Dave “Mr Bongo” Buttle discusses his new Africa 45s series featuring rare-groove Afro classics
by Andrew Mason
Dave “Mr Bongo” Buttle has long been a distinguished part of the British music scene, keeping some of the country’s best DJs and collectors supplied with rare and hard-hitting gems from South America, Africa, and East Harlem. Wax Poetics spoke to him about how he got started and the new series of 7-inch singles his eponymous label is releasing, the Africa 45s series.
Give us a quick breakdown of how Mr Bongo began and your part in it.
It began back in 1985 when I was studying Law at Cardiff University. I started DJing in Cardiff and Bristol playing latin soul and Brazilian fusion, and from then knew I wanted to be involved in music. So I moved back to my hometown, London, and started going on very fruitful record buying trips to LA and New York City. I was collecting Fania records and other latin bits I could source. During one of my buying trips I found that the Fania releases were being reissued in Venezuela. I flew to Venezuela, found the company that was doing the reissues and was able to get suitcases full of records. I started importing into London and selling to record stores and DJs such as Gilles Peterson, James Lavelle and Snowboy. The demand was such that it prompted me to start a record store in Berwick St., London. That was in 1989. We started life under Daddy Kool’s (run by the illustrious Keith Stone). It was tiny and damp, but people came from far and wide, hungry for the imports I was getting in from Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil.
The Mr Bongo label was launched in the early ’90s and made its reputation on Brazilian compilations and LP reissues. Why the move to 7-inch reissues now?
I had been thinking about launching a sevens series for a long time. It was only last year that I felt the time was right to start. The demand is there; DJs like playing these tunes on 7-inch and the collectors are seeking them out.
We take great care in making the releases look and sound as strong as they can. It starts with finding the best master available, and we use one of the finest cutting engineers in the world. It means that these sevens are louder and better quality than most of the originals, which are thinner and often quieter LP cuts. Most have never been on 7-inch before, and this represents better value than having to buy the full album for one track. It is more economical for the customer.
We are really pleased with the look of the releases too. They are all coordinated within a series but each release is unique. We wanted to make something instantly recognizable, collectable and long-lasting. This is meant to be an essential series—things that people need to own. We like to think it’s a buy-on-sight affair.
The 7s series is now over forty releases deep, with branches specializing in Brazilian, Latin, and, most recently, African. We asked Dave to pick a few of his favorites and get into the stories behind the choices.
To start the Brazil 45 series I wanted to hit hard. This is an all time killer bossa cut and is one of the most unmistakable Brazilian jazz records ever made. Dramatic intro and hypnotic piano line, decorated with panned percussion before the hats come in. Then the upright bass. A true classic! Bossa Três formed in 1961 in Rio. They spent most of their early years touring jazz clubs in the USA, before the original line up and their pianist, and perhaps most well known band member, Luis Carlos Vinhas, returned to Brazil. This is the final track on their Em Forma! LP from 1965. “Imprevisto” has never been released on a 7-inch.
The Amazonas de Guinee version of “Samba” is high-energy African funk with a powerful vocal, recorded live in Paris in 1983. Hailing from Guinea the Amazonas were the country’s first all-female group, formed by members of the Guinean army. Their lead percussionist Kade Diallo was killed in a car crash just days after returning from a tour of France in the early ’80s.
I used to go digging in Paris back in the early ’90s, hunting for cassettes and vinyl. It was in a small shop called Crocodisc that I came across the album Au Coeur De Paris, a live album from 1983. I knew that Gilles Peterson used to play the track “Samba,” but other than him I hadn’t heard anyone else playing it. I think that the live recording caused people to shy away from it, but it still absolutely works.
I wanted it to be the first track in the new Africa 45s series as a statement about what the series is all about, and to give people an indication of what they can expect from our Africa sevens. “Samba” is certainly a DJ cut, but not necessarily an obscurity. Africa 45s will of course feature some seriously rare tracks, but that isn’t a requirement. There are some records (such as “Samba”) that are findable, but still undiscovered by many.
When I first started bringing records in from Venezuala this was the one everyone wanted. The demand was intense and I was almost mugged by collectors and DJs every time I had one on my person. The song is taken from the Tico-Allegre All Stars LP recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1974, originally released on Tico. A dramatic intro to top all dramatic intros, a wall of building percussion, a huge horn section and crowd noise. It is also previously unreleased on 7-inch, aside from a rare Tico radio promo.
Dave and Mr Bongo have no plans to slow down with the 45s series, and in fact are about to drop a few highly sought-after titles (Marcos Valle’s “Estrelar,” Orchestra Baobab’s “Kelen Ati Len,” and K. Frimpong’s “Kyenkyen Bi Adi M’awu”) that already have collectors and DJs lining up, hopefully to purchase rather than mug Dave for the goods.
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