovation was what Taylor aimed for when recording Yen Ara with his group, the Saltpond City Band. There are roots in highlife and Afrobeat, but also elements of jazz and European dance music. “The intention was to follow the path of African music, which our ancestors left for us and which we should not forget,” says Taylor. “The album offers a variety of African music. It’s not all Afrobeat or all highlife. It is designed to show the full scope of authentic West African music – which must not stop.”

    At age 81, Taylor has no intention of stopping either. He hopes to carry on performing and recording for years yet. “By the grace of God and physical exercise,” he says.

    Ebo Taylor’s Yen Ara is released on 6th April via Mr Bongo.

    Main photo: Tom Herbots

  • Brazilian vocalist Célia’s rare 1972 self-titled LP reissued by Mr Bongo

    By | February 15, 2018

    Original copies were previously going for £275+.

    Célia Regina Cruz’s 1972 album Celia is being reissued for the first time, via Mr Bongo this May.

    Read more: Inside Mr Bongo’s new beach-side record sanctuary

    The album features an all-star line-up including longtime collaborator Arthur Verocai, alongside Erasmo Carlos, Roberto Carlos, Marcos Valle, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Nonato Buzar.

    Célia also includes Cruz’s version of Verocai’s ‘Na Boca Do Sol’ track, one of her best known songs.

    Pre-order a copy here ahead of its 25th May release, listen to ‘Na Boca Do Sol’ and check out the track list below.

    Tracklist

    1. A Hora É Essa
    2. Toda Quarta-Feira Depois Do Amor
    3. Dominus Tecum
    4. Ay Adelita
    5. Vida De Artista
    6. Mia
    7. Na Boca Do Sol
    8. Em Família
    9. Detalhes
    10. É Preciso Dizer Adeus
    11. Dez Bilhões De Neurônios
    12. Badalação (Bahia, Volume 2)

  • Afrobeat and highlife legend Ebo Taylor announces new album

    By | January 26, 2018

    All funk, no filler.

    Ghanian musician Ebo Taylor is releasing his first LP in five years, Yen Ara, via Mr Bongo this April.

    Read next: Inside Mr Bongo’s new beach-side record sanctuary

    The album, which sees the 82-year-old assuming composer, arranger, guitarist and vocalist duties, is a follow-up to his 2012 Appia Kwa Bridge album, and Mr Bongo’s 2017 reissue of Ebo Taylor and the Pelikans.

    Yen Ara features Taylor’s group, the Saltpond City band, recorded live at Electric Monkey Studios in Amsterdam.

    Pre-order a copy of Yen Ara here ahead of its 6th April release, and check out the track list below.

    Tracklist

    Side A

    A1. Poverty No Good
    A2. Mumudey Mumudey
    A3. Krumandey
    A4. Aboa Kyirbin
    A5. Yen Ara

    Side B

    B1. Mind Your Own Business
    B2. Ankoma’m
    B3. Abenkwan Puchaa
    B4. Aba Yaa

  • Tim Maia’s Brazilian boogie opus Disco Club reissued by Mr Bongo

    By | January 17, 2018

    Disco glitz meets Rio funk and soul.

    Brazilian maestro Tim Maia’s eighth studio album has been remastered for a new reissue, via Mr Bongo this March.

    Read next: How Brazil is reclaiming its record culture

    Recorded in 1978, Disco Club “combined the glitz and glamour of disco’s heyday with Maia’s raw funk and soul roots,” shares the label.

    Maia created the album at Estudios Level with a band including Paulinha Braga on drums, Jamil Joanes on bass, alongside arranger and keyboardist Lincoln Olivetti.

    The LP was reissued once, in 1991 by WEA under the name Sossego with completely different track titles in exactly the same order.

    This is Disco Club‘s first ever reissue in its original form, remastered and featuring its replica artwork.

    Pre-order a copy of Disco Club here ahead of its March 2018 release, listen to the album and check out the track list below.

    Tracklist

    Side A

    A1. A Fim de Voltar
    A2. Acenda o Farol
    A3. Sossego
    A4.Vitoria Regia Estou Contigo E Nao Abro
    A5. All I Want

    Side B

    B1. Murmurio
    B2. Pais e Filhos
    B3. Se Me Lembro Faz Doer
    B4. Juras
    B5. Jhony

  • “It’s about taking responsibility for our future”: How Brazil is reclaiming its record culture

    By | January 10, 2018

    Brazil has long been something of a promised land for the world’s adventurous collectors, reissue labels and DJs. So vast and varied is its musical heritage that decades after Madlib first went to Brazil, it’s clear they’ve hardly scratched the surface. But with foreign buyers and increased demand pushing prices beyond the reach of most Brazilians, the country has reached something of a crisis point in relation to its records. With new pressing plant Vinil Brasil now open in São Paulo and local labels rescuing music from beyond the European experience, Russ Slater investigates how Brazilians are staking a claim to their own music once again.

