“On The Corner Records came from some disdain in my old career. I’d started digging new stuff again probably in 2009 – there was a real shift in what record stores had...”
I meet Pete Buckenham on what appears to be a busy morning, in-between running errands and picking up dubplates. It’s no surprise. Having started out as one man’s musical journey around Africa, On The Corner has spearheaded its way in just a few short years to the forefront of the new wave of African inspired electronic music through a number of carefully curated and highly personal releases. It’s only set to continue.
Having spent time in East Africa and The Sahara as part of his job in Amnesty, and putting in the hours listening to labels such as Soundway and ANALOG AFRICA Pete tells me he was left with a burning question. What was happening now? These were labels that harked back to the heydays of the '60s and '70s across different African capitals. At a time when YouTube and the Internet weren’t as prolific this question couldn’t be easily answered. Pete cites the story of Steve Reid as a significant inspiration – he’d been a key player in the civil rights movement and the music looking to Africa in the late '60s and early '70s, having taken years just travelling around with his drums. Then he somehow worked with Kieran Hebden, returning to Senegal to record Daxaar in 2007.
This all changed Pete’s focus with work. Being part of a work culture where travelling was the everyday led to, effectively, one long bar hop across Africa. In Zanzibar he ran a bar and was encouraged to DJ – everything from the ANALOG AFRICA stuff to Joy Orbison. This was stuff nobody was playing there at the time and eventually led to Pete journeying around the continent, getting involved in the local scene seeing, hunting out and speaking to musicians. Eventually, returning back to his old job in London, Pete tells me he connected with Emanative and found a little café where they started “On The Corner Sessions” - a Monday night where they would play anything from Theo Parrish to obscure cuts coming out of Ethiopia.
“I called it on the corner sessions because it was that idea that Miles Davis had with the album ‘On The Corner’, y’know the whole cut’n’paste thing – street music and funk. It was almost the birth of hip-hop techniques; there was a bit of Stockhausen thrown in as well as the kinda psychedelic funk and stuff.”
Out of this Nick (Emanative) had some works in progress that didn’t have a home. Pete tells me at this time he was in Sounds of the Universe approximately 3 times a week and that Neil [from Sounds of the Universe] encouraged him to just put it out himself. From this On The Corner Records was born.
It seems timing was on Pete’s side with the project – he says that whilst he never had a specific plan to release African stuff when the retro-African stuff was blowing up it was perfect because it was all his interests from the last 10 years coming together. People were opening their ears and the scene just leapt; there was a culture of new, interesting jazz just coming through. One such group, the 7-piece outfit Collocutor, have played an important role in shaping the label’s identity and Pete tells me that the appeal to him is how they’re not something that strictly fits within the jazz terminology, having roots from all around the globe. He talks about how he’s not the only member of the label’s team – Victoria Topping creates the artwork and is a central part of their identity. This gives On The Corner’s releases their distinct look, something Pete tells me she has nailed.
I’m left with a sense of just how personal this is for Pete. His sheer depth of knowledge, something only possible from so much fieldwork, impresses me. We go from the DJ collective Santuri Safari in Dar es Salaam, Nairobi and Kampala to chance meetings in rudimentary workers' cafes in Zanzibar. It’s personal, and one thing that rings true is that Pete cares about the creativity that can come out of connecting musicians of different disciplines and cultures. This, he tells me, is a key component of On The Corner’s philosophy. We go from name to name, location to location, connection to connection. The label’s evolution, I’m told, has left it wide open which is why producers keep coming to him. Each release has come out of a personal connection which is important because, Pete says, there’s no money in it – it’s try and survive and not go bankrupt from one month to the next. This means anything that’s released has a great deal of pride attached.
“I honestly don’t think there’s anybody else doing quite like what we are, or coming from my perspective which is matching the modal jazz with the young electronic producers that are hungry for those stems. But also that process for me is key – you've got these musicians in a silo that are maybe classically trained or just incredibly deep musicians, and then you’ve got these young electronic producers who want to use analogue gear, using the right stems to create this real feel. And for me, I suppose, its like being in that middle and pairing them up.”
Whether this is with Collocutor or whether its with a Ugandan xylophone group, I'm told it’s all the same – the producers come in with a great deal of respect for the source material instead of a preconceived, exact idea of what they want their output to be. This leads to something entirely unique, with each side working off the other to push their creativity into new, uncharted territory. It’s an attitude that appears to be paying off and it’s no surprise On The Corner’s output is set to double next year.
“This time last year we were struggling to get ‘Versus’ out and it had been a year since Collocutor’s album. Where I was with the label, it probably wasn’t ready, I didn't have enough of a footholding in the music industry to be pushing out more releases whereas when Santuri’s Embaire Umeme dropped, it was on 6 music! Ishmael’s track was played by Tom Ravenscroft at 6pm on a Wednesday afternoon. That for me is just… what is that about! And it sold out in three days.”
Check out On The Corner Records here.