Founded in 1989 as a small record shop in London, Mr Bongo expanded into a record label, publisher and DJ collective currently comprised of David Buttle, Graham Luckhurst, Gareth Stephens and Gary Johnson. Closing the shop in the early 2000’s due to declining record sales and major changes in the industry, they were able to switch their main focus to releasing records as well as occasionally presenting classic arthouse films from all over the world.
Digging up lost and hard to find gems from around the globe is their ethos and it has not changed since their opening day three decades ago. Mr Bongo’s main area of concentration started with Latin music and then a particular emphasis on Brazil. Since then, they’ve expanded to a wider range of genres such as reggae, soul, funk & jazz. Their widely successful 45s series (which includes Brazil, Africa and Latin) is a testament to their hard work in finding and re-releasing old records to a modern audience. We recently got the opportunity to chat with David and Graham from the collective and ask them a few questions. Ahead of their 30th (yes you read that right.. 30th!) anniversary, they’ve also put together this fantastic 2hr mix full of Brazilian gems cooked by Gareth Stephens and Gary Johnson.
Thanks for taking the time to chat! Let’s start off by discussing the fantastic compilation you released “The Original Sound of Mali”. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came about and how long it was in the works for?
I’d been working on it for around 3 years. In 2015 I happened upon the Soul Bonanza blog – a treasure chest of rare finds from around the world! One mix in particular stood out, Le Monde à Change: A Tribute To Mali 1970-1991. I have always loved Malian music, from my days at working at the record label, World Circuit. I already knew of Malian legends such as the Rail Band, Salif Keita, & Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako, but this mix was something else. Deep cuts from the collections of some of the heaviest African music collectors in the world; legends like Vik Sohonie, Hidehito Morimoto, Philippe Noel, Gregoire Villanova, and Rickard Masip. I immediately contacted Vik and a journey of discovery tracking down the rights-holders began. I also turned to the font of Malian music knowledge; Florent Mazzoleni. Florent has written the definitive book about Malian music – ‘Musiques modernes et traditionnelles du Mali’. He proposed some incredible tracks to include and provided the back bone of the sleeve notes and photos that are used in the album.
How do you usually go about looking and finding older music to re-issue, is it a whole lot of digging?
Digging is important, but you have to consider records that people want too. It’s harder to push a record no one has heard of, but we do do that if we are especially passionate about it. A good example is our Hareton Salvanini reissues. We also reissue a lot of records from our own collections.
What are some of the usual obstacles you have to overcome when trying to license and distribute music for re-release?
The main issue is finding out who owns the rights and making sure all rights-holders, labels and artists are on the same page and all are getting paid. This can take many years.
It took 14 years to get the rights to the Orson Welles film, ‘Chimes At Midnight’. Was that the longest you’ve spent on trying to acquire the rights to either a song or movie? Are the movies more of a passion project or what was the idea behind that when you first started releasing them?
Orson Welles was the longest one, but it’s been very rewarding. It’s not everyday you release what Orson thought was his greatest film. The reissue of Pedro Santos’ ‘Krishnanda’ and Arthur Verocai also took a considerable amount of time, 5-10 years.
You re-opened a physical shop in Brighton after almost 15 years. How does it feel to come full circle after such a long period of time?
It feels different. It’s smaller and a more friendly local vibe, whereas London was bigger and grew very fast. We aim to keep the Brighton store small and niche, only stocking records we love.
It seems the recent vinyl resurgence has definitely worked in your favour. Are you releasing and selling more music at the moment than you have in the last decade and a half or so?
Yes, and what’s great is that there are so many young people getting into it. We made a concerted effort to hit the radio shows, websites, press and clubs to reach out to them saying look there is other music you can play – African, Brazilian etc, helped by the fact that people such as Floating Points, Jeremy Underground and co are also very passionate about these styles and spin them. We also now see a lot more women buying records which is a significant change compared to the shop days in London in 1990’s and 2000’s.
I must add that whilst vinyl is selling well now, way back in the days we sold a lot more. Maybe 5/10 times more than now.
Would it be fair to ask you to pick a few of your personal favourite releases from records that you’ve put out?
Pedro Santos ‘Krishnanda’, as this took a long time to make happen, maybe 10 years. Arthur Verocai ‘Arthur Verocai’ is such a classic and needed a proper high quality release. Protoje’s ‘Ancient Future’ as he is such a great international talent.
Tell us about the Mr. Bongo ‘sound system’. How long have you all known each other and when did you start gigging together as a single entity?
We have known each other for the best part of 10 years now. We buy records together all over the world, spin records, travel – Brazil, Paris, Germany, USA – always good times. We met in Brighton through a shared passion for the same music.
Finally, we’d love to hear about any future planned releases or ventures that you’re looking to undertake.
It’s our 30th anniversary this year, so a lot happening! New music from The Skints, Jungle Brown, Kit Sebastian and Bedouin Soundclash forthcoming in 2019, plus loads of events to celebrate including a huge party at Brighton Dome on 5th May with The Skints, Hollie Cook, Jungle Brown, Moses Boyd Exodus, DJ Format, Mr Thing and Huw Bowles. Mr Bongo Record Club Volume Three will be out in May, plus reissues from Azymuth, Os Novos Bahianos, Archie Shepp, Minoru Muraoka, Gyedu Blay Ambolley and many more.
Interview by Igor