Around The World With Mr Bongo
From humble beginnings at their first record shop in London in 1989, Mr Bongo have grown to become a name synonymous with ‘worldwide’ music, becoming an integral part of the vinyl community with their releases of hard to find records. Initially having a hand in bringing independent hip-hop from the US and Latin music from South America, Mr Bongo have gone on to build a label and recording roster that reflects a kaleidoscopic, multi-faceted spectrum of music, fostered on new and emerging sounds from around the globe.
Their eclectic taste has earned them a loyal core of open-minded listeners. 30 years since their first record shop, they posses a recording roster featuring some of the best Brazilian, Latin, reggae, African and Jazz music by artists including Terry Callier, Jorge Ben, Joyce, Seu Jorge, Prince Fatty, Incredible Bongo Band and Marcos Valle. As well as their musical explorations, Mr Bongo also release films, built on the same premise as their label: unearthing hard-to-find gems and cult classics from around the world.
Their all-encompassing musical tastes make them one of the few true champions of eclectic global music. We caught up with Gareth and David from Mr Bongo to talk about their brand, and they’ve also picked a spectacular selection of music from across the globe, with a few tracks from 10 countries of their choice – not only educational, but of course a real treat for anyone who likes Brazilian, Cuban, African or Latin music, and all else in between.
How many of you were involved back in 1989 when Daddy Kool’s Reggae store opened?
There were 2 of us – myself and Richard San Jose. Nick Gold form World Circuit also helped us out. Then John Cooper (the Jazz legend) joined the gang. There were always crazy Colombian DJs in the store too. Salsa and Latin Jazz were big then, as big as Afro and Brazilian is now.
What/who was the gateway for your career in music?
I started DJ’ing to support my studying for a Law degree at Cardiff Uni. We used to DJ a lot in Bristol, and it kind of went from there.
How did the name come about?
We took the name from Nat King Cole & Elvis’ bongo player – the great Jack Costanzo. He rang us up from San Diego and said he loved the fact we were using the same name. Big respect to Jack, he’s still going as far as I know and still playing. He even taught Marlon Brando to play – there’s some great footage on youtube of the master teaching the student.
How did you come to source latin music in the early 90’s?
It was often through trips to NYC. There was a great shop in the South Bronx. It was the only building standing as the rest had been burned down. Back then there were tons of other Latin stores you could dig in too. But mainly it was through trips to Venezuela, Colombia & Cuba where I would be filling up suitcases of vinyl to bring back.
Was there much of an appetite for it at during those years?
100%. There was a big Colombian population in London and Paris that we supplied Salsa and Cuban to. Then there was the start of Salsa dancing, so loads of DJs came in to get their fix, as well as dance teachers. Add on to that the Latin Jazz dance scene at Dingwalls, that was supported by Gilles Peterson, DJ Sylvester, Paul Murphy, etc. Interest in Brazilian music was in its very early days then, people were just discovering it.
There’s been a resurgence in people buying vinyl since you closed your shops, though music consumption today is a lot more varied and saturated than ever before. For someone who’s been heavily involved in the industry over the years what’s your take on how music consumption has changed from the 90’s through to now?
In the 90’s we sold way more Vinyl. It’s still like a 1/5th of what it was, maybe as little as 1/10th. Although, it’s never stopped selling since then. What happened was at the end of the 90’s illegal downloading had a massive impact. Once music became available in mp3 and essentially free it lost its value to people. Suddenly people stopped buying records. A big difference is that now people just buy a few records, whereas in the mid 90’s people would buy 20-50 LPs /12’s at a time, which was normal, now its more often just 1 or 2 at a time.
…sometimes you have to go with the flow, with what hits you in the moment, to remain always inspired, and reacting to what you encounter as you move forward
Is there a particular premise behind your label?
Our mission statement is pretty simple; to release the best & most original music.
Do you feel a responsibility to be gatekeepers for the genres of music you release?
Yes we definitely feel that we have a responsibility to not let standards slip.
