Next Stop Soweto: Strut compiler Duncan Brooker Talks
Duncan Brooker is a crate digger. Too often means someone with a Discogs account, a credit card and a seriously unhealthy sleep pattern. But Brooker is an old fashioned, dusty fingered, aching kneed, tunes you never even knew existed finding, serious archaeologist of funk, proper crate digger. He's been compiling albums for Strut for years, digging through his extensive back catalogue of jazz and soul to unearth floor shakers from round the globe, and has got plenty more to come. Brooker's latest compilation has seen him return to the disco and funk of 70s and 80s South Africa for volume 4 of the Next Stop Soweto series – as ever it's a goodie bag of outrageous funk and peerless melody from a selection of artists that are largely littel known outside of South Africa. We asked him to talk us through the making of an office favourite…
The first track that I wanted to talk to you about is Give by Harari. That’s a monster of a tune, it’s huge. Where did you first come across it?
Phoar, that’s a good question. Harari is a band that I’ve known about for quite a long time so they were one of the ones that I felt I had to feature on this compilation because they were one of the main bands that denote that sort of sound from that period. I think I probably picked it up in Zimbabwe years ago. About 15/20 years ago I found a whole stash of their albums and it probably came from one of those. They are probably one of the best-known bands on the compilation, dare I say it.
To be honest, I’m very unknowledgeable about the stuff on there. It’s all completely fresh to me, so I guess I’ve probably picked the ones that are easy to like. Can you tell me anything about that band at all?
Yeah, well Harari were going from the late 60s and they started back with The Beaters actually, who were more Afro-Jazz. They were signed to Rashead Vali’s label but then they changed a bit, some of the members left and they started up again as Harari going in this direction of Afro-Disco and Afro-Rock. It was much more hip and definitely more the sound of Soweto at the time. They made about 10 to 15 albums from the mid ‘70s to the mid ‘80s and they were one of the few bands that actually managed to leave and tour places other than South Africa.
A lot of their stuff is quite obscure and for compilations you have to find stuff that is recognizable to someone from the scene so that when they take a look at the back to see what’s in it then they can go, ‘yeah that’s fair enough, I can see why they’re included.’
That’s what I try to do with most compilations. I try to include at least some big names, like Harari or The Drive, as there’s no point of putting together something full of really obscure acts that nobody has ever heard of, especially when you’re dealing with people who were there at the time, because you have to use bands that were remembered as part of the scene.
You mentioned The Drive as another big outfit on there-
Yeah, another important oufit. They came from various different bands and changed their line-up half a dozen times and then made probably close to 20 albums from the mid ‘70s again through till the early ‘80s. You could say that they were very popular, internally, in South Africa, unlike Harari who crossed over. Harari were big in Zimbabwe and big in other parts of Southern Africa and then in a few places in Europe like Switzerland, a few more obscure places, and anywhere that operated a local policy that allowed bands to go in and out really for festivals and so forth. So Harari really managed to export their sounds to other parts of Africa and the rest of the world. Most of the other bands on this album hadn’t really been heard outside of South Africa.
So with the more obscure stuff, obviously you were saying that you’ve had some of these records for a very long time now, but is there anything on this compilation, that for you, is a relatively recent find?
All the bands on there I’ve known about for quite a long time. There are a few tracks on there that I’ve only found about recently. Margaret Singane is another one of those artists that was quite well known, and I didn’t have a track that I felt represented her well enough. So I had to get hold of a couple of albums and try to find one that I felt was good enough to represent her. But the rest of them I’ve known or been dealing with for a while, or just been aware of for a long time. A lot of these records I’ve had for quite a few years and it’s just making sense and just being able to put them into what is there. Like what is their period, what is their scene? So this is number 4 in the series now, and I’ve been out to Africa many times over the years collecting material and it’s just now down to deciphering it all and deciding where abouts in the series it belongs.
So do you still go out and dig for stuff at the moment?
