Whilst the 60s and 70s music of West African nations such as Nigeria and Mali has been rightly venerated (and fairly comprehensively reissued), the revolutionary sounds of Burkina Faso- a small, land wedged between Mali, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo and Niger- have remained obscure to all bar the residents of the country and a clutch of committed foreign enthusiasts.
Now much loved record shop and diggers label Mr Bongo is planning to release The Original Sound of Burkina Faso, a retrospective of music from the country that includes numerous rarities from the 60s onwards. This will shed some light on a music scene that has never had it’s just due, as David explains.
“You couldn’t really find Burkina Faso records in France,” he tells us over the phone, “which is the major European market for African music. You’re only going to find them in Burkina and neighbouring countries. There are people from Burkina in France and it is a former French colony, but there just wasn’t that same cultural connection. The Malian music has done really well in France, Selif Keita is an international star, but you just haven’t had that from Burkina. The most successful artist is Amadou Balake, and even he wasn’t that successful, he had a few hits like Taxi, but nothing compared to someone like Youssou n’Dour. Even if some of the tracks were recorded outside of Burkina, the Burkina music scene was very much local artists selling to the local market.”
Global media corporations such as Sony, a label that had sold thousands upon thousands of Nigerian afrobeat records, have never set up shop in Burkina. It’s something of a chicken and egg situation as to whether Burkina artists didn’t break through at international level because there were no major labels pushing them, or whether no major labels came to Burkina because no artists were breaking through. Regardless, all that matters is that the music scene thrived without much- or indeed any- injection of cash from outside multinational influences.
“Yes,” David agrees “You didn’t have any of those big labels. You had the Club Voltique label that was the most active local label, and then you had lots of these little labels where guys were just recording for themselves, just small independents. There was never anything on that larger scale-“
Predictably this had an effect on the sound of Burkina, and a listen to The Original Sound of Burkina Faso reveals the familiar DNA of afrobeat stretched out into tantalisingly unfamiliar shapes. Or, as David puts it, the sound is “something less influenced by the West. You can hear Latin music in there - that sound came all over West Africa in the 60s and had a massive influence. There’s also a little bit blues and rock guitar, a bit of disco and funk made it in, but nothing massively, fundamentally shifted their course… I think they stayed true to themselves because they didn’t have to sell to the French market or internationally, so it was all about what the locals wanted.”
Based on the tracklist of the compilation, the locals wanted vibes from sharp afro-Cuban rhythms, where bursts of tight wah-funk guitar drop over syncopated rhythms designed for intricate quick steps, to jovial disco stompers. Style and tempo may change but there are constants throughout; raw edged horns driving the beat, vocal melodies that veer off the restrictive rails of Western scales, and drums that rattle and clatter. The lack of major label input means the Burkina sound is unpolished, although at times that proved a challenge in itself, as David relates;
“There’s a gritty quality to a lot of the recordings, and that was a problem with a lot of the recordings we were going through – they were too gritty, I guess they were quite badly recorded, and a bit harsh on the ears. I was constantly sifting through music to find stuff that a) would show the different sounds and b) would fit together sonically – a lot of tracks were good songs but wouldn’t work together because the sound quality was so disparate. We tried to focus on the stuff that has the recording quality and that Burkina originality – we wanted to get everything in from the disco tracks to the more folky stuff to the more funk based sounds. We just wanted to showcase the variety of post-colonial sounds.”
Talk of colonisation brings us to the thorny subject that dogs any reissue from an African country by a European label – who benefits from this compilation? Happily, the lack of major label interference in Burkina Faso means that the majority of artists retained their rights to their music, and the licensing of tracks has been done directly with musicians themselves, or their relatives in the “60-70%” of cases where the original musician has passed away. “It often comes down to who owns the records, and sometimes the people who own the records are the big business men and you can’t get away from that - but in this case the artists retained their rights.” As such Bongo’s have only needed to have minimal contact with the Club Voltique label, and this compilation is by and large a case of artists being paid directly for singles that have long been nigh on impossible to get (he also tantalisingly mentions that the Voltique label, whilst not a going concern ”have got a warehouse full of unreleased tapes that lets people in and out randomly.”)
There is a wider question on reissue culture – a question raised in a recent much shared piece published on The Conversation - are the glut of crate diggers trawling Africa for old treasure guilty of distorting the local music scenes? When a European label starts offering sums of money that will quite obviously make the difference to a musician’s life – but only wants pay for ‘vintage’ sounds, does that stifle the growth and development of new, innovative genres? For David, there is a certain weight to the argument, and he points out that as well as being correctly licensed, the Mr Bongo compilations also enable to label to invest in new music in a world where new music is financially more pressurised than ever.
“It’s really hard to make new music successful, and financially it’s a lot easier to put out an old record. We’ve signed the artist Proteje, a very successful Jamaican artist who had a UK Top 10 hit last year with Who Knows. We have to pump money into him, pay for him to do Later with Jools Holland, pay for the videos and PR, you know, pump hundreds of thousands into him. Proteje is only gonna sell on downloads or streaming, so how are you going to make the money back? At the same time you can put out an Arthur Verocai LP and sell ten thousand copies without any PR at all, and not spend a dime on it. What do you do? It’s like record store day, the whole industry is weighted towards releasing older stuff.”
Rtaher than capitulate to a market that will happily buy deluxe heavyweight vinyl of acts that have long since given up recording, while only ever bothering to stream new artists, Bongo's are set on a different, more positive route; supporting the new with the old-
“So the heritage stuff helps me do the new acts. If we just did reissues it would be a little bit dead. Instead we try and do three or four new albums a year and the rest is back catalogue revival pressure. I wouldn’t like to be too much either way, I like taking on new bands, it’s a challenge. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t, but that’s the way it goes. I think most of the good labels try and give something back…”
So you never know - spending a few quid on The Original Sound of Burkina Faso doesn't just get you the comp - it also funds the acts another reissue label may well be repressing on lushly printed gatefold 20 years from now...
The Original Sound of Burkina Faso is released at the start of Novemeber on vinyl, CD and download. More info and pre-orders over HERE.