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Samy Ben Redjeb
“Every type of music is a unique spice”

Whether it is rumba from the Congo or Western music from Brazil: Samy Ben Redjeb releases the pearls of African music at his “Analog Afrika” label.
Whether it is rumba from the Congo or Western music from Brazil: Samy Ben Redjeb releases the pearls of African music at his “Analog Afrika” label. | Photo (detail): © Samy Ben Redjeb

Music producer Samy Ben Redjeb hunts for buried musical treasure. For over 15 years now, he has been unearthing forgotten rhythms and unusual beats in Africa and Latin America, which he releases under his “Analog Africa” label. 

By Eleonore von Bothmer

He invented his job, Samy Ben Redjeb says with a wink. There is no official name for what he does, though the German with Tunisian roots calls himself a “producer”. Compiler might be more accurate to describe what he does, collecting and releasing primarily African pieces from the 1970s and 1980s at his “Analog Afrika” label. 
Whether its funk from Benin, soul from Burkina Faso or rumba from the Congo, the albums you release at “Analog Africa” don’t fit neatly into one particular style. They all share African roots though. What makes African music so special?

It is richly diverse and I keep discovering layer after layer of its richness. The West has long seen itself as the centre of the musical universe, but so much exciting music has been created elsewhere, especially in Africa. The African music world was like a parallel universe we knew very little about. It is my job to spotlight this overlooked treasure trove. 
What is your favourite kind of music?

The music I produce may not have been the most successful, but it has a special twist. I am not particularly interested in run of the mill. I want to show people how many different musical styles there are around the world, the incredible diversity. It’s like cooking, where every type of music is a unique spice. They all taste different and I like to add as many new spices as I can. A year ago, we released a record by a Brazilian accordion player, Camarão. I knew from the start it wasn’t going to be a best seller, but I really liked him because he was different. His compositions sound like Western film music from Brazil infused with humour. Humour is a quality I really appreciate in music, as long as doesn’t cross the line into the ridiculous.

How do you discover music that often only the locals know about?  

I travel to the countries the music I like comes from. This tends to be music from the 1970s and 1980s, the golden era of African music. I talk to musicians, producers and other players to learn more about the music. I want to know what influenced it, its history, how the music industry developed, and how the scene was structured. I write everything I learn down and turn it into a booklet to accompany the album. The music touches me more deeply if I understand the context. I am also a DJ on the side, where I try to bring the two continents closer together.

You founded the “Analog Africa” label in 2006. What was your first release?  

I had been working at it since 2001, as a side-line. When “Analog Africa” was launched, our first release was a band from Zimbabwe, “The Green Arrows”. When I learned that they happened to have released their only LP on my birthday in 1974, it brought tears to my eyes. Since then I have travelled to 28 African countries and released 38 albums. 

African music has been influential in other countries, of course. 

Yes, and I also explore the music created by the African diaspora. African rhythms have made it to different corners of the world where they mixed with other types of music. This has given rise to an amazing multiplicity of styles. If not for slavery, there would be no jazz, no bossa nova, no samba, no Cuban son, no merengue, no cumbia…the list goes on and on. Something beautiful emerged from our ugly history, “the prettiest flower grew out of a pile of cow dung.” 
You are in Brazil right now – what are you doing there?

I am here because I am part of the Vila Sul residence programme at the Salvador Goethe Institute. The population of Salvador is primarily Black, and the connection to Africa is both visible and audible here. It is more of a mythological connection though, since it seems that modern African music hasn’t made any inroads here. This might be a good thing; it provides “fertile soil” for spreading my work. An exhibit on Angolan music is scheduled to open in the Casa de Angola, the Angolan cultural institute here in Salvador, in December. Then the Jambú compilation, sponsored by the Goethe Institute, will head out on tour. Jambú is a Brazilian plant found in the Amazon used in a variety of dishes and also as a drug. A few years ago, a distillery in Belém discovered it could also be used to make a special Cachaça – a Brazilian sugar cane spirit. Now I hope the name will be a lucky charm and the album will enjoy as much success as the plant.