    “I like to call it the Big Dig,” says Cut Chemist in an interview with Fuse in 2012. “We bought and bought and bought, in fact [it was the] most amount of records I ever bought in one trip… I think we turned that country upside down.” The country he was talking about was Brazil and the dig happened in 2002 when he and a group of some of US hip-hop’s most revered DJs – J Rocc, Madlib, Egon and Baboo – made the trip in order to work on a documentary called Brasilintime. “We were looking for Brazilian hip-hop, Brazilian random rap, Brazilian funk, Brazilian psychedelic rock – which was the big thing”, he continues.

    “I remember when we found Boogaloo Combo’s ‘Hot Pants Road’ we thought we’d struck gold… and [it was] relatively cheap. Man, I went back there a few years later and it’s like everybody’s a record expert, all the prices went through the roof. We kinda shot ourselves in the foot ya know by going round every store and being like ‘this is what we’re looking for’… They’re really quick to know what your taste is if there’s a dollar amount attached to it.”

    When Cut Chemist and his crew had travelled to Brazil it’s fair to say that its love for vinyl was at an all-time low. The format had been dismissed by the major labels in the mid-’90s in favour of CDs, and there wasn’t a single place in the country where you could manufacture records. A pressing plant called Polysom would open up in the late ’90s, but until it was bought out in the late ’00s, it was mainly devoted to the booming evangelical market. Add to this the fact that DJs and record collectors had been travelling to Brazil from around the world – mainly from the US, UK and Japan – throughout the ’80s and ’90s buying up as much original Brazilian jazz, bossa nova, rare groove and psych as they could find, and by the new millennium you had a situation in Brazil where there was no new vinyl and they had lost a huge chunk of its classics. For a country that’s as proud of its musical traditions as Brazil, it was clear that something needed to change.

    The first step in the right direction arrived when Rio de Janeiro-based Polysom was bought out by the independent label Deckdisc in 2009 and started a new series, Classics in Vinyl. Suddenly, landmark yet hard-to-acquire albums by Jorge Ben, Secos e Molhados, Tom Zé and Chico Science e Nação Zumbi were available on vinyl again, with their 180gm records ensuring the quality was even better than the first time around. Then, just last year Vinil Brasil opened its doors in São Paulo.

    Here was a company born out of the city’s DIY music scene that wasn’t primarily interested in making money. They wanted to make sure that artists in the city, in the country, and even throughout Latin America had somewhere they could press their music on to vinyl that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. Astonishingly for such a musical-rich continent, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil are the only countries in the region with pressing plants.

    Michel Nath provided the impulse for Vinil Brasil after the experience of getting his record, Solarsoul, pressed on vinyl, which he’d had to do with much expense in the Czech Republic. He had spoken to various friends about starting up a pressing plant as an alternative but everyone thought it was too hard and expensive, then the guy importing his vinyl got in touch. “He’d found these machines in a junkyard, and taken them but he didn’t have the money to buy them, so I stepped in”, remembers Nath of the day he acquired 18 tonnes of record pressing equipment.

    “The machines were from Continental and they’d done nothing for 20 years – when the building of the record label had to be demolished, they sent them to the junkyard, and they stayed there for a year.” Nath recruited Luís, an old engineer who’d worked with the RCA label, and soon they started reconditioning and reassembling the equipment as well as building a brand new recording console. It took them two years but in 2016 Vinil Brasil opened, a pressing plant which Nath describes as “a factory made by musicians and music lovers for the use of musicians and music lovers.”

    Since setting up Vinil Brasil the plant has been busy pressing vinyl by artists such as Metá-Metá, DJ Tudo and Elza Soares – albums that reflect the new music scene that is currently buzzing in São Paulo. “One part of the mission is to release new things,” Nath says, but he also wants to “release the things that never got made in vinyl from the CD era, and also release the things we don’t have any more”, denoting the records that are almost impossible to come by. Examples of these include Arthur Verocai’s 1972 debut, Lula Côrtes e Zé Ramalho’s Paêbirú (1975), José Prates’ Tam… Tam… Tam…! (1958) and Pedro Santos’ Krishnanda (1968), all albums of which the originals could cost you over £1,000.

