Cuban music is… You have God and directly below is Cuban music. For everybody who really is in the music scene, Cuban music is sacred. But African music is not far below it.
pic courtesy of Viola Mueller
Samy Ben Redjeb, founder of the record label Analog Africa, releases compilations of mainly African music from the 1970s and 1980s, travelling in nearly every African country to search for what he wants to release. Viola Müller interviewed him in Frankfurt, where he lives, in May 2014 for a paper on Afro-Colombian music; mainly due to the fact that Samy had also released two records on music from the Colombian Caribbean coast entitled ‘Ritmos del Diablo: The Colombian Melting Pot’. (And damned hot they are too - Ed). Viola, who lived in Barranquilla a couple of years ago and often returns to visit, had – like many Colombians too – no idea of this vibrant Afro-Colombian music scene tucked away in the very centre of Colombia's fourth largest city. Culturally and historically, Barranquilla stands in the shadow of other Caribbean cities such as Cartagena and Santa Marta. In this interview, Samy speaks about Afro-Colombian and Afro-Brazilian music and the connections to African music from the 1960s and 70s, the changing Black music scene, and the emergence of Cumbia in Colombia and Siriá in Brazil.
IN: How come that you went to Colombia?
S: I saw a CD with the pictures of a Colombian record store covered in LP sleeves of African music, and the picture stayed in my head. Also the (connected) thought that the Colombians also consume African music. But I had no idea to what extent… nothing. The whole story actually started with a pal of mine who lived in Canada. I used to exchange records with him. Or every time I travelled, I gave or sold the records to him which I had two copies of. And then he told me that he just came back from Colombia and found a lot of cool music. I asked for the doubles and he said he would fly there again and when he would be back, we would exchange them. Then he flew there, came back, and we chatted and decided he would record everything he had as double records and I would do the same and we would swap the files.
IN: He was a Canadian?
S: He was Canadian. Yes, and then I spent the whole night recording records. The next day I made files and sent it to him. Then I waited, waited and waited, waited. I have never heard of him again. Never again. Then I said, alright. If this is the case, I'll just get myself a ticket. And then I bought a ticket to Colombia because he just made me so curious.
IN: This was it? It can't be the only sleeves you saw, the pictures of this record store. You must have had another impulse. It must also have been the music you heard.
S: I didn't know anything from Colombia. I found a record in Canada of this guy, my acquaintance. He had sold me this record. I also talk about this record in the booklet of the Diablos del Ritmo LPs. He just made me curious. He said there is a lot of music with accordion, and I showed him some stuff from the Cape Verde Islands which I like a lot, and he said, this is exactly how it sounds in Colombia. They have the same stuff there too. This was all I knew but I just said yes. But this is how I usually work. Most if the time I have one song, and this song is enough.
IN: But you knew you had to go to Cartagena.
[In Cartagena, the first record company of the country, called Discos Fuentes, was established in 1934. It is the musically strongest city on the Caribbean coast, besides Barranquilla with a rather hidden, more underground music scene.]
S: I knew I had to go to Colombia. But I didn't quite know where. I knew that Fuentes started in Cartagena, for instance. And I said to myself, there could be something. But I didn't have an actual idea but I had a lot of contact with people who had blogs and were collecting records. They sent me lists with African records they were looking for. With them I went to Colombia, without knowing that this was the beginning of a revolution. In Cartagena I actually didn´t find that much, but instead in Barranquilla…! But let's say, the first trip was rather for learning what the Colombians look for, what there is. In every country, you first have to search and know what there is, and learn. It was only during the second trip when I really started to find really heavy stuff.
IN: You have also been to other Latin American countries. Brazil, for example.
S: Brazil was afterwards. I went to Brazil for the first time 2 years ago. The reason why I did the compilation on Afro-Colombian music is just because I fell in love with the country. The music – the African music – is much closer to what I want to do. This is what I know best. For instance, I'm doing a compilation with Brazilian music now. This is just a matter of luck. There are people who just have so much more knowledge, and that means I have to gain this knowledge first; and therefore I need time, time which I don't have because this scene in which I'm moving has not only grown in the last few years but people also know that they can find stuff in Africa; and now everybody is throwing themselves onto that stuff, so to speak. That is why there is not much time. The world is getting much smaller.