Yeah yeah. It’s getting harder and harder but I still go. I probably go on 3 or 4 trips a year to Africa if possible.
Is that largely to South Africa?
No, it’s all over. Last time I visited I was in Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, so it’s just where I feel that I need to push further into an area or where I’ve got contacts that have actually found something that is worth me going out and dealing with. Nigeria is particularly good; it’s just an endless source of material. A lot of the countries in Africa had a relatively limited scene. In somewhere like Ethiopia, the whole vinyl thing only lasted for a very short period. Because there are only 1 or 2 major labels dealing with the stuff you can kind of gauge the history of the scene and where it was strongest. In Nigeria you had untold numbers of independent small one off people making records left right and center. It’s almost impossible to get a gauge of how big it was there, kind of like how it was in South Africa. There were a few majors down there, but there was also a lot of independent guys springing up thinking it was going to make them rich and they’d just end up making records here and there. Stuff from the ‘80s is still coming to light in South Africa that no one has ever seen before. Dare I say, a lot of the best stuff has been lost as anything that was politically sensitive was erased. The jazz and the intellectual music of South Africa have just been erased from history.
Do you think that there would be any tapes left out there? Is it a real goal for you to try and find some masters?
Yeah, a master is always a goal. But with this stuff you have to just try and get hold of any source that you can. You can collect all the information on it, but until you’ve actually got a recording you don’t know a) what it’s like, or b) where it fits in. I know more about stuff that doesn’t exist than I do about stuff that does exist. This is particularly the case with South African stuff as vast swathes of it was basically deemed subversive and was purposefully destroyed. A lot of it has literally been erased from history. I’ve been to archives and seen records with a big cross-gouged across both sides so that they're unplayable.
That sounds more crazed than melting it down. It’s more violent.
Yeah, rather than removing it as well. It’s a statement. A very provocative statement. It has a similar resonance to the Taliban smashing up ancient memorials.
But the thing is, with the ancient memorial – when it gets smashed up, it’s then cleaned up and it’s gone. The gouged record on the other hand, it stays there. It’s quite nasty.
You can see it existed but you’re never going to know what it actually sounded like.
Do you have a cut-off period for the stuff that you’re looking at then? There are South African hip-hop outfits like P.O.C. from the late 80s early 90s that I definitely feel would be worth a reissue.
There’s no cut-off point really. I started when I was in Africa looking for stuff from what many people would consider the golden period. There’s no cut-off period for music at all, it’s just that contemporary stuff is a lot easier for other people to deal with. My role is to find stuff that has slipped into obscurity. Anything that is available or mainstream, well not really mainstream but out there, it’s great and I’m happy that it’s there but it doesn’t have a need for me to go looking for it. Anything from the ‘80s/’90s really.
The next one is going to be Next Stop Soweto #5 and it’s going to be touching on that – it’s probably going to come later in the year, touching on the electro-boogie, synth driven almost hip hop kind of stuff. That stuff is amazing and it’s as interesting as the rest of the stuff in the series because it a was a big slant compared to what was going on in the rest of the world.
So there’s no cut-off point really. What we do is more about staying ahead of the curve.
I find the idea of you doing an ‘80s thing of South Africa interesting because that’s when digital sounds started to appear and House was such a big thing you must almost be able to hear it beginning to seep in.
Yeah definitely. I’ve actually got stuff that's almost techno from the late ‘80s. It’s very heavy 4 or the floor kind of the stuff with amazing vocals over the top.
Any plans to do anything with that?
Yeah. If it fits in it’ll probably be on the tail end of volume five to show what was coming in the late ‘80s. As I said, it’s weird how it progresses in terms of what people want. You have to hit it at the right time. You really have to be ahead of the game as there’s no point in putting out a compilation of stuff that people don’t want. The time is definitely coming now for people to be wanting to pick up on South African house. You never know, there might be a volume 6.
