The Sonic Evolution of On the Corner Records

On the Corner

In 2007, Pete Buckenham was working late at night in the offices of Amnesty International when he heard the record that would change the direction of his life. “I was at my desk listening to Gilles Peterson’s show on the BBC, and he played The Steve Reid Ensemble’s Daxaar,” he recalls, fresh from another exploratory trip to Africa for On The Corner, the record label he founded in 2013. 

The jazz drummer’s collaboration with Kieran Hebden (A.K.A. Four Tet), which was recorded in Dakar, Senegal, opened Buckenham up to new possibilities in music. “It was communications through generations and people from different locations and seeing those interactions between musicians and the transfer of ideas really intrigued me,” he says. 

A similarly rooted aesthetic is at the heart of On The Corner itself, the catalog of which now runs 25 releases deep. They’ve been honored with Label of the Year at Gilles Peterson’s 2018 Worldwide Awards for their groundbreaking releases from artists like Italian Afrofuturist beat collagist DJ Khalab, Lima’s tropical psychedelic bass duo Dengue Dengue Dengue!, and London-based Afro-Latin electronic band Penya. 

It was three years after hearing Daxaar that Buckenham, disillusioned with the bureaucracy of his day job, took a sabbatical to travel to Zanzibar via Mali in 2010, to “wipe the slate clean and put myself into the unknown.” He landed a DJ residency in Zanzibar, went clubbing in Addis Ababa, hung out with a drumming troupe in Togo, discovered psyche music in the Sahara, and absorbed music and street culture across the region. “I was hearing all this music on my travels that you couldn’t find anywhere else,” he says.  

He returned to the U.K. reinvigorated and soon began sharing his discoveries with a wider audience. “I started a club night called On The Corner [named after Miles Davis’s 1972 LP] where I played everything from Theo Parrish to Albert Ayler to Ali Farka Touré,” he says. “I chose that Miles Davis LP for the name of the label because it incorporated different sounds from across the world and used all those cut-and-paste studio techniques of Teo Macero. That heavy repetitive groove you also find in [African] trance music had always fascinated me as well.” 

His first release on his new label was a remix EP of tracks from London jazz artist Emanative, aka Nick Woodmansey. With support from the likes of Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge, the EP gave Buckenham the confidence to release his first LP for On The Corner. Led by Emanative’s saxophonist Tamar Osborn, Collocutor’s Instead arrived just before the resurgent interest in spiritual jazz. “It was such a hard push at the time,” Buckenham says.  

In 2016, On The Corner released the EP that would establish the collaborative and border crossing direction of the label. Aimed at DJs, On The Corner ‘Versus’ featured dancefloor mixes of Collocutor on the A-Side and the experimental international electronics of Black Classical and Kenya’s Group As Salaam on the flip side. 

The latter featured field recordings of the group Buckenham discovered on his travels of Northwest Africa. It was the first release to feature the distinctive art of Victoria Topping, whose collages distantly echo Mati Klarwein’s work on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. “I knew for the label to grow and to achieve these cultural goals, it had to have a really strong identity that was beyond that whole DIY white-label culture,” Buckenham says. “I wanted that thing of holding the record and thinking this art really reflects the music and Victoria does that brilliantly. She’s such an important part of the label.” 

On The Corner’s subsequent releases have continued their international genre-destroying sonic evolution. Following two prolific years that culminated in the Worldwide Awards’ Label Of The Year honor, On The Corner is entering 2019 on a high. There will be remixes of DJ Khalab’s pivotal Black Noise 2084 LP by producers like Hieroglyphic Being, followed by releases from Zanzibar’s great-granddaughter of taarab legend Siti binti Saad, a sophomore release from Oakland’s acclaimed spoken word artist Tenesha The Wordsmith, and a third album by Collocutor. 

Collocutor
The Search  

Collocuter

“I’ve been supporting Collocutor for five years now, and it’s been great to see the way it’s grown for Tamar,” Buckenham says. Alongside fellow saxophonist Nubya Garcia and trumpeter Emma-Jean Thackray, Tamar Osborn is one of the many female horn players making waves on London’s contemporary jazz scene. A graduate of the Guildhall School of Music, Osborn came to the fore playing baritone sax for Dele Sosimi’s Afrobeat Vibration as well as the Ethio jazz band The Krar Collective. So it was perhaps no surprise that her debut with the seven-piece jazz collective Collocutor was to be a deep and modal affair. While influences came from the Impulse label’s spiritual jazz, to ECM’s minimalism and sounds from Ethiopia to India, this was an LP rooted in 21st century London. “I think now is Tamar’s time. In a year or two, she could be thought of in the same way as Shabaka [Hutchings]. She’s really that strong,” Buckenham says.   

DJ Khalab
Black Noise 2084

One of On The Corner’s most visionary LPs yet, Black Noise 2084 saw Rome-based producer Raffaele Costantino, in the words of Buckenham, “Summon up a futuristic Afro-centric soundscape by weaving a polyphonic tapestry of future bass, jazz, and field recordings.” His first releases emerged on the Black Acre label with his fellow Italian collagist and close friend Clap! Clap!. Black Noise 2084 expanded his Afrofuturist vision by reaching deep into the past using field recordings from the Royal Museum for Central Africa of Bruxelles. “If you do not recognize where these music sources come from, it is out and out cultural appropriation,” says Buckenham. “I’m cautious about placing my own Afrocentric fantasies on that record but I hear it like a text that you can read—like braille in music form.” The shamanistic space jazz and future bass soundscapes were augmented by Clap! Clap!, saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, drummer Moses Boyd, Congo vocalist Prince Buju, Burkina Faso musician Gabin Dabiré, as well as label mates Tamar Osborn and Tenesha The Wordsmith. 

