In Belgium, we're the only label that releases reissues of this specific kind of world music.
Interview Jacques Degrootte (translated by Charline Stoelzaed)
Psychedelic Moroccan organs, Greek belly dancing tracks, Italian rock'n'roll or Peruvian boogaloo swing; not exactly the kind of sound you'd expect coming from a Belgian record label. Think again, as the exotics stated above are just a hint of the wide range the duo behind Radio Martiko has up for offer.
While one of them was digging crates in Colombia, we sat down in Ghent with his partner in crime, Fred Kramer. We were welcomed into a spacious home, stuffed halfway up to the ceiling with cardboard boxes of vinyl. Picture Mauritian LPs lying fraternally next to Egyptian singles, elegant Arabic and Greek lettering adorning their sleeves. Time is of the essence nowadays as things are going fast for Radio Martiko. Whereas 2017 was a year full of travels and deal making, 2018 will bring along a bunch of new releases.
VF: So tell us, how did this show get on the road?
Fred Kramer: “When I was sixteen, my uncle gave me my very first record and I've been collecting vinyl ever since. Just for the kicks of it though, I never intended to get involved professionally. During my time as a percussionist at Va Van Fahre, I played Ethio jazz, Balkan, Turkish and Eastern music myself. We made music for about ten years and released three albums during that time. Anyway, after this one gig with Va Van Fahre, two DJs were doing their thing and the stuff they were playing was completely up my alley. We got talking, started hanging out and deejayed together every now and then at White Cat, a bar in Ghent's Patershol neighbourhood. Originally we were four, today it's just Mechiel Vanbelle and me. We're still part of this little collective with other DJs and music freaks from Ghent though.”
“Mechiel and I kept hunting for cool music at flea markets and we started going abroad to search for vinyl too: in local bookstores, warehouses or old stocks. I’ve always preferred original recordings over reissues. Back in 2015, we ended up founding our own label. Initially, I wasn't in favour of it all that much, considering the amount of work and hassle a label often implies, but befriended DJs eventually convinced me. The obscure stuff we play is pretty unique and founding a label possibly implied some extra exposure for us as DJs as well. In Belgium, we're the only label that releases reissues of this specific kind of world music. As opposed to France, the UK or Germany where there are many — such as Habibi Funk from Berlin.”
“Up to today, we've got seven releases: the Abdou El Omari trilogy and four singles. Three of those were released on 500 copies, the Belgian rock'n'roll one on 300. All of them are sold out by now. We've been asked to release them again but I find it rather pleasing that they're limited. Besides, people underestimate the amount of work that comes with it. We took care of the record sleeves ourselves. Screen printing, writing down serial numbers, folding, gluing, it's pretty intense. Maybe we'll be outsourcing that kind of stuff in the future.”
VF: The Abdou El Omari trilogy is your pièce de résistance. Those 2000 copies are doing pretty damn well internationally. How did you guys end up with Abdou?
Fred Kramer: “During one of our crate digging trips we found ourselves in the Disques Gam record store in Casablanca, Morocco. It's one of the oldest record shops in town, it opened in 1970. We discovered crates filled with funk, disco and soul. We were checking out prices on Discogs using our phones and were quickly kicked out by the owner. Apparently that's how things roll there and we weren't the first to be thrown out. Same goes for customers who enter all too enthusiastically: they're just denied access. The last time we visited, a busload of Moroccan schoolgirls entered and he showed them all the door. The owner, Gam Boujemma, is way into his seventies and quite the character. You’ve got to know how to approach the guy.”
“So half an hour later we re-entered the shop, started buying records just by their cover and started talking to Gam. He loosened up soon enough and he really just wants you to ask for his advice instead of walking around in his store like you'd do in a candy shop. He turned out to be very proud of the music by Abdou El Omari. As the conversation went on, we found out that Gam himself produced and released the first record of the trilogy — Nuits d'été avec Adbou El Omari — on his label. The two other ones (Nuits d'Eté avec Naima Samih and Nuits de Printemps avec Abdou El Omari) had never been released though. Gam did have some recordings and test pressings, done by Decca Nederland at the time. These test pressings turned out to be of fine quality, so we used them for the remastering.”
VF: Based on which criteria do you choose what pieces to release?
Fred Kramer: “Only one: we have to love it ourselves. Apart from that, there's no real consistency in our choices and that's how we want it. We look for music from as many different parts of the world with a musical tradition as possible. Preferably dating from many different times, too: from the fifties up to the eighties. We don't do field recordings though, we focus on studio recordings.”
VF: How hard is it to get your hands on the copyrights with these old releases?
Fred Kramer: “Sometimes things run really smooth, other times it takes ages to track down the copyright holders. In the case of our Belgian release, for example, The King Creoles, the issue was cut-and-dried within the week. In Morocco, it all takes a bit longer, in Egypt another while longer and as far as Greece goes; you're in for a ride of a couple of years. You've got to deal with the rights to the composition as well as those to the recordings and the latter are the most difficult to trace. They can belong to the artist or to the label, depending on the kind of deal that was made between the artist and the publisher. The fact that each country has its own regulations makes things even more complex. If it isn’t clear who holds the rights — which is generally the case with music by less known authors — or the label is unable to retrace the artist or the track in their catalogues, you're supposed to make a deal with the artist or song writer. A lot of labels approach the artist directly and pay him a good amount of money. That's cool towards the artist involved and the label's image, but not entirely legal. This practice doesn't cover for the rights on the master and wouldn't you know it; these are often the most expensive. It used to be simple back in the day: he who owned the master tape, owned the recording, because that was all there was. Nowadays, it's all too easy to rip a track or to download it and put it on vinyl. With Radio Martiko, we try and go about things legally, respecting the rights of all the holders.”