Can you tell us a bit more about your world cinema project,
This World Cinema Project was started around 2005/6 when we released ‘I Am Cuba’ with the support of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford-Copploa, and David Bailey. Quite a team to start with, and it has been a fascinating journey bringing a wide range of movies & documentaries to audiences. We’ve released crazy Polish psych movies, Russian silent movies, hard-hitting documentaries, and the restored classics by legends such as Orson Welles (his greatest film, Chimes At Midnight).
How do you balance the time between that and the music you release?
I have a great team at Mr Bongo that are able to support all that we do.
Was this always the direction you wanted to take when starting out?
I would say no, as sometimes you have to go with the flow, with what hits you in the moment, to remain always inspired, and reacting to what you encounter as you move forward.
Who are you listening to at the moment?
A forthcoming release on Mr Bongo is getting a lot of plays in the office. It’s the half-speed pressing of Arthur Verocai’s eponymous masterpiece ‘Arthur Verocai’; which we recently had cut at Abbey Road. This will be a special release and we will announce the details soon.
I’ve also been enjoying lots of Soundway releases, Sofritos releases, Oby Onyioha, and my favourite Ahmed Fakroun compilation.
Favourite last few records of the last year?
The Ahmed Fakroun compilation, Mr Bongo Record Club Volume 1, and the Soundway Kenya Special album.
If you could release music from one artist who would it be and why?
Grace Jones, because it would be a great challenge.
Fela Kuti – Water Got No Enemy
The king of Nigerian music. Fela is up there at the zenith.
William Onyeabor – Good Name
Musically maverick and innovator, who thanks to Luaka Bop unearthing his records finally got the credit he deserved before his sad recent passing. RIP, William.
Oby Onyioha – Enjoy Your Life
The heaviest Nigerian disco boogie; taken from Oby’s 1981 LP.
Salif Keita – Mandjou
One of the greats of Malian music. Singer songwriter and member of classic bands such as The Rail Band and Ambassadeurs Du Motel. He then went on to international success as a solo artist.
An awesome psychedelic disco number from Sory Bamba.
Buena Vista Social Club – Chan Chan
Probably the most know Cuban music outside of Cuba.
Grupo Irakere – Bacalao Con Pan
A Rare Groove anthem.
Juan Pablo -Torres Rompe Cocorioco
There is so much you could pick from Brazil’s massive output. Jorge Ben’s ‘Mas Que Nada’ being one of the most obvious, but here we have the track that may have influenced it.
A big favourite of DJ Gilles Peterson. The fantastic Gal Costa’s – ‘Pontos De Luz’ track (from her classic 1973 LP ‘Índia’) was recently bought to a new audience when it was sampled on Kaytranda’s ‘Lite Spots’.
Arthur Verocai- Sylvia
Arrangers have always played an important role in Brazilian popular music with Arthur Verocai sitting at the top of the tree.
Mulatu Astatke – Yègellé Tezeta
Belaynesh Wubante and Assegedetch Asfaw – Alemiye
Mahmoud Ahmed – Ere Mela Mela
Michael Boothman – What You Won’t Do For Love
Mavis John – Use My Body
Shadow – Let’s Make It Up
Yellow Magic Orchestra – Computer Game
Ruriko Ohgami -???????
Midori Takada – Through The Looking Glass
Bar?? Manço – Hal Hal
Bar?? Manço was a singer and TV host who was a dominant force in Turkish music during the 1970’s.
Selda- Ince Ince Bir Kar Yagar
Les Mogol – Sunset in Golden Horn
Psychedelic epic which has been sampled in hip-hop.
Miriam Makeba – Quit It
Doctor House – Gunman
Thanks to diggers such as DJ Okapi (Afro Synth) the interest in once obscure Kwatio and Bubble Gun records from South Africa has been growing. Doctor House and V.O. are two of the most sought after.
Up until recently Kenya’s rich musical heritage was widely ignores (other than by World music aficionados and record collectors). The tracks below represent old gems which have recently be unleashed.
Kiro Stars – Family Planning
Infectious, groove-laden groove packed with melody and rhythm.
African Vibration – Hinde
A classic form Mombassa. Instrumentation and vocals work perfectly in this song.
The Rift Valley Brothers – Mu-Africa
Funky rhythm African rhythm from a period of great music.