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“The perfect song”

Vik Sohonie worked for big media agencies like Reuters until he decided to found Ostinato Records in 2016. Today he lives in Brooklyn, New York, Bangkok and Mumbai, spending more time in Asia than in the US. Sohonie has released compilations on Haiti, Cape Verde, Somalia and Sudan, re-issues of Cape Verdean bands from the European diaspora and music by the Sudanese artist Abu Obaida Hassan. “Two Niles to Sing a Melody. The Violins and Synths of Sudan” was released in September 2018. The latest record is a re-issue of the Star Band de Dakar from Senegal.

iz3w: What inspired you to found Ostinato?

Vik Sohonie: I started my working career as a journalist. Journalism is a profession that is dominated by Western journalists and editors. The Western world view is pervasive in how stories, people and cultures are presented. I was born in India, grew up in the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and the United States. So I came to see many different sides of the story. With some of them I agreed, while with some I didn’t. I saw what was chosen for coverage, how it was presented, and I realized that the narrative of journalism, particularly Western journalism, hasn't really changed much over the last couple of 100 years. The stories are only focused on war and violence and strife for sexual crimes – whatever you want to associate the Global South with. It’s dangerous to only tell these stories. From my experience in journalism, I understand the importance of telling stories, especially those of other people. Because when you do that, you are effectively crafting their image, the image of entire countries and people, to the entire world.

Having grown up in so many countries, I've had passion for music for a very long time. I've been collecting music, listening to music from all over the world, but I was particularly influenced by the music of black America, and its poetry and literature. It isn’t only dealing with the black American experience, but speaks for everyone who has been colonized or conquered. Take the writings of Stokely Carmicheal, of W.E.B. DuBois: Anyone raised in Asia, Africa, the Middle East or Latin America can easily relate to them. To combine my two passions of journalism, of storytelling, and music, I decided to create a label that tells stories through music. They reveal a whole new paradigm on how you view countries, peoples, cultures, societies.

 

And this idea stands behind your sampler  “Sweet as Broken Dates”?

Yes, that’s the album on Somalia. The case here is: We have movies like Black Hawk Down (2001), like Captain Phillips (2013), and journalism on piracy in Somalia that wins Pulitzer prices, like Jeffrey Gettleman’s reporting for the NY Times (2012). But these narratives center around violence, civil war, and failed states. They are very intoxicating and very seductive, and feed into the idea that this is what Africans are, right? They are thought to be incapable of governing themselves, that when left to their own devices their countries collapse, that they have no ability to build prosper societies, that they are warmongering and violent. The history of Somalia in the global imagination begins in 1991, when the civil war started. Which is absolutely absurd – the country has one of the most ancient civilizations on earth. So if I do an album on Somalia, I don't have to go back hundreds of years, I can just go back ten years. On Sweet as Broken Dates I present the story of a country that is anything but what you think it is. Nothing can change the narrative, challenge it, and be as powerful and long lasting as a music album. The press that Sweet as Broken Dates got was a testament to that. Major publications like the NY Times, the Wallstreet Journal and the Guardian covered it. And it was the first positive story they've told of Somalia in years, in decades maybe.

 

In an interview with the news website Quartz Africa, you said that we have been fed a single story about the countries of the Global South. Was that a wink to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie?

Well, that definitely was a nod to her, she articulated it very well in her famous TED talk that a lot of people quote. Because before we even knew we were the victims of a single story, it was something that was happening constantly. People who've grown up in the Global South, who have the skin color that I have, or carry the passport that I carry, understand it. There is a common perception of us across the world, and we are left to wonder who shaped it. Because it didn't reflect how I see myself, or how Somalia sees itself. It has done an incredible lot of damage, to young kids growing up, being told that that's who they are. And even if they try to be different, they will be constantly placed in this box.

 

Do you see your work as an antidote to single storyism?

It's certainly an antidote. The only issue is that the way the world is structured today, the way that the media is consumed today, changes in narratives last as long as a few scrolls on your screen, and then they are gone. We are producing these records on an independent scale, in tens of thousands, not millions. But even on this small scale we can change the media for a moment. So people will perhaps read a new story about Haiti, Somalia or Sudan, and there's going to be two stories in their head: There will be one story from the news and one story from the music album. It’s up to them to reconcile them. They will have a fuller image of a country, and they are hopefully going to question, and critically think about, how they’re being presented these diverse, incredibly culturally rich countries. They are going to ask themselves: “Why am I only given one side of the story?” If we can only sow a little bit of doubt in people's minds on how they should be understanding or interpreting the world, this would already be a huge victory.