Tenesha The Wordsmith
Madea/Dangerous Women

Rising through the Oakland and San Francisco Bay Area poetry slam scene, Tenesha Smith continues in the tradition of African-American orators like Sarah Webster Fabio and Jayne Cortez. Her largely unaccompanied debut LP Body of Work appeared on Bandcamp in 2016, but her name reached beyond the Bay Area streets thanks to her appearance on the title track to DJ Khalab’s Black Noise 2084. This stunning follow-up was produced by Khalab, and shows why Tenesha is regarded as one of today’s most exciting and distinctive spoken word artists. “I love the politics she’s talking about, and the fact that’s he’s saying uncomfortable things,” Buckenham says. “I think today is absolutely the right time for Tenesha. It’s been mind-blowing to support her work and to help convey her message.” “Madea,” which benefits from hypnotic African instrumentation and Khalab’s haunting production, is backed by “Dangerous Women.” Utilizing the same rhythms and an even fierier poem by Tenesha, the song is devoted to “All the dangerous women, the ones that have the nerve to be ugly and bold, beautiful, and intelligent.” 

Mugwisa International Xylophone Group
Santuri’s Embaire Umeme E​P

Mugwisa International Xylophone Group

In 2013, Pete Buckenham met David Tinning in Stone Town, Zanzibar. While Buckenham began to develop On The Corner, Tinning became a co-founder of Santuri, a global music enterprise to promote East African identity. A collaboration between the two like-minded African music lovers and fans of the SoundThread music blog, this four-track EP introduced the incredible sounds of Embaire Xylophone. The leader of this ensemble, and a master of the instrument, is a village chief called Mugwisa, who hails from Iganga, located 64 miles from the Ugandan capital Kampala. The sounds here were recorded during long, trance-inducing sessions deep into the night. They were then mixed into four-minute pieces of Afro-electronic brilliance by Kampala producer Jude Mugwera and Sam Jones from SoundThread. Of the project Jones says, “I was keen to keep the essence of the instrument and its players as true as possible, borrowing from the cyclical nature true to its originally played style, adding minimal classic old synths, tape delays, guitar stabs, and some vocals.” 

Dengue Dengue Dengue!
Semillero

Dengue

Photo by Hendrik-Kussin

The “masked and mythical” psychedelic electro duo from Lima, Peru debuted with the LP La Alianza Profana back in 2012. Its mix of transcendental spiritual folk and bass-rumbling electronics made them one of the most interesting groups of the tropical bass movement. Performing in folkloric masks, Rafael Pereira and Felipe Salmon’s digital cumbia has seen them grow from small drum & bass parties in Lima to festivals like Sonar in Barcelona. “They came to me with this one, and I was gobsmacked at the time, because they had already had those big records out,” Buckenham says. “That was the first time I’d seen orders coming in big numbers from people who had no association to the label.” This six-track EP saw them team up with local legend Miki Gonzales, aka Mikongo, on “Eye Acucho,” delve into the field recordings of Amazonian Huni Kuin tribe on “Habu Raminibu,” and reimagine Afro-Peruvian music through an Angolan filter on “Semillero.”

Penya
Super Liminal

The London-based electronic Afro-Latin quartet dropped their debut album via On The Corner in December 2017. Led and produced by multi-instrumentalist Magnus PI (Magnus Mehta) they were named by Gilles Peterson as one of the six acts he was buzzing about in January 2018. He explained how the group brought a contemporary spin on records discovered by world music revival labels like Soundway and Analog Africa. “It’s like they listen to those old records, then twist them up and modernize the sound,” Peterson had said. The Afro-Cuban folkloric songs of vocalist Lilli Elina and the ceremonial bata drumming of Jim Le Messurier help create a deep and devotional sound balanced perfectly between the organic and electronic. 

Planet Battagon
Battagon Symphony (Rough Guide to Neptunia Pt. 1)

With titles like “Salacians Of Trans-Neptunia” and “Moon Of Dysnomia,” there is only one cosmic jazz icon that this London quintet could have been thinking of when they recorded this EP for On The Corner near the end of 2018. The music of Sun Ra was matched by a philosophy that is now inspiring a new generation of cosmic jazz groups. Planet Battagon’s outernational sound builds on Ra’s electronic jazz to create truly exploratory music. It’s based around what they call “stylings of the Trans-Neputnia neighborhood out on the edgelands of the solar system.” Headed and conducted by Nathan Curran (Tugg), Planet Battagon is one of On The Corner’s more esoteric releases. “It’s a really unique sound and I love the fact that we have them on the label,” Buckenham says.

-Andy Thomas 

One Comment

  1. Eric
    Posted March 5, 2019 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    May be the most innovative label discovered in years. The future of jazz is here – partly at least! Keep on keeping on guys!

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