‘Right now I’m into Libyan reggae’: the music label delving into the Arab worlds back catalogue – The Guardian

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Music

Jannis Stürtz has trawled Casablanca and rooted around a factory in Sousse for music. The Habibi Funk founder talks about his passion for Tunisian disco, Sudanese jazz and Lebanese soft rock

Mon 22 Feb 2021 07.00 GMT

Not long ago, Jannis Stürtz was at home in Berlin, checking the Instagram and Twitter pages for his record label, Habibi Funk. The former has 75,000 followers, testament to the treasure trove of information about “eclectic sounds from the Arab world” the feed contains: DJ mixes, old photos, posters, potted artist biographies, material that frequently goes beyond the stated remit and takes in visual art, film and sports – the story of Sudan’s first female football referee alongside stuff about 1950s architecture in Casablanca and clips of the latest fruits of Stürtz’s record-shopping expeditions in the area. But one new name among the followers stood out: “Drake started following the Habibi Funk Twitter feed,” says Stürtz, in delighted tones. “Cool! I mean, that doesn’t make sense in my head, but cool!”

Musical sleuth … Jannis Stürtz in Cairo. Photograph: Khaled Ali Hassan

Of course, if you were a globally famous rapper looking for new musical influences or fresh material to sample, you could do substantially worse than check out Habibi Funk. Since 2015, the label has put out a stream of fascinating releases that fit Stürtz’s loose definition of “organic sounds we like” – “local influences brought together with something coming from outside” – including Sudanese jazz, Algerian soundtrack music, Tunisian disco, Arabic funk and, in the case of its forthcoming release by Rogér Fakhr, what sounds like a Lebanese take on yacht rock.

A quiet nod from Drake is a long way from the label’s accidental origins, in a shop Stürtz stumbled on in Casablanca while tour-managing a rapper called Blitz the Ambassador, who was playing at a local festival. “It looked like it was recycling old electronic goods, but then, I could see behind the broken TVs, there were stacks and stacks of records. It turned out the guy who ran it had been running a distribution company in the 70s and 80s, but when vinyl fell out of fashion in the 1980s, switched the business model. He was so bewildered at the fact I was looking at the records that he more or less wanted me to get out of his shop, but the next day I tried again. And that was where I found the first record, by this Moroccan guy called Fadoul.”

Intrigued by the writing credit on the sleeve for James Brown, Stürtz played it and discovered a wild, raw take on funk, complete with Arabic covers of Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag and Free’s All Right Now. Further record-shopping excursions provided more gems, which Stürtz began compiling into SoundCloud mixes. “At the same point, we realised there are a lot of European or North American labels dedicated to music from west Africa, Colombia, Brazil, but even though there were individual releases from North Africa and the Middle East, there wasn’t a label focused on the particular niche sound that interests me.”

Issam Hajali: ‘It didn’t help that he had the peak of his recording career during the war in Lebanon.’

Stürtz doesn’t like the term “discovered” – “This music existed before I heard it, it’s got a connotation of the white man putting it on the map” – but he had chanced upon a vast, intriguing wellspring of music almost unheard by western ears outside a small group of dedicated collectors. It shows no signs of running dry: he’s currently immersing himself in the unlikely world of Libyan reggae, a subgenre he first encountered while rooting through unsold stock in an abandoned cassette factory in Sousse, Tunisia. “Reggae’s very popular in Libya – to this day, there are dozens of bands there playing reggae. When I asked musicians in Libya how it became so popular, they told me that the classic offbeat rhythm of reggae is very similar to the folkloric rhythm of Libyan traditional music, so for the Libyan ear it’s kind of similar. It gave them a connection, it didn’t sound like something fully alien to them.”

The music Habibi Funk releases brings with it challenges, not least tracking down the artists who made it. As Stürtz points out, some of the original releases came out 30 or 40 years ago, on cassette, “in a run of, like, 200 that the musicians copied themselves at home” and which didn’t receive much in the way of distribution. “In the case of artists like Roger or Issam Hajali, I’m sure it didn’t help that they had the peak of their recording career during the war in Lebanon, so there used to be times when you couldn’t leave your neighbourhood of Beirut, because they were so segregated. Obviously, this is not a setup that helps you sell a lot of records, because your market is so tight.”

Libyan reggae player Ibrahim Hasnawi. Photograph: Habibi Funk Archive

Sometimes, his attempts to locate artists have been illuminated by improbable flashes of coincidence. While trying to track down the Algerian soundtrack composer Ahmed Malek, or at least his family, he happened to mention his quest to a friend, who told him she knew someone in Algeria. “I was like, yeah, there’s 43 million people in Algeria – I’m not going to get my hopes up. Two weeks later, she calls me and tells me that her friend in Algeria’s family lives next door to Malek’s daughter. Later, his daughter said, “My dad made this happen, from heaven.” I’m not a very spiritual person, but I don’t feel like there’s much I can say against that. It’s just so awesome, she was probably right.”

On other occasions, Stürtz has been forced to resort to more prosaic methods of finding artists. Having learned which Casablanca neighbourhood Fadoul had lived in 10 years previously, Stürtz took to tramping around the region’s cafes – “the places where the old men chill during the day” – clutching a record sleeve and asking strangers if they recognised the man on the cover. “Eventually, we found someone on the street who knew where his brother had moved and offered to take us there. We rang the doorbell and Fadoul’s niece opened the door. She was totally confused – the guy on the sleeves looked like her dad, but wasn’t her dad. She knew she had an uncle who had passed away before she was born, but she didn’t know he was a musician. She called her aunt, Fadoul’s sister, and that was that.”

Listen to Kamal Keila on YouTube

Habibi Funk’s releases have been warmly received not just in the US and Europe, but in the countries where the music was recorded: on YouTube, there is a fantastic Boiler Room DJ set by Stürtz, from a Beirut record shop packed with dancing punters; the label has staged exhibitions in Dubai and Algeria. “That’s very much a privilege we have and, as you said, not many quote-unquote western reissue labels manage to do that. I don’t know why it was different for us … We’re trying to be active and aware of the role we have as a label from the west dealing with non-western music, which I guess, due to the history of colonial times, has a troublesome past,” Stürz says, noting that he splits the money 50-50 between the label and the artist, and he covers his expenses, such as travel, from his half. “There’s an extra responsibility on our actions that makes sure we reflect our position as a guest to culture in multiple ways. We do licensing deals that I would feel very comfortable with posting publicly – we’re not trying to replicate stereotypical visual representations, belly-dancers and whatnot. We try to work as much as possible with people locally, and that brings a qualification to a lot of aspects to the work we do that I just don’t have.”

In fact, he says, one of his more improbable ambitions for Habibi Funk is that its work gets overtaken by that of record labels based in North Africa and the Middle East. “I think there’s the first movements of people starting record labels locally. Looking back in 10 years, I hope this is one of the things Habibi Funk has done: paved the path in that particular niche. Eventually,” he says and smiles, “people who are in the country are going to do a much better job than I do naturally, because they are there.”

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