 

Two Niles to Sing a Melody has an 18-page booklet which tells the fascinating story of Sudanese music from the lush period in the post-colonial 1970s under Gafaar Nimeiry (Sudanese president 1969-85) and its decline during the first and second wave of islamization in the 1980s and ‘90s. Was there a written history of Sudanese music in the 20th century, or did you reconstruct it using interviews?

What we are trying to do is to create new knowledge in this world. When I came to Somalia, there was no written documentation of the music scene before the civil war. I am not the first person to release a compilation of Sudanese music though. There’s the Rough Guide to the Music of Sudan (2005), but on it was music recorded by Sudanese musicians in Europe, either on tour or in exile. This is the first time an album of the vast catalogue of music recorded in Sudan is released. There’s a lot of books about the political crises and the coups of postcolonial Sudan. I have read a lot of these books, as a ways of preparing myself. But reading these books, which focus on politics and economics, makes you wonder how these scholars could miss this cultural era – the defining feature of Sudan in the 1970ies! Sudanese music was loved across the continent, and people’s idea of Sudan is not one of coups or political tumult, but of the musicians. I would say that this was the first time that we were allowed to go as in depth: We spoke to musicians or their families and revealed real intimate stories that link Sudan to Africa. These stories flesh out what was happening in the country – from the rise to the fall. I would hope that the liner notes of Two Niles are the first of their kind. We have been able to uncover a lot of new information.

 

Was it a natural decision for you to link it so closely to the political history of postcolonial Sudan?

We talked to Mohamed Abu Sabib, who’s a cultural scholar in Khartoum, a really nice guy. You can find him in the liner notes of the album Two Niles. I asked him a lot of questions about politics. Because every time we spoke to musicians, they would be speaking about Nimeiry, or Omar Al-Bashir. The 1970s were a very political time, a time when leadership was intimately tied to society in ways that we don’t really associate today. It was incredibly supportive in terms of culture. We are not talking about an era of corrupt despots, but of leaders who, for the most part, were very invested in their societies. They believed in funding of the arts as a way to decolonize society, as a way to re-instill confidence in a society after colonial rule. One of the first things Abu-Sabib told us was: “You know, in Sudan the political and the cultural are inseparable. You cannot talk about one and not talk about the other.” Look at Mohammed Wardi, he was member of the Communist Party of Sudan – which was the largest CP in Africa during the cold war. That is fascinating to me! His political affiliation shaped how he thought about music, about society, his politics and his activism. I think the depoliticization of music has been one of the greatest victories that the rightwing has accomplished across the world in the last twenty or thirty years. Look at hip hop in America! That used to be one of the most political expressions ever. And now they completely depoliticized it, and stripped it of all value and substance.

 

The Haqiba period is named after a suitcase of 1930s recordings traveling from Cairo to Sudan. It is said to be the basis of all Sudanese music. But what is Haqiba all about?

Haqiba was a period in the 1930s, when Sudanese composers, arrangers, songwriters and poets got together in Cairo. The city was a meeting place for intellectuals from the region for many years. Cairo was more accommodating at that time for artists, in terms of infrastructure, than Sudan was in the '30s. The musicians and composers were sitting in Cairo, composing these songs, writing the notes and probably the poetry of these songs. They would put them in a suitcase and bring them back to Khartoum to perform them. This period is so important, because today the newer generation of Sudanese musicians is still using what was produced in the Haqiba period. Older musicians are criticizing this tradition, because nothing new is being produced. The Haqiba-period formed the basis of all Sudanese music.

 

Is there a track on the album which is especially Haqiba?

The most important song is called Al Zaman Zamanak by Abdullah Abdelkader. That song was written and composed in the 1930s. The Haqiba was so well put together, Abdullah Abdelkader told us, that “basically, all we had to do was perform it.” They didn't have to add anything to it, they just had to decide which instruments to use. But the melody, the rhythm, the lyrics were all there. Al Zaman Zamanak is a song that can be translated as “It's your time”. In the 1930s they were talking about “it's Sudan's time now – let's try to make it the best that's possible.” Abdullah Abdelkader redid it in the 1970s as a way of saying “Sudan, it's really your time now – because we were independent, we have a leader who supports us, we have a rich cultural tradition in the works, we are enriching ourselves daily, we are decolonizing ourselves, it's our time, it's Sudan's time, it's time to seize it.” That is probably the best representation of the Haqiba-tradition. It's one of my favorite tracks on the album and one of the first Sudanese songs I heard.

 

Do you have another favorite track on Two Niles?

