Mr Bongo – Interview

Mr BongoStarting life in the late 80s as a record shop in London, selling super rare Latin music, Mr Bongo eventually became the Brighton-based label and publisher for some of the finest selections in Brazilian, Latin, African, Jazz, Soul, Reggae and Psychedelic flavours. With a new shop in the heart of the North Laine, and a 30th anniversary celebration gig as part of Brighton Festival, Jeff Hemmings visited the offices/shop and met up with Graham Luckhurst, to talk all things Mr Bongo.

Who are you and what do you do?
I am a Director of Mr Bongo. I run it with Dave Buttle, who founded it.

Tell me about the history of Mr Bongo.
Dave started it in 1989, and I’ve been here the last 15 years of that, when we became based in Brighton. Mr Bongo started life as a record shop in Soho, London, underneath a place called Daddy Kool’s, which was a reggae shop, selling a selection of Latin CDs initially. That expanded into two other shops in Soho. Over the years it grew as demand grew. Dave was going over to Venezuela, Columbia, and Cuba, sourcing music. Eventually that turned into Brazil, and the shop moved to Lexington Street, and then Poland Street. That’s the one that started selling hip hop downstairs, and Latin upstairs. And the label was born out of that as well. There was also a shop in Tokyo, but that proved difficult thanks to general business rates.

In those early days there was no other way of hearing those kind of records, was there?
It was born out of passion initially, in that music. Dave was going over to Venezuela to get the Venezuelan pressings of salsa that was coming out of the States. Then he developed a passion for Brazilian music, and then he started to go digging in Africa after that. That scene in the 90s, the acid jazz days, the heyday of Dingwalls, and Gilles Peterson, there was a huge hunger for that music. It was new, and you couldn’t get it unless someone was going over there. He was one of the guys, along with Gilles, and Mark Taylor, and Joe from Far Out, who were all going out and getting it. You couldn’t get it otherwise. It was the same for the hip hop stuff. Dave was going out to warehouses in the US. One of the main ones was in New Jersey – all the early Def Jam, Rawkus Records music – all that independent US stuff – which you couldn’t get otherwise. Distribution wasn’t there initially, and Mr Bongo became a distributor for all that stuff. That still runs true today. Like a repress of a Galt McDermott album we are about to release, someone who a lot of hip hop guys pay attention to, using lots of breaks and samples. That’s an example of getting hold of a 1990s re-issue. We got a couple of hundred copies, and no one else has that. Those records are still out there! That’s what it’s been like since day one. Mr. Bongo is basically a love and passion for records, going out and finding them, and hopefully there is enough to sell on. When it comes to African and Brazilian music, it’s always just re-issues, apart from the Seu Jorge record we did a few years ago, and a couple of others.

So, apart from re-issues, you still release new records?
We’re actually releasing four new records this year. We’re releasing one by The Skints, and one by Jungle Brown, a really interesting UK hip hop group. And one by Bedouin Soundclash, who have been around for a long time, produced by King Britt, with a New Orleans, Afro-Brazilian drumming, and dub roots sound. A really unique sound. The other one is Kid Sebastian, who we signed off the back of a random demo. It’s a phenomenal record. Its sounds like a cross between Gainsbourg, Arthur Verocai, and Turkish psyche. That’s going to turn some heads, a 25 year old master composer, who did every instrument on the record. He’s from Surrey, and went to the Guildhall, studied with some of the new UK jazz guard. He was actually a customer of Mr Bongo. All the records he was buying, they influenced the making of his record. Which is quite mad!

You are also very well known for re-releasing vintage African music.
Yeah, it’s weighted towards the early 70s. There’s a few bits late 60s, and few bit early 80s, like the disco-boogie stuff. Primarily on tape. It’s such a vast continent, but the variety of music is crazy. We’ve done a compilation from Burkino Faso, we’ve done a compilation from Mali, a lot of stuff from Ghana, and Nigeria, and their afro-beat funk sound. It varies town to town, let alone country to country. The Malian stuff is absolutely beautiful.

Tell me about the Brighton shop
We launched a shop in Brighton in 2016, and that only opens on Saturday. It negates all those traditional record shop problems of dead time, people standing around, people browsing for a long time and spending very little, which in this world of music it’s something you need to avoid. For us to be open from just 11-6 on a Saturday may be a strange concept initially, but now people are used to it.

The records we have here, we don’t have that many relatively speaking, maybe a couple of thousand. That’s a very digestible amount of records. It’s quite a curated, manageable way to buy records, I think. The records we stock are the records we like. I think that is part of the appeal. It’s always something we have been keen to push. It’s not a record that is selling a couple of hundred in each store everywhere else. We won’t stock it just because of that. Infact, generally, if it is widely available we are less likely to stock it.

You’ve got a huge showcase gig as part of this year’s Brighton Festival, which must be very exciting!
It’s our 30th anniversary, and we proposed quite a unique line up to the festival people. It represents the label, it represents what we are into, our interests. The addition of Moses Boyd gives it that nod to the UK which we are really into. Mr Thing and DJ Format, both go back to the shop days in London, and Hugh Bowles was one of the main guys, if not the main driving force, behind the hip hop store in Poland Street. Those three guys’ record knowledge is obsessive and insane, and they’re brilliant DJs as well! To have Hollie Cook and The Skints on the same line up, both are or have been on the label, is great. It’s gonna be a bit of festival vibe: reggae, punk, afro-beat, jazz, and hip hop in the foyer all night with Mr Thing and Format playing all evening.

You’ve been doing some gigs recently in the Brighton area…
We did quite a few local DJ gigs at Patterns. We did Joe Armon-Jones at Patterns recently, Robohands (who are on a local label, Village Live) and Penya down at Patterns. They did our Great Escape show last year at The Eagle. They push a mix of Latin afro-grooves and electronica; seamless and quite trance-y. The more they play, and particularly in a festival scenario, they are going to do really well I think. We did the Alternative Escape last year, in the Eagle, a free event. That turned some heads! Unfortunately, we won’t be able to do it this year, because we’re concentrating on the Dome, but we will do an in-store event for The Great Escape.

How do you keep up with the fast-changing music-consuming environment?
Yeah, the industry is changing fast. Vinyl is doing well, CDs are plummeting, streaming is going through the roof. That’s the nature of the music industry these days; in flux. You get used to it. I quite like that, all the changes, you get used to it, working within new parameters. In fact, CDs are up for us! When Dave started, vinyl was booming. When I started it was on its knees, in about 2004. Really, I’ve only seen things get better! Obviously things are nowhere near what they were like in 80s and 90s, but we’re selling a lot more than we were 10, 15 years ago. With those changes that were happening in the music industry no one knew what they were doing. People tried and pretended to know what they were doing, but I don’t think anyone had a clue really. But when these technologies started to form, when the social stuff started to embed, and there was a process behind it all, iTunes and downloads stared to take hold. Now, all of these things work quite nicely together. Streaming and digital sit side-by-side perfectly – records at home, streaming on the move, streaming for discovery, records if you want to purchase. CDs are falling into that now. They want to own it, but maybe don’t want to spend on the vinyl. CDs are cheaper than the download. Downloads aren’t going to be around for much longer. Maybe just specialist markets. But the resurgence in vinyl led to the resurgence in retail.

What’s your favourite Mr Bongo record?
Favourite album is the Arthur Verocai’s Arthur Verocai.

If you could see an artist(s) dead or alive tonight, who would that be?

Well Arthur Verocai is playing in LA in June, I am really hoping I can get to that! Also, Fela Kuti in his prime, on home turf, would have been insane to see.

Jeff Hemmings