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Unearthing the Hidden Gems of Africa's Funk Era

DJ Samy Ben Redjeb, who started record label Analog Africa, is seen performing in Utrecht in the Netherlands. (S. Roosblad/VOA)

Gone but not forgotten. Under that credo, Tunisian-German Samy Ben Redjeb started his record label, Analog Africa, 10 years ago — focusing on rare African vinyl records from the 1960s and 70s.

What he found was a stark contrast to the modern-day music coming out of Africa.

"The music that was filtering here was generally music that was very often recorded in Europe,” Ben Redjeb said. “So that was music that was recorded in European studios, with European producers. … And it was a kind of music that was basically created to suit and to fit Western ears. It was not gritty. It didn't have that raw energy, because it was music that was polished for [the] European market."

Ben Redjeb doesn't just dig up and re-release dusty old records. He curates the music.

"I spend a great amount of time going through collections of records, and then I listen to the stuff I found on a particular country, for example,” he said. “And then I record them on a mini disk. I erase the songs that I don't like. I shuffle the songs to find a good running order. This is a process that takes years.

“Once I have the selection, I go back to the country. I try to find the musician, but I always try to get to the source of the song."

Once that process is done, Ben Redjeb licenses the song, writes down the history of the song and collects as many pictures as he can from the era.

Comprehensive Archive

Analog Africa isn't trying to create a comprehensive archive. Ben Redjeb chooses songs because he likes them — like the classics from Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou from Benin.

"They were fans of like James Brown, Johnny Hallyday from France, Nana Mouskouri,” Ben Redjeb said. “They would take that stuff, then try to do something that is similar — very often the bass was based on the way traditional Benin music is played, and then they did the funk on it."

Since its inception, Analog Africa has re-released 24 vinyl records. The label also makes the songs available for download on its website.

The music collector is always surprised at how quickly even musicians forget about their own work.

"So you can play a song to an artist and if it was really badly sold, they would have probably played it once on stage or twice, but then it was forgotten really quickly because people were not interested in listening to it," he said.

Many of his discoveries are by accident. And some albums continue to elude him, like the work of Ghanaian funk artist Rob.

"There are two albums that are legendary,” Ben Redjeb said. “And he says that there's a third record that recorded for a label in Nigeria called Tabansi Records. And he says he gave the master tape to the producer and he thinks also that it was pressed and that it was released, but he's never seen a copy and I've never seen a copy."

Analog Africa is marking its 10th anniversary with a release by Cape Verdean accordionist Bitori.

Bitori has been making music since the 1950s, but didn’t start releasing albums until 40 years later.

Ben Redjeb, who is also a DJ, is touring with Bitori through Europe this summer.