Soundway Records marks 10 years of reviving tropical treasures

The label has developed something of a cult following with the exotic sounds of the past – everything from Nigerian disco to Thai funk and Colombian cumbia.

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In an old warehouse in East London, in the shadow of the Olympic stadium, a mass of dancing, sweating revellers pulse to the music’s rhythm, blowing whistles and hooting, while a shirtless Portuguese man crowd-surfs from the stage to a group of compatriots. Meanwhile, the Angolan-Portuguese group on stage, Batida, puts on an astonishing show mixing electronic beats and samples of 1970s Angolan tracks and projecting archive film of Angolan life. The live musicians and dancers are all extravagant, loose-limbed moves, weird outfits and fluorescent warpaint, like voodoo scarecrows. The party goes on until morning.

This is the 10th anniversary celebration for Soundway Records, and Batida is the label’s first-ever contemporary signing, a new venture for the founder Miles Cleret, who has spent the last decade reissuing some of the funkiest music to be found on crackly old records in West Africa and South America.

Soundway started out as a simple reissue label back in 2002, following Cleret's abandonment of a career in telesales and subsequent crate-digging mission to Ghana, where he discovered a treasure trove of neglected Afrobeat and Afrofunk records. He put out his first compilation album, Ghana Soundz, on vinyl in 2002, and with that a label was born.

"I'd always collected music of all kinds, but I was particularly into African music. Obviously there was an established world-music market, but the more obscure stuff just wasn't available," he says. It was a brave move in an industry that has been on the wane for the last decade, and Cleret admits that he went into it blind.

“Sometimes I say if I’d known a bit more about the music industry then maybe I wouldn’t have done it,” he muses. “I’ve been a record buyer and a consumer of music all my life, from when I first got my own pocket money, but I didn’t know much about the record industry from the other side. But I knew as a record buyer that the first record we did was something that I’d want to buy, so I figured hopefully there’d be other people who felt the same.”

It turned out he was right: 25 albums and 10 years later, Soundway has something of a cult following; a rather hip, informed young crowd of music lovers for whom tropical funk is as essential an element of their music collections as reggae, New Orleans funk, house or soul.

Lewis Heriz, the illustrator for much of Soundway’s cover art and part of London’s Sofrito collective of tropical DJs, producers and artists, says the genre is “definitely having quite a moment – but only because the music is so good. Despite the fact that this stuff is 40 to 50 years old, it still resonates with the modern dance floor, so to all intents and purposes, it may as well be new. To many ears, mine included, it is.”

Nowadays, Soundway’s compilations, the contents of which range from wild Nigerian disco to spacey Thai funk or hip-shaking Colombian cumbia, are feted by international DJs such as Gilles Peterson and Mr Scruff. So how did Soundway take world music out of middle-class living rooms and into clubs worldwide?

Chris Menist, who put together the well-received Sound of Siam compilation last year, puts it down to a real understanding of how people listen to music.

If you think about the way we consume music now, it’s in our own personal space, on an iPod or in our house; and it’s also about hearing it live, whether you’re going to see a live band or to a club to hear DJs, he explains. Soundway are trying to put the music into all those different settings, and it’ll work in a clubbing environment, but it’s also going to make great listening at home.
The club aspect is key: Cleret’s resources are all musical cultures with irresistible rhythms and there is not a track in the Soundway catalogue that a DJ could not throw into his set. It helps that his own background is in clubbing.

“I was 28 when I started, but I’d been into DJing and putting on events; I was into dance music, soul and jazz and funk and hip-hop and reggae, and I was coming at it from that perspective really, rather than a folky or world music angle.”

His collaborators come from similar backgrounds: Menist, for example, based his compilation on music that he and his DJ partner Maft Sai had been playing at their club night in Thailand, Paradise Bangkok.

Hertiz, too, says, “I got involved in the scene as a DJ and promoter, like everyone else, because the music is just incredible and more people needed to hear it. But in the end it was clear I just didn’t have the records, so I found another way to help the music reach a wider audience through graphic means instead.”

One of Soundway’s most prominent collaborators, Quantic (real name Will Holland), the British-born, Colombia-based DJ, producer and bandmaster, last year put out a 55-track compilation of the Colombian dance genre, cumbia, on Soundway, and has just released an album on the label with his studio band Los Miticos Del Ritmo, with dance floor-ready tracks including a cumbia version of Another One Bites The Dust.
In July, Soundway releases another Quantic project, Ondatrópica, a double album funded by the British Council featuring an all-star collection of Colombia’s old musicians, as well as the producer Mario Galeano and his band Fuente Cumbiero, which will be performed live as part of the Olympics.

“I think what we’re doing now is kind of feeding off and reinvigorating not only older musicians but getting younger musicians who are inspired or taking that sound further,” says Cleret.

It is, perhaps, Cleret’s relationship with the musicians he meets that has pushed Soundway beyond being a cut-and-remaster reissue label. Certainly for the old musicians and producers he first met in West Africa, his arrival must have been a boon, when their music was in danger of being forgotten.

“There is a bit of a neglect by younger generations of older music, especially in anglophone countries. I guess when I turned up at first, at 28, there was a bit of shock but also a bit of surprise and delight that I was interested – and when there was a bit of money on the table, even more,” he laughs.

Turning dusty old vinyl into crisp, dance floor-ready tracks is a long, expensive process, but, says Cleret, he spares no expense getting it right with the remastering company Sound Mastering.

“For us sound quality is incredibly important; we’d rather spend the money and get it done properly rather than try and put it out half done, which some people do.”

That quality is something that renders credible a label that could easily have been dismissed as a hobbyist project. “What’s always struck me about their product,” confirms Menist, “is that they’ve always had a real eye for detail about quality and want to have an integrity about what they’re putting out.”

It all sounds like a huge success story, but Cleret is candid about the financial difficulties of keeping a small label going.

“It’s a continual hustle,” he says. “Over the last 10 years we’ve lost a lot of money from distributors going bust, shops going bust, people owing us money, and when you’re a small label, it can really hit you hard. If you’re passionate about music and it’s what you want to do, it’s great, but it is tricky, these days, to get people to buy records.”

How to do that? Well, the albums might be as danceable as any out there, but Soundway is geek-friendly too, with heavily researched booklets, back-stories on the music and cover art that is consistent and collectable; and the extras appeal to those brought up to expect music to cost nothing – free downloads with the vinyl, bonus tracks, quality production. We spend time and money on the things that people notice, concludes Cleret. We try and give people something more than just the music.

Gemma Champ is a former arts & life editor at The National.