IN: So you mean the interest in African music…
S: Yes yes, it has just exploded in the last 10 years. When I started with the music style which I work with, i.e. Afro Punk, Afro Beat, the danceable stuff, there maybe were 2 labels. Now there are 15 or 20.
IN: How does Afro-Colombian music match with Analog Africa?
S: It simply is Colombian music with African ‘spicing’. In this case, I am interested in the music played or recorded by Afro-Colombians - or Afro-Brazilians. Now in Brazil, it really is a music style which came into being in the enclaves, the quilombos, where the slaves were hiding in the Amazon. This is where they founded the quilombos and there the different rhythms mixed. With the indigenous people it was such a mix. Just as in Colombia, the Africans with indigenous people.
IN: Is the African essence more noticeable in Colombia or Brazil?
S: In both countries equally strong. Both. In Colombia, due to all the record labels which came into being in Barranquilla, Barranquilla had an even stronger musical scene than Cartagena. To me, Barranquilla is a Mecca of this sound, for the recorded sound as well. In Cartagena, after Fuentes left, there were no more record studios. It was just music which was played, and later the sound systems, but the record labels, they were all in Barranquilla.
IN: Why were they in Barranquilla?
S: Barranquilla was a very modern city in the 40s/50s. It was a very big and important port. There was a bit more action than in Cartagena – in my opinion, musically. It might be that I'm wrong but this is my feeling.
IN: How was the reception of the records, Diablos del Ritmo? How did they sell? Where did you sell them and to whom?
S: Sold, relatively. Like all music. But they were received very, very well.
S: Everywhere. Mainly England, North America, Canada, Holland. What very much touched me is that in Africa, the music from the 60s/70s is no longer consumed by the youth. They just don't listen to it. For them, this is music for the old, so to speak. And every time I am in Africa, people are more interested in the [monetary] value of the record than its music. There are barely any young people really interested in this music. Therefore, when I'm in Africa and looking for records, I'm alone. Except from older people. When I unpack my record player and play songs for them, they always are like, ‘oooh this is cool and stuff. This is cool. Ah, this one has become more expensive now because it is so good’. I also connect headphones and let them listen and they are pretty impressed by that sound because vinyl has a good sound. But the young people, they search for records for me or help me find records but except for the financial value they are interested in nothing.
IN: Which countries are we talking about?
S: In every country in Africa where I've been, it is like this.
IN: Mainly West coast or…?
S: I've been everywhere. I've travelled to 26 countries in Africa.
IN: Good for you!
S: Then I come to Colombia and I see young people, you know, who organise parties with African music from the 70s and I just see how they are totally fascinated. I saw so many people crying, continually getting goose bumps. These records don't have such an impression in Africa any more .
IN: This was also written on the Palenque Records homepage, that many African immigrants in Paris hear that music which they haven't listened to since their childhood, and they also get a flashback and find the experience very moving.
[Palenque Records is a Colombian record label founded by Lucas Silva which had a branch in Paris.]
S: My best friend from Colombia, Carlos - who I talk a lot about in the booklet - was very young when I met him but he had so much knowledge. The second time in Barranquilla, he had a look looked through one of my record boxes while I was packing my things and he said, ‘this poliritmo record is awesome’. I said, ‘yeah, you can have it.’ So he took it and I did my stuff and then I realised after a few minutes that I didn't hear anything, so I turned around and saw that he had his head down and he was in tears… That was heavy. These are the moments when you say the Colombians will save the African music. They are currently working on an archive, just an archive in a wardrobe but it is an archive which simply lives.
IN: In Barranquilla?
S: In Cartagena, too.
IN: So, they change the African music and take it over?
S: No, they don't change it. They play it as it is, the original records. The original records have a very high significance. Cuban music is… You have God and directly below is Cuban music. Nobody can touch it, the Cuban music. For everybody who really is in the music scene, Cuban music is sacred. But African music is not far below it. It also is a different sort. African music is much more party music, more about groove and getting drunk. Cuban music is rather for listening or dancing. It's also from a different generation. Cuban music is listened to by all generations. African music is rather ‘young’ but this generation is turning older, too, and they take the African music with them, so to say. This is my feeling somehow.