“The whole copyright thing is pretty dodgy by the way. In the case of the Abdou El Omari trilogy, Gam Boujemma claimed to own the rights. We assumed he was speaking the truth, as he was the one who produced and released the record on his label. However: there's no such thing like a contract stating as much. If you want to have everything written down on paper, you'd better not be releasing old music. It's a matter of trust. Abdou El Omari can't tell us, because he has passed away. Were he still alive, he'd own the rights to the composition. But since he wasn't registered at Sacem as the actual composer of his music, we have to go looking for him at the author rights organisation in Morocco or through relatives. And it's even more complicated since most of his songs are reworks or instrumental versions of existing songs.”
VF: How about the sound quality of those old records?
Fred Kramer: “Well, once we've got the copyrights sorted out, we can proceed to the remastering. We go out looking for the best master sound, on tape or on vinyl. Of course, if the vinyl pressing is of good quality, we'll choose that over tape. Tapes withstands the test of time less well and a lot of frequencies are lost, often only the mid tones remain.”
“See Why Audio in London takes care of the remastering. It's a really specific craft. Pure magic, if you ask me. Records I considered completely lost are revived in the studio without their essence being messed up. If you cancel out the original noise — inevitably there will be noise on old analogue vinyl — you take away the soul of the recording. This London company handles a pro-active approach, combining automatic software and manual manipulations. If you let the software run its course, you risk filtering out all too much. We prefer to decide for ourselves which sounds belong to the original recording and which don't, rather than letting algorithms do the job for us. Again, requiring a lot of money and time. Finally, the cutting and pressing on vinyl happens at Timmion in Finland. A friend and I take care of the sleeves' graphic design.”
VF: So how much time does it take to have a release hit the stores after you close a deal?
Fred Kramer: “It depends. Next year, we'll be releasing a Greek compilation of forty tracks by several artists. We'll release it in two parts: a double vinyl at a time. As the featured music stretches out over a whole decade — early sixties to early seventies — and as there are so many different artists involved, we wanted to document this compilation. So, as it happens, I'm in the process of interviewing several musicians. Our last single, Bouzouki Madness, was a Greek one and it's somewhat of a teaser for this future compilation.”
VF: Apart from the Greek compilation, what are we to expect from Radio Martiko in the near future?
Fred Kramer: “By the end of the year, we'll be coming out with something Egyptian: The Miracles of the Seven Dances. Apart from that, we've got an Egyptian compilation, a 10'' and some other releases scheduled for 2018. In the meantime we've arranged for a few meetings about possible African and South-American releases. And then there's Boussiphone.”
“Boussiphone was the very first Moroccan music publisher, founded in the late fifties. The label released hundreds of titles by Moroccan artists and lived its heyday during the sixties-seventies era. In 1961, Boussif had his very first press imported from Europe and called his company Africson. At the height of his career, he owned four presses. He expanded Africson with a recording studio and a printing house for the record covers. When old man Boussif called it a day in 1969, his five sons took over the business. Two of them stayed in Casablanca, two moved to Paris and one ended up in Brussels. They built an empire throughout Europe, releasing the music from their label mainly on video and tape on the European market, with Brussels and Paris being the most important distribution centres.”
“We discovered Boussiphone during a record hunt in Morocco. We were walking around the souks of Derb Sultan in Casablanca, when someone approached us offering help. He brought us to a guy sitting along the side of the road with a stack of singles. Except for the tourists, no one really paid attention to what he had up for sale. We were taken along to his home and what we saw there was beyond all expectations: the place was stacked full with unplayed records. Up to today, it still isn't completely clear to me what the relationship between this guy and Boussif himself was. Did Boussif give him the records for them to be destroyed or did he buy them from a guy who knew a guy who...? No idea. What is certain though is that Boussif wanted to destroy the records, which is what happened to a part of the original stock. Due to the rise of the cassette tape during the eighties, vinyl was losing its value. An album on tape cost 1 dirham back then, a single on vinyl 5 dirham. The Boussif family sold the presses and turned their company into a movie studio.”
“Of course, standing in that guy's house, we weren't yet aware of any of this. Back in Belgium, I did some research on Boussiphone and an old acquaintance of mine happened to tell me that one of the sons still owned a little store in Brussels. We paid him a visit and made a deal to re-release some of the music. Fortunately, the Boussif family kept a stock of all the releases they pressed. Their catalogue is humongous: it took us a whole week to listen to all the test pressings, decide on a selection and make up an inventory. Afterwards, we shipped thousands of singles to Belgium. They're mainly rough recordings of traditional Moroccan music. We weren't planning on archiving everything initially, but somehow we decided to keep a copy of every single release anyway. You never know, maybe a library or some archive will show interest in the coming years.”