Interview: Congotronics - Celebrating 30 years of Crammed Discs

30 years after its inception, Belgian label Crammed Discs - one of Europe's most eclectic and "worldly" labels is going stronger than ever. And with a phenomenal Congotronics vinyl box set on its way including the likes of Kasai Allstars and Konono No.1, there are reasons to celebrate. Bearded pitched questions at label heads Marc Hollander and John Stevens

Konono No.1 This is the 30th year of Crammed Discs - how has the industry changed over the years?
Marc: It's changed for the better: things are so great for labels that very soon there'll only be three and a half of us left on earth, so we'll have more room… More seriously, things have changed both enormously and not at all: there's as much great new music, as many exciting new artists to discover and work with as there were 30 years ago, so our enthusiasm is intact and running a label is more fun than it ever was. The major difference is this: the role of labels is as central as ever (everyone still wants us to find/help/produce/promote/support new artists and put out good music), yet there are fewer and fewer ways to fund these crucial activities. The public and half-a-dozen large industries (from media to computer and phone manufacturers to internet service providers to concert promoters) all need and consume great new music, but are less prepared to pay for it.

Crammed Discs has a somewhat eclectic roster of artists, is that a conscious decision by the people in the label or just a case of you put out what you like that comes along?
John: Underpinning the whole ethos of the label is this sense of restlessness, of not sitting comfortably within the cramped and musty living quarters one is provided by those dark twin lords over culture they call Media and Retail. Of course the idea of ‘eclecticism’ is so familiar now as to be practically passé, but survey our releases over any period, be it 5, 10, 15 years back or longer, and even if you don’t like everything (with hindsight we don’t necessarily either…), we’d hope you would concede that very few stylistic detours has been left unforaged, no facile linear path to a marketable label identity taken. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

How did the Congotronics series kick off? Have you been surprised by the reaction?
John: Congotronics began in 2005 with Congotronics, the first album by Konono No.1, recorded after Vincent Kenis finally met the band’s founder Mingiedi in DR Congo after a lengthy search and convinced him to set his mighty music to tape. The reaction to this album was unprecedented for us and I think the music world at large - never has such a fiercely indigenous African music effected such a strange, accidental yet uniformly perceived cross-pollination with western musical modes. Critical reference points have included krautrock, early 90s electronica and Detroit techno - styles all honed in cultural contexts so alien as to be literally laughable to Mingiedi and his cohorts. As the series has worn on – four volumes down so far – the cross-cultural accolades have out-bizarred themselves: a foaming scribe for a major UK monthly was moved to compare the debut Kasai Allstars album to “early Happy Mondays”. It’s caused plenty of amusement, but the common thread is that, however idiosyncratically it may be, people across the world are connecting strongly with the music, which is obviously good news for the bands and their label.

How did the label get started?
Marc: I was a musician, my project was called Aksak Maboul and I recorded an album (with my friend Vincent Kenis, now of Congotronics fame) which retrospectively sounds like a road map for what happened on Crammed during the next 30 years, as it included all kinds of playful and unholy mixtures. We were into deconstructing and recycling various genres (there were elements of pseudo jazz, electronics, imaginary African and Balkan music, pre-techno stuff etc) to create our own musical world, without paying attention to stylistical or geographical borders. When Aksak Maboul became a live band, we started inviting musicians from various origins to join us. I then gradually opted for the role of a catalyst over that of a musician, and started the label. One of my goals was to keep control of my own records. Another one was to keep doing on label-scale what we were up to with Aksak Maboul.

WIthin a couple of years from its inception, the label was working with bands from the UK, France, Africa, the Middle East, the US and more. These were the early days of modern independent labels, for the first time it seemed possible to record and put out music which was both free from the economic domination of multinational companies but also from the stylistic domination of Anglo-saxon taste, which didn’t completely fit with our reality... we needed to be able to mix styles, languages, influences...

What is your favourite release from the label?
John: Personally speaking, the first Konono album and the Kasai record have probably been the ones to have received CD laser lacerations due to overplay.

Marc: my favourite releases are always the current or the next ones… so let's mention the new albums by Lonely Drifter Karen and Cibelle. As well as a couple of lost classics: Mail Order Justice by Juryman (1997) and Noir et Blanc by Zazou Bikaye, our first foray into test-tube Congotronics (1983)

Is there any artist you wish you'd put out but didn't?
Marc: Oum Kalthoum? Nah, chronologically impossible… Oh, I know: Micachu and Juana Molina (after having just heard the great reconstruction tracks they're respectively working on for our upcoming Congotronics ‘tribute album’, scheduled for October).

John: Said album, and the curation/compilation thereof, will hopefully whittle down my pie-in-the-sky list of preferred bands and producers to have something put out on Crammed… the line-up of contributors is looking pretty tasty, it must be said.

How do you source the music you put out? Especially from more obscure corners of the globe?
John: There’s a whole raft of factors : everything from relatively-known figures looking to make their next step a strong one (Mocky, Akron/Family, Zeep) to freshly discovered heroes from the demo pile (Lonely Drifter Karen, Àllà), to artists recommended to us by other artists (Megafaun, Cibelle). The more “worldly” acts are often brought to our attention by close and trusted allies, e.g Our Man In Africa Vincent Kenis (Congotronics), and our Balkan specialist friend Stephane Karo (Taraf de Haidouks, Koçani Orkestar).

You can pre-order the Congotronics box set directly from Crammed Discs for a limited discounted price