Facebook Lisa Matassa says it's alright to call her a country newcomer, even…
- Posted on Nov 25th 2008 12:00PM by Steve Hochman
By "fair trade" he means net revenues are split 50-50 between label and the licensee (with expenses and overhead kept low by making the focus on digital distribution, at the moment primarily via the Akwaaba Web site and iTunes). By "never had much opportunity," he means exactly that -- acts producing interesting music that has built some level of a following at home but with little or no exposure other places, regardless of style. Beyond that, the mission is pretty flexible, as evidenced by the range on the label's debut release, the 'Akwaaba Wo Africa' compilation that runs from acoustic West African griot music to reggae to salsa to some very contemporary urban approaches.
"I don't claim much expertise or direction," says Lebrave, a 28-year-old Franco-American DJ and music promoter who grew up largely in Paris. "But it's a link or network of musicians and an introduction for people to new sounds and new places."
Akwaaba (the name means "welcome" in the Tui language of Ghana's Ashanti people) grew very simply from Lebrave's own musical cravings. When he was spinning discs in Paris clubs a few years ago, friends who were visiting Africa regularly kept bringing back cassettes of local artists from whatever countries they were in. Lebrave was particularly intrigued by some they played for him in the Ghanaian hiplife style -- a mix of highlife, hip-hop and Caribbean elements, for the most part.
"It was really pungent dance-floor sounds," he says. "I tried to find some online but couldn't find anything. You look even now and you can find a couple of videos on YouTube but not much more."
Eventually, he realized there was only one way he was going to be able to buy some of this music: Go to Ghana himself. And that's just what he did last year, on his first trip to Africa, where he not only sought out tapes and CDs but the musicians behind them, and when he returned home he had the genesis of Akwaaba in hand. A second trip, taking him to Senegal, Mali, the Ivory Coast and elsewhere, gave him enough music and agreements to get the first compilation out and to start planning a full series of regular releases. (A short video of his experiences and about the label can be seen here.)
"I was blown away," he says. "I focused on hiplife, but there was a whole lot of great stuff with no exposure."
Key to his experience and enthusiasm is not just the sounds but also the personalities. "A couple of guys cracked me up," he says, before telling of two musicians who show the range of what he encountered.
"There's a style called coupé decalé in the Ivory Coast," he says. "It's an interesting sound, really bare bones -- dance music but born out of crisis in the Ivory coast in 2002-2003. It's all about showing off like old-school hip-hop. I met with DJ Menza, such a character in the way he dresses and acts. He was wearing a skintight white outfit with matching shoes. It was 100-degree weather and 100 percent humidity, and he's wearing skintight nylon. And he'd bleached his hair white too."
It was pure culture shock. "That was right after I was in Mali, and Mali is really traditional," says Lebrave. "There I got to meet with Ahmed Fofana. He's actually toured already around the world as a musician for Toumani Diabate and Ali Farka Toure. He's interesting in that most artists we're working with are well known in their countries, but he is not. He's a talented musician who gets to tour, but no one knows him either on the road or at home. Went to his house and he blew me away. He plays balafon, but will use whatever is around -- guitar, ngoni. He's begging to be heard out there. I will be releasing more music from him."
It's with fairly traditional West African music that the collection begins, the opening track being the kora-fueled 'Sira,' by Senegalese fulani musician Rahmane Diallo setting the tone for the first half of the set, which comes entirely from Senegal and Mali. In their course, the sounds grow subtly more modern and elaborate, from the griot-pop 'Bayoke,' by Mamou Sidibe (a former backup singer for Oumou Sangare), to Fofana's multilayered 'Baro' and Alou Sangare's 'Teguere' (as seen in this video). The second half moves from African reggae with Cameroon's Jahman Eselem, Liberia's LIB Queen and Sierra Leone's Eden Roots Liberation, to burbling highlife from Ghana's Kofi Sammy and salsa from Benin's Michel Pinheiro before closing with hiplife tracks from Ghana's Sherifa Gunu, Rose Dede Tetteh and the brother team Bradez.
As such, it plays out as a musical journey, a travelogue both of sounds and of Lebrave himself. He's fine with it, though, if you just want to take it in bits and pieces.
"Most labels would focus on just one niche, but music nowadays tends to be more fragmented," he says. "So rather than tailor this to one group of world-music heads or African-music heads, this compilation has some reggae, some African pop, some salsa. You can buy just one track, that's fine."
And the compilation is just the door opener. Lebrave is already preparing a second compilation, due in December, with a more "urban fusion" emphasis, focusing on hiplife and dance music mostly from the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Then he's gearing up to shift the focus to single-artist albums, he hopes at a rate of two a month -- paired in a way that he says will be complementary but not competitive with each other.
The idea is to become a trusted source for fans eager to explore. "I can't afford to market each one in particular," he says. "So the emphasis is on marketing the brand."
Meanwhile, though he's barely started, he's already staking out new territories: "I just got back from Colombia and there's stuff there that doesn't get played anywhere. So at some point I want to do the same thing in South America. And then who knows? Armenia, Georgia -- anywhere that the Internet and computers haven't become quite the norm. What I'm hoping is that in 10 years people won't need me. Hope that through things like Akwaaba people can be able to learn and get the tools to get their music out themselves."