The children of these people would equally adore this African music. And this is what makes me happy. Because in Africa it's getting heard less and people don’t consume this music. And the records are bought by other people, such as Europeans who go there and buy records. I send records to Colombia, they buy a lot on Ebay and exchange them with many other people. Colombia is… it's hot there. And people exchange thoughts and people meet and play the new things to each other, and there are competitions. And in Africa, by contrast, nothing happens with this music. Zero. Well, there are radio stations which also have music programmes with sound from yesterday or memories but always with a marker like ‘ok, this is old’. And African music actually is… some bands were so futuristic that they influence bands today to alter their manner of playing. I was in Brazil and I saw so many bands and they all told me, they wouldn't be playing like this if Africans hadn't released this music. So they say ‘yes, we are big fans, we love poliritmo, and we listened to all the records’.
And you can tell when they play. They play it in a way... it extends the scope of what you can learn in a music school. In a music school you can learn only so much, and they go beyond these boundaries because they just didn't learn it. And they invent ways to play music differently. With their ears or following the feeling. Often, when an African band goes to a studio, the sound engineer, if he is not African, would say ‘here, tune your guitars, tune your bass, here this and that must be changed’. And then he changes the sound. It's not that good any more. You have to go back to Barranquilla.
IN: What happened that meant this music suddenly gained popularity?
S: It's down to two musicians. It's mainly Lucho Bermúdez and Pacho Galán who modernised this music, so to speak. They orchestrated it. These bands were small groups in the beginning, you had tambor alegre, then you had tambor, then you had llamador [different types of drums], then you had güiro and then you had flautas [flutes] or accordion. Sometimes even both. That was, so to speak, the original Cumbia. Lucho Bermúdez orchestrated this, with a wind section, with clarinet, with a much, much bigger group. And this music achieved the break through.
IN: Then it is a rather classical influence.
S: Yes, but it is not played in the classical way. It is traditional music, and brought up to date using modern instruments. And the upper class started to accept that. They were invited everywhere, to Ball Rooms, to High Society concerts. Pacho Galán also had a very, very strong impact in modernising this music. There was no other exciting music in the ‘interior’of the country. It mainly was Cha Cha Cha or Waltz or Boleros or something like that. With Lucho Bermúdez, a music appeared which had somehow more fire and influence on the people. It is this one guy but that was enough because he gave the impact. Then Pacho Galán came along. Through these two people, Cumbia became the national music. There is no other music. The national music of Colombia is the music of the North and the reason for this is because Lucho Bermúdez and Pacho Galán showed the people, ‘here, this is our music… you should respect it.’ And the people did.
IN: Lucho Bermúdez was probably very sophisticated.
S: He was very sophisticated, he was a conductor and knew what to do. With a traditional band from the North you couldn't have made an impression in Bogotá. It was just this music style which also came from America, the whole Jazz angle, all these Big Bands, he was also influenced by this. And he thought, ‘how could I do this with our music?’ That was just genius. Not only was the music good but he just had this idea: ‘How could I orchestrate my music or the music of my people in a way that I can also export it?’ And it became a wave. Until him, people in Bogotá did not listen to music from the North.
IN: When was this?
S: I think he started in the middle of the 50s. I don´t know when his first record was. But something like this exists in many countries. Somebody who develops traditional music for the first time and is therefore able to perform in big cities. This phenomenon exists in every African country. It also exists in Brazil. There is a rhythm called Siriá which is very tribal. It had been developed by the Afros and the indigenous. Mestre Cupijó was the first one to modernise this music. And he educated and trained many people. Before him, Siriá didn't exist as a modern style. People in Belém, for instance, in the big city, did not listen to Siriá. Mestre Cupijó was the first one to bring the music from Cameta to Belém. It was orchestrated and through this orchestration people started to respect this music, even it was the modern version of it. They knew that there was also a traditional version of it, like Carimbó, Dundun, these are all styles that were modernised but traditional forms also exist; Bacumbia, Gaita, Porro, all these music styles. They all exist as traditional and as modern forms.
[Siriá is a cross pollination between the music of the inhabitants of the quilombos, a Brazilian hinterland settlement founded by escaped African slaves, and the indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest. Mestre Cupijó has created the modernised version of this local music, which has been igniting street parties and traditional festivals across the state of Pará in Northern Brazil for decades.]
There are HOURS of fantastic music on his site: and Samy often gives away free downloads, too. So keep your eyes and ears peeled.