/ 23 December 2023

Move over, Indiana Jones

Mulatu Astatke 2017 C Alexis Maryon
Helping hand: The Strut record label relaunched the career of Ethiopian musician and arranger Mulatu Astatke, who is considered the father of Ethio-jazz. Photo: Alexis Maryon

Facebook’s ad department is right. I am interested in that new Fela Kuti boxset, compiled by actor, DJ, rapper and singer Idris Elba, which has been popping up in my timeline recently. 

My interest is always piqued by anything related to the great Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer, even though I do have many of his finest records in my collection. 

But there are more than 40 studio albums, plus some good live ones and comps, so I have still a way to go.

The fancy Fela boxset, which is the sixth in the series, has seven of his LPs, plus a 24-page booklet with lyrics and commentaries by Afrobeat historian Chris May. 

As a fan who tries to listen and collect outside the musical mainstream, I keep an eye out for reissues, compilations and new albums especially from Africa, but also other regions outside the West — soul, reggae, funk, disco — and anything beyond that tickle my fancy. 

It seems there are fewer African reissues, especially general compilations of African funk, a sub-genre of music focusing on the 1960s to 1980s, that used to yield a rich harvest.

For example, my one buy-on-sight record label, Analog Africa, with its catchy and apt motto “The Future of Music Happened Decades Ago”, has not released any African compilations this year. 

They did issue the fantastic late 1970s session by Malian guitarist Leon Keïta but their focus seems to have shifted to Latin America’s music from the 1960s to 1980s. In 2021, they issued three comps of African funk scorchers.

It is a general trend, according to critic Francis Gooding, who has a must-read global music column in The Wire magazine. 

“What has happened is you’ve got now fewer compilations, more full albums being reissued, less random stuff that just happens to have the sound that people want,” Gooding tells me in a Zoom interview. “There are more labels that focus on a particular country, sound or historical moment and dig into that.”

Strut Records founder Quinton Scott says in an email interview: “I think there was a saturation point a few years ago when over 100 labels worldwide were involved in reissuing African and global music. 

“It has settled down over the last two to three years, as the market has become harder, but there are still vast archives of under-appreciated music …” 

Bart Cattaert of the Planet Ilunga label, which specialises in reissuing Congolese music, explained the trend from his perspective: “I noticed it has been more diversified with smaller and, important, locally established labels and thus more original projects. In the 1970s and 1980s the ethnographic approach was in vogue but that is mostly gone. 

“In the 2000s, the well-known labels mostly focused on the Afrobeat genre. Also, a lot of Ethiopian seventies music was reissued. 

“The last couple of years, I noticed a growth in reissues in South African 1970s music, in classic Egyptian and other North African music, and 1980s Rai music from Algeria. 

“Some international record labels now shift more and more to electronic music coming from the African continent where a lot of the music made in the 1980s was only released on cassette format. I expect this to grow in the following years.”

But the reissue industry does not always get good press. When I was arts editor at The Conversation Africa, English academic Abigail Gardner wrote a scathing article in 2017 about how this “latest urge to buy up African vinyl and to compile generically and geographically determined compilations is yet one more (white) Western scramble for Africa”.

She wrote: “This search for old/new sounds is based around a nostalgia culture that is endemic to Anglo-American popular music and which music critic and author Simon Reynolds has called ‘retromania’. 

“It is not mirrored by contemporary African music culture, where an investment in musical presents is valued over the preservation of musical pasts and old vinyl is simply chucked away only to be ‘salvaged’ by these Western record hunters.”

Gooding says, at worst, reissuing is “exoticist” — where all the oldest colonial tropes are involved, an “Indiana-Jones, unknown-artefacts sort of thing”. 

“One of the things which remains problematic is that almost all the labels and people that have been involved in doing this are European or North American,” he says. “And so there is a genuine and serious concern about not only the way that African history in music is being represented but who’s representing it.”

But he cautions against wholesale damnation of all reissue labels.

“At the other end of it, you have people who try to act with utmost ethical propriety and whose interest is not in making of a quick buck out of the latest fashion,” he says, “but they’re in it for both historical and political reasons. 

“Often for political reasons music was not disseminated in the way that it deserved or should have been.”

The good guys (I interview four of them on the following pages) release both old and new African music, do so seriously and with great care. 

On occasion, they even relaunch a career, like Strut did for the Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke, considered the father of “Ethio-jazz”.

Gooding also cautions against criticising the reissuing of music from Africa and other parts of the Global South simply as “nostalgia”.

“It seems to me that it takes music to be somehow of lesser historical appreciation, somehow inferior to other art forms,” he says. “I don’t see anybody saying that about mid-century novels or revolutionary poetry.

“Or, ‘Oh, we’re not watching films from the fifties and sixties because it’s nostalgia’… Poetry, painting — it’s just not how people look at it, but they look at music like that.”

The re-publication of literature from the Global South should be encouraged, he says. 

“I’m in the UK. It’s a country of the deepest Philistinism. You can hardly buy contemporary European authors translated into English over here, let alone contemporary authors from any part of Africa.

“Should, for example, the classics of South-East Asian literature be translated and issued over here by a thoughtful publishing house, it would seem to me ludicrous to say there was an exercise in nostalgia.”

Still on the topic of treating music as serious art, Gooding stresses the importance of extensive sleeve notes for reissues.

“If you were to republish a very important work of philosophy, which had gone unread outside of a very small place, or it had been deliberately suppressed … would you publish it without any kind of introduction or foreword? Of course not,” he says. 

“So, for example, if you’re going to reissue the album Yakhal’ Inkomo [by the Mankunku Quartet], which is a work of philosophy on that level, one of the grand works of the 20th century, what are you going to do?

“You must have something which will put it in its proper context. If you’re going to reissue any serious piece of musical thought, it needs some kind of context.”