Habibi Funk: rare tunes from Arabia

We meet Jannis Stuertz, record label owner turned detective, who scoured countries in the Middle East for music created by lesser-known artists for his latest compilation album, Habibi Funk

Band Al Massireen. Courtesy Habibi Funk and Jakarta record label
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Various Artists 
Habibi Funk: An Eclectic Selection Of Music From The Arab World (Habibi Funk)

When Jannis Stuertz began compiling a new album of rare Arabic pop music from Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia, it brought out the Sherlock Holmes in him. Crate-digging trips abroad to source the music were one thing, but the co-founder of the Habibi Funk and Jakarta record labels also had to find the artists concerned or their estate, firstly to arrange clearance, and secondly to ensure that any advance/sales royalties would reach their rightful recipients.

"With someone like Fadoul," says the Germany-born Stuertz, name-checking the mighty-voiced Moroccan who sings the new compilation's opening track Bsslama Hbibti, "we had a year of Facebook campaigns targeting Morocco and didn't find anything. But then we started talking to this other Moroccan band called The Golden Hands, and they told us that Fadoul had died in 1990.

"A friend of theirs remembered the area in Casablanca where Fadoul's brother had lived 20 years before," Stuertz adds. "So we went there, going into the old men's cafés with photos of Fadoul and asking questions.

“Eventually, we were given an ­address which turned out to be where Fadoul’s niece lived. When we rang the doorbell and his niece saw the photos, she said, ‘This guy looks a bit like my dad!’ She quickly understood that Fadoul was her uncle, but he’d died before she was born and nobody had told her that Fadoul had been a musician.”

Stuertz is quick to point out that the term Habibi Funk encompasses an eclectic and wholly manufactured genre of the label's own creation. Funk, soul and jazz influences certainly inform some of the music on the new compilation, but the 16 tracks made between the 1960s and the 1980s also include elements of Arabic zouk music, Algerian coladera, and Lebanese AOR.

“What interests me, and what all of these musicians have in common”, Stuertz says, “is that they all mixed their local historical influences with influences from outside the region.”

The record's many stirring floor-fillers include the '80s disco confection Sah, by the Egyptian group Al Massrieen. The band's leader Hany Shenoda, who still lives in Gizeh, was a much sought-after record producer whose work with artists such as Mohamed Mounir resulted in albums sales of over 30 million units. As Stuertz records in his excellent Habibi Funk sleeve notes, Shenoda's broader mission was to modernise Egyptian classical music "without just copying Western music."

Shenoda's ongoing success (he has over two million Facebook followers) contrasts sharply with the much more mixed fortunes of Kamal Keila, the Sudanese singer who, despite being dubbed "the Fela Kuti of Sudan", never got to release a single record. Some of Keila's material was overtly political, calling for an agricultural revolution in Sudan, and promoting tolerance and unity between Muslims and Christians. Al Asafir, the superb Kamal Keila track licensed here, sounds like a funkier take on the music of contemporary desert-rock band Tinariwen, and was salvaged from a session for Sudanese radio.

"The two tape-reels Kamal had were covered in mould and were by far the worst looking reels I'd ever seen!", says Stuertz, recalling his visit with the artist, now in his eighties, at the singer's metal-shack home on the outskirts of Khartoum. "But actually they didn't need much restoring.

“When I asked him if it was okay to take the reels and checked with my Arabic-speaking colleagues, he told them, ‘Yes, sure. Take them. I’ve been ripped off so many times what does it matter now?’ Kamal is the classic example of a musician who has been disappointed many times.”

The Habibi Funk and Jakarta labels attempt to address such disappointments head-on through ethical business practice. Stuertz says they are always mindful that, being a European label dealing with non-European artists, they are operating in a post-colonial context that requires certain checks and balances if they are to gain trust and respect.

“A lot of artists are just pleased that there is still an appreciation of their music”, he adds, “and there are labels that take advantage of that, getting a signature and paying nothing. We split profits with the artists 50/50 after our basic manufacturing costs have been met, and when I travel
to a region to meet an artist, I pay those costs out of my fifty per cent share. Also, our most important social media posts are always translated into Arabic. We want to be inclusive, rather than repeat classic orientalist patterns.”

Social media is an important tool for the Germany-based Habibi Funk and Jakarta labels, and with Arab staff working for them on the ground in Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and France, Stuertz estimates that some forty per cent of their online followers are based in Arabic countries. While DJ-ing in Arab territories recently, he has also noticed that it's becoming much harder for him to source new rarities – largely because indigenous, switched-on locals are buying up the stock.

There are, however, some tantalising, untapped sources of Arabic pop music, such as the warehouse stockpile of the Sudanese businessman known to Stuertz as Mansour, who has monopolised the country's music industry via his record company, Munsphone.

“Yes, Mansour is quite a character”, laughs Stuertz. “He has a couple of chicken farms, but he also has stores selling household appliances. You have to go and hangout with him for a while, and then depending on the weather or what he’s had for breakfast, he might sell you some records. He isn’t motivated by money – he already has money.”

With or without content from Munsphone's carefully-guarded stockpile, Habibi Funk: An Eclectic Selection Of Music From The Arab World is undoubtedly a treasure trove. It's other highlights include silky disco track Ayonha by Hamid El Shaeri, the Libyan who fled the Gaddafi regime to become a superstar in Cairo, and Tape 19.11, a hugely evocative soundtrack piece by the late Algerian film-music composer, Ahmed Malek.

When it came to finding Malek’s family to ask for clearance, Stuertz was so incredibly fortuitous that his involvement seemed fated: “A French-Morrocan friend of mine said, ‘I have a friend in Algeria – I’ll ask her’, he recalls. “But I didn’t expect anything, of course, because there’s, like, 40 million people in Algeria. Two weeks later she calls me up and says, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but my friend’s family live next door to Ahmed Malek’s daughter!’

“It’s especially crazy, because we would never have found Malek’s daughter otherwise. She’s not on social media. She showed us this huge collection of master-reels that her father left behind, and we will be releasing more by him.”

Asked about the target audience for his Habibi Funk compilation, Stuertz cites "that demographic who are always looking for something they haven't heard before", but he also feels this new collection speaks to the broader political climate of our age. "We often get these very stereotypical narratives of what the Arab world is like, and what culture looks like in Arabic countries", he says. "This music challenges those stereotypes."

Habibi Funk: An Eclectic Selection Of Music From The Arab World is out on December 1


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Various Artists 
Habibi Funk: An Eclectic Selection Of Music From The Arab World (Habibi Funk)