My favorite track... I would probably say that it's the last track, No.16, Al Mursal (The Messenger) by Mohammed Wardi, not only because of how it sounds, but because it was also one of the first songs I found. I found this cassette in Hargeisa, in the Republic of Somaliland, at a market. I thought it was a Somali cassette. But I put it in, and I knew right away, when the violins started, that it was Sudanese. There is a sentimental element, because I found that this is the most beautiful way that I have heard a violin play. Two Niles covers the period from 1970-1997. The earliest recording of the album Two Niles is Wardi's Al Sourah (The Photo) and the very last song of the album is Wardi's Al Mursal. It’s also the last song recorded in the era that we are covering. So he's literally the beginning and end – not only of this album, but of Sudanese music. I think this song is beautiful because he recorded it in exile, just before he returned to Sudan in 2002. And when he returned, he was greeted as a champion, as a hero. Thousands came to his arrival at Khartoum airport. The government hated him, but it could not touch him, because he was so revered and loved. He was allowed to pass away in Sudan. He’d always said that he wanted to die in Sudan, which he did in 2012. This song is to me not just a beautiful representation of Sudan's greatest musician, but it's also emblematic of the resilience of Sudanese music. The song was recorded in exile: Wardi left the country in 1983. This song renounced his return. It announces that Sudanese music, no matter how much you try to repress it, or kill the artists, or torture them, or detain them, they are still going to produce world class music, whether it is in exile or at home. It's the perfect song that captures all that I was trying to present about Sudan.

 

So the cassette was the root of your project collecting Sudanese music for the compilation?

I always knew that I wanted to do something with Sudanese music. You have to keep in mind that Sudan is a very diverse country, one of the most diverse in Africa – if not of the world. Colonial designs centered power in Khartoum with an Arab elite. The music of Khartoum is considered Arab music, even if I would disagree with that. It draws from Arab violin orchestral traditions, but the central issue is that people accuse the government and society of Khartoum of imposing Arab culture onto the rest of the country. This happens at the detriment of Nubian culture, Darfurian culture, and South Sudanese culture. When I speak of Sudanese music, I am talking about the music of Khartoum and not the music of Sudan as a whole. That’s why I released an album just before this, with music of the Shaigiya tradition from the North of Sudan: To give people an idea of the diversity of the country. (Abu Obaida Hassan & His Tambour: The Shaigiya Sound of Sudan, 2018)

Travelling around East Africa, and speaking to people from West Africa, from Mali, or Mauretania, I found that what they all have in common is not the religion of Islam, or the Arabic language, but their love for Sudanese music. I thought to myself: “Wow, you literally have people all the way from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean – all who hold Sudanese music as their favorite music.” All the musicians in Ethiopia you speak to, that now tour frequently, would answer with Mohammed Wardi and Sayed Khalifa, when you ask them about who they were listening to while growing up. The same is true for musicians in Somalia. I've sat with the minister of culture in Djibouti, and we have talked about how much we loved Mohammed Wardi. I talked to a person who was part of Siad Barre's (president of Somalia 1969-91) government, who is now a University professor in Minnesota. When I said we're going to release a Sudanese album after the Somali album he said: “You know, I listened to the same music!”

This entire post-colonial 1970s/80s generation of Africa held Sudanese music in the highest regard, and I thought: Well, this is a distinctly African story that has not been exported to the world, and if an entire continent can love this country and culture so much, we have to trust their ears and judgment. Our hope will be proven right that the whole world will be as captivated by it as so many Africans were during this era.

 

So far you have released collections of music from Haiti, the Cape Verde Islands, from Somalia, from Senegal and Sudan, plus two re-issues of Cape Verdean bands in the European Diaspora and a record with music by the Sudanese artist Abu Obaida Hassan. What is your next project?

That's a good question. There are so many that I've lined up. The thing is: The last two years have been so crazy because we literally put out five albums in two years, which is quite a lot for a label that just started – it's taken quite a toll. Actually this will be the last release for this year and then I'm just taking a little bit of time off before I jump into everything again, but there will be more music coming from the countries that I've focused on. Cape Verde is a country that has so many stories to tell and its Diaspora is literally a Diaspora of musicians. They might be doctors or lawyers or whatever by day, but incredible musicians at night There are so many bands to cover. I'm working on a project of a Diasporian Cape Verdean band that is just incredible. And after this I am going to release a project I had actually licensed when I created the label. It just didn't really fit exactly what I'm trying to do – changing the narrative – and so it's been sitting on the shelf. It's just a band that I've loved for so long, called Star band de Dakar, an Afrobeat-Latin band from Senegal of the 1960s, which just took Cuban music and completely Africanized it. Cuban music is already an African music, but it was going from West Africa to Cuba and then came back to Senegal. This band just created the most incredible Afro-Latin music. It's a small six-track LP, just a beautiful release.