How easy is it to handle the licensing of something like this? With this current compilation you’re dealing with stuff from 20/30 years ago so I imagine it’s a nightmare to try and find out who owns what.
Uhh, yeah it is. Particularly in South Africa, it’s harder than in most countries because a lot of people haven’t survived. A lot of the musicians in my compilations died quite young. There was one particularly that drunk himself to death…
A lot of it though ended up back with the majors like Gallo as they bought the rights when the small labels went under. So about 60% of the time Gallo seem to think that they have the rights to the records. We actually have quite a good relationship with Gallo now. They were slightly dubious when I did the first one and in fact they’ve even licensed it back to sell back in South Africa now with the rest of series. You do try to find the artist obviously, but sometimes it’s just not possible. Fortunately though, I know people in South Africa that can help me to try to find family and friends of artists of records that I know are definitely not on any major label, as by default they just claim it.
We could go down the easy route and just pay Gallo, but I’d rather not if I know that the tracks don’t belong to them. Unfortunately, most of the cases where I’ve found people involved it has been a musician that was in the band and they’ve been dead. It’s been quite sad in South Africa really as there are so many of them that have passed away quite prematurely.
Yeah, there’s definitely a history with major labels taking the piss with blagging rights. I can’t imagine that they’ll ever stop doing that either really.
No. People have turned around to me to say that there is no paperwork. They try to claim that they own it but there’s no paperwork, so what are they trying to do? If there’s no paperwork you have to pay the artist. It’s a relatively small amount of money, but it really goes a long way in somewhere like South Africa. It can change the landscape of these people’s lives. Anywhere between £250 and £500 can change a lot for them. Until the majors can actually prove it, you go to the people that are on the ground, but it’s not always that easy.
Have you got any more compilations of stuff coming up outside of volume 5?
Ummm, yeah actually, I’ve got a compilation coming up in June called A New Life and that’s about independent British Jazz from the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s quite obscure stuff and it’s coming out on Jazzman Records. So that’s just gone to press. I’m always working on three or four different compilations at any one time though. I’m working on some reissues as well because the reissue market is very good and buoyant. It’s one thing to be putting together a compilation and pulling one track in here and one track there and then making sense of them all. But then once people are aware of the people in the compilations they’re more likely to commit to buying a reissue. If you’re successful with one track then you might as well try and put the whole album out. The South African stuff in particular is so good that I feel it deserves a reissue and deserves to be heard.
Is there anything that you’ve really wanted to compile or reissue but you’ve never been able to sort out?
Yeah, there are one or two things that have been niggling away at me for years. Mainly because of the estate really. There’s the Tanzanian called Patrick Balisidya who was in a band called Afro Seventy, and he was one of the best Tanzanian Afro-Psycadelic musicians of the ‘70s but he unfortunately passed away five or six years ago. I was just about to do a dal with him, having been over there and met with him years ago, but his son and rest of his family are very difficult to deal with. I own all his tapes and I’ve found all of his master tapes. He told me before he died that he’d left all his master tapes in an old studio Tanzania, so I went there, and the guy there said that they were probably there about 20 years ago, and if they’re still there he had no clue where they would be. I tore the place apart and, literally sealed and filled into the walls, were his master tapes. So now I’ve got those and loads of it is unreleased stuff that’s amazing but unfortunately his family are being really difficult, and asking for ridiculous amounts of money so it’s a project that may never happen.
Wow. Well, the one that got away. I guess though, what would it be if everything that we wanted came to light? You’d begin to lose the mystery of collecting then.
Yeah, but a lot of this stuff has never been heard. It’s never been released. It deserves to be heard. No musician wants to limit the amount that their music is heard. It’s only a by-product of collectors, who feel that music should be limited. I don’t buy into that whole thing of limited copies of whatever. If you can sell 5000 copies, why wouldn’t you? I don’t buy into anything being exclusive. I think it should all be out there for people to be able to hear.