    While many of these have been reissued abroad by the likes of Mr Bongo and Trunk Records, the reason for the huge price of originals is simple. As with all vinyl it’s related to the scarcity and the cultural significance (which often ebbs and flows). A great example is Tam… Tam… Tam…! Potentially you could have picked up this one up on the sly a few years ago, but once Gilles Peterson put out a plea on Channel 4 News and Record Collector magazine in 2014 for a copy, the price ballooned. Peterson would end up buying one from Now Again’s Egon for a price well over US$2,000.

    Other records by Tim Maia, Antonio Adolfo, Spectrum, Sound Factory, Persona and Tribo Massahí have all similarly had their prices increased over the years due to interest from abroad. Generally, this has meant that we’re talking about albums that appeal to jazz, psych and rare groove collectors, as well as the increasing love for records inspired by African music, which Brazil has no shortage of. The result has been prices that are prohibitive for the average Brazilian record collector.

    Caio Beraldo, better known as Yoka, runs the independent label Somatória do Barulho in Brazil. Asked whether it’s a problem that so much Brazilian vinyl is in foreign hands, he says: “Yes, it is an upsetting situation in general – Europeans and the Japanese have been digging Brazil since the early ’80s. The major problem with this is that it brings prices way up, and since our money is an average four times cheaper than US Dollars or Euros, we end up not being able to afford the music in our own land. Gringos will pay anything for a particular record they want, and once they do, a new price is set for that record.”

    But there is a caveat, as he explains: “On the other hand, gringos have been interested in the ‘B side’ of Brazilian music, way before Brazilian people, and you have got to respect that in a way. So, as a label, it’s time for us to claim this music as our own, and put out new music for gringos to listen to… There are still a lot of undiscovered sounds and rhythms here that we should be able to show the rest of the world.”

    This point is carried on by DJ Tahira, a São Paulo-based DJ and producer known for his extended refits of classic tracks. “I think it’s okay,” he tells me. “Foreign people are more focused on certain kinds of records than Brazilians, such as Arthur Verocai, Hareton [Savenini] and others. So I think it’s fair. If the recognition came from outside and people want to have it… [then] it’s okay to have a lot of original pressings outside of Brazil. The important thing is for the music to spread! But I’ve noticed that there are lots of records that are rare here and not outside of Brazil. What people have been promoting outside of Brazil has a strong American music perspective, but this is just one part of Brazil’s musical culture. There’s lots of music in Brazil that is nearer to the origins of the Brazilian sound… more of an African and indigenous influence… and even Brazilians don’t know about it.”

    This certainly seems to be the case. Take a look at the most expensive vinyl on Mercado Livre (a Brazilian auction-site, similar to eBay) and you’ll see a completely different brand of Brazilian music with nostalgic records by the likes of Guaraci do Pandeiro, Paulo Tito and J Cavalcante, playing rhythms such as baião, forró and sertanejo from the north-east of Brazil. The jazz, psych and grooves that are so loved by the rest of the world are nowhere to be seen.

    Does Nath agree with these points? “Look, I know a lot of people from outside of Brazil, from Japan, UK, USA. They’ve studied our music. They love it and they respect it, but we don’t have anything for the people here who are rediscovering the records. We have only the bad discs, the high prices, and that’s not fair.” So, was the establishment of Vinil Brasil a way of wresting back control? “It’s not about taking control,” he tells me. “It’s about taking the responsibility for our future. It’s not a competition. Music is for everybody, it’s about making a better world without any borders between us.”

    With Vinil Brasil and Polysom offering a route into vinyl production and independent labels like Somatória do Barulho (who are about to release a vinyl compilation of Brazilian boogie and disco called As 10 Mais Boogie Vol.1) and Goma Gringa (who reissued the excellent Tribo Massahí debut recently), a more diverse array of Brazilian sounds is beginning to reach the market. Krishnanda is a great example of this.

    Produced by percussionist Pedro Santos in the ’60s, it’s a mix of folk, samba and Afro-Brazilian rhythms with a haze of psychedelia that owes much to Santos’ home-made instruments and search for spirituality. Krishnanda is unlike anything else from Brazil, but gradually through the stewardship of Brazilian collectors, DJs (like Tahira, who was an early supporter) and musicians its reputation has grown over the years. And while it was recently reissued by Mr Bongo, the UK label admit that they’d known about it for over ten years, but chose to focus on Brazilian funk and bossa instead. With the country’s growing vinyl scene, Brazilians have the potential to show off another side of their extraordinary and diverse musical heritage once more.

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