The more you travel – you go to Somalia, to Sudan – the more doors are opening up and you start discovering new things. One country I've come across working in Sudan, whose music draws on Sudanese music too is Chad. The music of Chad – if you'd play it in a club in Europe, people would think it was electronic music made in 2008. It will be the next major country compilation. In between I'm focusing on these bands that I found were really phenomenal throughout Africa and throughout the Diaspora.

My gaze has been on Africa for quite some time, but there are beautiful music stories to tell across the Global South. Stories that are tied intimately to important political events and tragic circumstances in history. One project I've been working on for quite a while that's been difficult, is music from Central America. During the 1970s and 80s, in this very difficult, violent era, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the whole of Central America had a rich music scene. I’d like to present this story in some way.

A lot of labels are looking for places and regions where the best music comes from, and then go for it. I try to use my knowledge of history and stories and I always find that if there's a great story to be told, there is usually a great soundtrack that accompanies it.

 

How do you conduct your research?

The first step is to reach out to people in the Diaspora. Just by virtue of having moved to a more prosperous country, having a more prosperous job, moving up the ladder, they're probably better connected and easier to reach. Surprisingly – as a person who's moved around a lot – the countries that I did projects on are all countries which have huge Diasporas.

The Diaspora will always try to keep their culture alive as much as possible – for the children, for themselves, for the community. They're a great resource and they're helpful because their sense of preservation and my goals are very much aligned. They will always have something that I can start with – mp3-recordings, or some YouTube-links. There's this joke on the Somali Diaspora, which is a million strong and the largest African Diaspora: If a piece of gossip is told in Toronto, an hour later people in London will know about it. You tap into this huge network of people who can help you and direct you when you reach that country. I try not to show up blind in a country, but establish a network in advance in the Diaspora. Not just for research, but to develop a set of contacts. This way I know that there are people there who are going to take care of me, who are going to lead me into the right direction, who know the musicians. It's very difficult to go to a place like Sudan and say "Hello it's me, I'm here, I wanna meet all your famous musicians". Everybody is going to be "I'm sorry. Who are you? What do you want?" You have to come with the backing and the blessing of prominent members of the Diaspora. Then you'll have a chance of success. The Diasporas are crucial. Without them none of the projects I do could've been done. The preservation of a lot of this music and the cultures would also not be possible, because the Diaspora often has more means than the people at home.

 

What can our readers do if they have music from the Global South they want to make available again?

It is kind of crazy that a lot of the music from the Global South is sitting in the homes of collectors all across the world. But it takes certain means and wealth in order to have these records and cassettes.

I do not enjoy going to a country, digging out records and bringing them home. I try to bring back just what I need. Once I'm done with it, I'm trying to give it back, donate it to archives. People can do the same thing. Say you’ve got cassettes from Niger, a country that suffers a lot economically and which probably doesn't have the means to preserve its culture. If you think they're really valuable and have great music on them, I'd say there are two things you should do: One, take those cassettes to a record label that you think does things correctly. They could then go to the country and say: “Listen, we have a collection of music that someone has brought to us, we would like to do something commercially with it and from these commercial proceeds we can help you out a little bit, and we can also celebrate your culture, your country, your music. And after we're done with it, we'll be more than happy to donate it to an archive in Niger.” They might say “We don't have an archive in Niger.” But even if it's not in Niger, there'll be somewhere in the world that is keen on preserving this music in an ethical, respectful way. These recordings are always better off with people who are going to do something creative or productive with them. So take it to a record label, then take it to the country itself and work together so you can make sure you create something that's commercially viable and successful. Profits should benefit the musicians or people in the country.

And second, the physical recordings – find a home for them! A radio station can be a respectful home. There’s always a radio station that's been around for fifty, sixty years, no matter what a country has been through. They're the guardians of culture and they always have an archive or a place where they keep stuff. Try to do that, if it's just sitting on your shelf. Like a lot of the artifacts that are sitting in museums in London, the recordings belong back home and somewhere where people can have access and listen to them.

 

The interview was conducted and edited for clarity by Kathi King.

 

Ostinato Records

Compilations with rare music from the Global South are the latest fad on metropolitan dancefloors throughout the world. Vik Sohonie’s label Ostinato Records fits with this trend, but has a lot more to offer than just dance music. It tells Afrophone stories from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. The Latin root of the term “ostinato“ means “stubborn”. Ostinati are repetitive musical figures in melody, rhythm, and other musical elements. Sohonie says that there was no other continent which celebrates the tradition of the repetitive riff or repetitive rhythm as much as Africa. To him, ostinati are the defining feature of African music, not just on the African continent but also in the Caribbean and Latin America. Ostinati can also be found in music from Cuba, Haiti and Brazil. They are the common feature of the music released by Ostinato Records.

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