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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Dj SoFa

First it was a hobby, then it became a passion and now it’s an obsession.

Interview Sam De Brabander
Photographs Thomas Sweertvaegher

Spend a morning at DJ soFa’s headquarters and Chris will gladly take you out on an excursion that starts with the deepest of early nineties electronics, via experimental Indian-tinged sounds made in Trinidad, ending in bizarre Belgian boogie. In short, music from all over the world. “I like music that lies in-between, music which is hard to classify.”

In Chris’s house in Molenbeek, walls are made of vinyl. On either side of his living room, two well-stocked cases playfully vary heights. The collection spills over to the window sill, where 7-inches are stacked high. Turkish, Greek, Afro & Latin, Wave & Post-Punk, Disco… The boxes are labelled in black marker ink, a dead give-away to the owner’s exceptionally eclectic tastes. “I am interested in so many styles, it takes me forever to check out new releases every day. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t give up this or that genre, but I’ve never persevered. Things do move around in my collection, though: I choose quality over quantity. Plus, I don’t mind selling an expensive LP if a reissue is available and spend the money on other records that quench my thirst for new tunes.”

On top of one of the shelves, precisely at elbow height, some spare room reveals two Technics pick-ups and a Xone 92 mixer in the middle. “I always have music on when I’m home, but I lack the time to listen to everything here at the moment. All of these records are here to be shared out on gigs, otherwise it wouldn’t be worth all the effort I guess.’ Chris doesn’t mind losing sleep poring over his new discoveries at night. “Music has got a very important space in my life. Pretty much all my money goes to records. I think about this YouTube clip of this guy named Alfred the Belgian Penguin man sometimes. He’s an old man who’s obsessed with penguins. He says: ‘First it was a hobby, then it became a passion and now it’s an obsession’. (laughs)”

Following his curious tastes, Chris has ended up in some odd, forgotten corners on this earth. Sometimes, when on the hunt for a specific record, he tries to get in touch with the musicians who’ve recorded it. “Old musicians in foreign countries can lead you to records you won’t find anywhere else. Three years ago, in Israel, I was after this fantastic but nowhere-to-be-found synth album by a man named Ami Shavit. Most shops had barely even heard of it. But through my dear friend Ofer who’s family lives in Israel, we were able to meet Shavit in his home. He appeared to be a kinetic artist who co-created the interior for Tel Aviv’s very first night club. He was so honoured that we were there just for his music, that he gave me his penultimate original copy.”

Not only do these inspiring trips open doors to collectors unattainable to most, they are also a path toward the holy grail: original recordings. “I put Ami in touch with Finders Keepers, a reissue label. Thanks to his original recordings from 1974, we were able to honour his work with a reissue. 2 more previously unreleased records are coming on Sub Rosa and Finders Keepers in 2017”

Labels such as the latter ones specialise in these kinds of rare reissues and do some prime archiving work, but sometimes it’s a difficult job to convince musicians to put out their old work. Not all of them get why this music is still/again interesting today. “Last year we went to Istanbul to meet one of Turkey’s first synth musicians. Gökcen Kaynatan started to experiment with unusual combinations of electronics, folk and rock music in the fifties. Although he was super productive, he barely put out 3 singles throughout his whole career. His oeuvre is enormous: we spent hours in his studio listening to original 8mm tapes, ranging from ambient and new age to Turkey’s first attempts at surf and rock’n’roll.”

From the catacombs straight to Detroit

Chris’ roots are buried deep in the German-speaking countryside, by Belgium’s eastern border, where he got hooked on industrial techno and IDM back in the 90s. While the parties in Eupen’s Catacomben made a lasting impression, Chris started laying down the fundaments of his DJ collection. Along with his best friend Christophe, with whom (amongst others) they founded the Meakusma platform in 2005, he bought a set of pick-ups and started buying his favourite tunes on vinyl.

“As kids, we were hooked to Drexciya’s Detroit techno as well as to Drum’n’Bass before moving on to labels such as Warp Records and Ninja Tune. There weren’t many shops around in Eupen, so we went to neighbouring cities: Serious Shop in Maastricht or Tam Tam in Aachen. Before the internet era, we’d sometimes order albums through a German magazine that featured long lists of CDs and vinyl. You had to fill out the numbers of the ones you wanted in the catalogue and then they’d send you your records or merchandise.”

Growing older slowly opened my ears

Dropping the needle on one of his favourite Autechre records (Legofeet) takes Chris back to the early days. Looking back, he has trouble believing how narrow his musical tastes then were. “Growing older slowly opened my ears: one genre led to another and so on to the next. Today I’m touched by all sorts of original music. Often it’s the symbiosis of traditional and modern elements that speaks to me: obscure electronic music from the Middle-East of early African electronica. By the way, have you ever heard of Chutney? It’s a genre.”

He launches into a story about Indian slaves who were shipped of to Trinidad in the 70s, which gave rise to a ludicrous mix of local calypso and elements of Indian classical music. Mostly the songs are religious and often very groovy tunes. Chris has a knack for otherworldly tunes, but is a sucker for the stories all the same. “Take this pure class Belgian Boogie record about the language discussion in Voeren. The lyrics recount how Dutch and French speaking people would have a go at one another, which, alas, is still relevant.”

“Other records, like this oriental-Belgian schlager La Danse du Ventre by Marius Babar, often have sexist or racist elements that would immediately cause a scandal if they were published today. Although these lyrics are mostly very narrow-minded, they sometimes give an interesting insight in the way of thinking people had back then.” soFa has a weakness for exotic sounds from non-exotic countries whatever that means. Oriental music from France, Walloon Cha-Cha-Cha or African percussion made in Norway.

Want to swap?

Sometimes the music is of less importance. To Chris, the records and their sleeves are a relic of their time. “Upstairs, I have another room with loads of Belgian singles which I only collect because of their cover art. Mostly the music is rather bad, but the cover art has many stories to tell. Many of them are so uniquely Belgian!

Obviously, following the beaten track does not lead to spectacular finds. Chris regularly swaps records with fellow collectors - according to him, the best way of getting your hands on prized items without spending your life savings. Even still, his preferred method is to get out into the streets and submerge himself in other cultures.

“In India, the search for records allowed me to meet so many people who invited me into their homes and showed me their record collections. It was an amazing experience. I still go to record stores too, though. Those few who don’t base their prices on Discogs.” When pressed for a favourite address, Chris remains undecided. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, he says.

Instead, Chris prefers listing cities. “Brussels and Belgium are obviously interesting for my collection of Belgian singles, but if it’s exotic stuff you’re after, a city such as Marseille is truly heavenly. It might have less record stores, but the flea markets have material coming in from all over the world. Then again: the grass is always greener on the other side (laughs).”