Jukebox Jury: Analog Africa’s Samy Ben Rajab

Chris Nickson

By Chris Nickson

on 05.27.11 in Jukebox Juries

There are crate-diggers, and then there is Samy Ben Rajab. The compilations he assembles for his Analog Africa label are the result of months spent rummaging through rare record bins, master tapes — whatever he can find. Such deep, loving attention to detail produces scorching compilations, all of them brimming with head-spinning vintage tracks and obscurities. In the increasingly crowded African compilation marketplace, Rajab stands out.

Rajab’s introduction to African music came while working as a diving instructor in Senegal. He “started going to the market and buying tapes. It became more serious when I was back in Greece and missing Africa.” He soon began working as a DJ; when he saw how wildly popular the African music night he started became, a seed was planted, and the eventual result was Analog Africa. Not only is every track Rajab issues properly licensed, but he also interviews the musicians (wherever possible) about their histories and makes sure they receive full royalties for their work. It’s as much a labour of love as a business, and he’s passionate and eloquent about every release.

eMusic’s Chris Nickson caught up with him recently to play a few results of his handiwork back to him.

Ferreira Do Nascimento, “Macongo Me Chiquita”

Farreira had passed away, and no one knew his family. It’s just my taste that made me pick this track. It has a sound that’s a bit twisted, and I like that. I discovered it on a compilation a friend in San Francisco gave me. There’s sort of rap in it, actually. But if you listen enough, you discover that there are many African songs from the ’60s that have some rap — some people will tell you the roots of rap are there. Back then, in Angola, the composer of the music would find the band. The musicians would be paid right after recording, and the composer would receive royalties.

Anibal Velasquez, “Carruseles”

I go to Africa to work. To relax and get away, I go to Colombia. I love the music there, especially the older music; it’s very high quality. Anibal was very popular, and he started very young — at just 16. This is the only track on the compilation that he didn’t compose; it was already popular when he did it. He played the piano on this, and he played it just the same way he played the accordion — wildly. A friend gave me the disc because I loved the cover. I played it at a DJ set and people went crazy. There’s a strong African influence in Colombian music and you can absolutely hear that mix here. A little Indian, a little Spanish, and a lot of Africa.

Marijata, “Break Through”

I just like this track, and that’s it! There’s a raw energy to it, and it’s very danceable. It’s the most Western track on this album, with a real Funkadelic influence. Most of the compilation comes from tapes that PolyGram West Africa had in a warehouse in Accra but had never claimed. This one was different; I already had it on record when I assembled the album. It’s actually one of the hardest singles to find in Africa. It never sold well, and neither did their album.

Honoré Avolonto, “Na Mi Do Gbé Hué Nu”

This is pure Afrobeat. It first came out on an album Honoré produced himself. He was a big artist in Benin, although he was really more of a composer for other bands than a performer. What he did was very informed by Fela Kuti, but there are also elements of Benin music. He recorded this track with Orchestre Poly Rythmo. When I met the bosses of the band for the first time, they didn’t know why I wanted to release particular songs with them on, like this one. Some songs had never been successful in Benin, so they didn’t know their work could have had an impact in Europe. But this one just says a great deal.

Orchestre Poly Rythmo, “Se Ba Ho”

This track is very powerful. I heard it the first time I was dealing with the production company. The whole studio started dancing, even people who’d been around for years. The song came from a traditional composer, and the style’s very traditional, too. The band actually did two versions of the song. When their main producer was in Nigeria, other producers would come around and want them to do songs, and so they recorded a version of this for another label. Their main producer was mad at them, of course, then loved the song and had them re-record it for him. There’s a song on the other side of the single that they did in a much better version for the smaller label, too.

Orchestre Poly Rythmo, “Dis Moi La Verité”

This was the last track I licensed for that album. I actually wanted the other side of the single. Often they had one good side on a disc and one not so good, so I’d never bothered to listen to this. Then I heard it and licensed it very late in the process, so I had to sweat on the running order! The band had never realised how good they were. They told me some songs they did were copies of popular songs, but they’d put their own stamp on them, and they did that well here.