Bongo Joe Digs Through the Crates to Unearth Lost Moments in Music History

Tucked away near the river on the outskirts of Geneva, flooded with natural light, with greenery cascading from the upstairs mezzanine, is the record store Bongo Joe. It’s a beautiful, welcoming space, one that regularly opens its glass front to host shows where the audience frequently spills out into the street. The store was opened in 2013 by Cyril Yeterian, a record collector who spent most of his life on the road, crate-digging and touring with bands like the Swiss group Mama Rosin. Though he had toyed with the idea of releasing records in the past, Yeterian’s label Bongo Joe was officially born the day his record store of the same name opened its doors. Since then, the label has issued joyful releases from every corner of the globe: Sega music compilations from the Indian Ocean, experimental post-disco from Geneva, reissues of long forgotten calypso tapes from Costa Rica, and more. Bongo Joe has made eclecticism its calling card, but there is a clear throughline in everything Yeterian releases.

“There is a kind of humanity in all the records that I put out,” says Yeterian. “There is one kind of sound I really prefer: a warm sound, something that sounds natural.” It’s this ambiguous yet strangely specific feeling that defines the Bongo Joe catalog. Yeterian has an incredible ear for music that’s difficult to describe, but radiates a powerful sense of joy. “So many musicians play a music style as perfect as it can be,” he says. “For me, it’s never a question of perfection. It’s more about how much of yourself you put in your music. I always say that in my Top 10 singles of all time, about two-thirds of them are not sung ‘correctly.’”

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The other defining quality of Bongo Joe is the way it offers a window into tiny, localized and unknown music scenes. Whether that’s the “Tsapiky” (or “music of the invincible”) style found only in Madagascar that’s played by Damily, the bamboo flute rituals of Martinique Island’s Max Cilla, or the mixture of folk roots and modern dance from Derya Yıldırım & Grup Şimşek on the Turkish peninsula of Anatolia, Bongo Joe peeks into every nook and cranny of the world to find something truly special and unique.

The search has netted Yeterian some fantastic stories. “We made an appointment at his home in the Paris suburbs,” he says, describing his meeting Max Cilla, “but when I stepped out of the subway, he was waiting for me on the boardwalk… playing a flute.” Yeterian recognized him immediately, and enjoyed his own private welcome concert before heading back to Cilla’s for tea. Then there was the worldwide tape hunt that ensued when Yeterian and his team heard of the now 100-year-old Walter Ferguson, who had been selling hundreds of individually recorded tapes on the Costa Rican streets to tourists for decades—though he had forgotten even making most of them. These stories reflect Bongo Joe’s deep, personal relationship with the music they release—a truly human connection that makes digging through their catalog feel like catching up with old friends.

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Alain Peters
Rest’ La Maloya

Rest’ La Maloya—a record Yeterian has listened to “1000 times already, and will keep on listening to another 1000 times”—is a lost gem of poetry, Creole blues, and international folk left behind on tape machines after Peters passed away at 43. As Yeterian puts it, Peters is “the immortal god of Réunion Island, lost in the middle of the Indian Ocean, crossroad of African, Indian, Arabic, Asian, and French heritages.” This is an album made with a Sahelian lute in one hand, and a bottle of firewater in the other.

Various Artists
La Contra Ola

Because of the archival nature of the releases on Bongo Joe, many of them serve as stark snapshots of specific moments in time. One of Yeterian’s favorite releases, La Contra Ola represents how “post Franco’s dictatorship in Spain lead to a complete freedom and rage to create music with the help of machines and DIY punk attitude.” Lo-fi, synth-laden art rock littered with industrial sounds and experimental spoken word—it’s an album he describes as “pure underground music,” captured at a specific and unique period in history, during the return of democracy to Spain.

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Various Artists (collected by Devendra Banhart)
Fragments du Monde Flottant

“This asked a lot of me,” Yeterian chuckles of the four years he spent assembling this collection of demos with Devendra Banhart. Loosely focused on experimental folk-pop, “the demos point to something pure and essential,” Yeterian says. “It questions the essence of what feelings music brings.” Banhart’s collection of demos consists of an impressive list of artists and friends, making it clear why this record was a joy for Yeterian to release.

Jessie Mae Hemphill
Jessie Mae Hemphill

Known in the Mississippi Delta as “the queen of guitar boogie,” Jessie Mae Hamphill was blues royalty. Granddaughter of Sid Hemphill (fiddle player and bandleader who recorded for Alan Lomax and George Mitchell) and descended from a long line of multi-instrumentalists, Jessie Mae was always destined for greatness. Here, she delivers with a something like a greatest-hits collection, culled from what Yeterian considers “two of the greatest albums in (less-known) blues history.”

Walter Gavitt Ferguson
The Legendary Tape Recordings Vol. 1

Over the course of his nearly 100-year-lifespan, Walter Ferguson has self-recorded hundreds of unique cassettes, handing them out or selling them to friends and tourists around Costa Rica for decades. It’s the little touches in and around his laid-back calypso that make these cassettes so special: “A rooster sings on one, and on another there’s a dog barking,” says Yeterian. “It’s super exciting and funny.” With the release of this compilation, more and more of Ferguson’s cassettes have made their way into Cyril’s hands—meaning the release of Volume 2 will not be too far off.

Max Cilla
La Flûte Des Mornes Vol. 1

Cilla has given his entire life to resurrecting the bamboo flute rituals played by his ancestors in the fields of Martinique Island. In accordance with tradition, Cilla’s family made the flutes themselves up in the coastal hills where they lived. When Cilla finally did start playing, “he brought the traditional flute playing to another dimension.” Subtly underpinned by traditional Martinique percussion, Cilla’s playing draws on Latin and Cuban rhythms to make something complex but undeniably infectious.

Damily
Very Aomby

Damily were one of the first bands to modernize the traditional Tsapiky music localized to Madagascar. “Too rock for the world scene and too world for the rock scene,” with a BPM that approaches techno, Cyril admits that their sound scares a lot of bookers, making it tough to get them the recognition they deserve. That’s not to say Damily are inaccessible, though—their music is genially original, joyfully rhythmic and energetic, with songs like “Very Aomby” full of leaping highlife guitar, jubilant, shouted vocals, and frenetic percussion.

Valérie Besson & Cyril Yeterian
Louise et Anne vont en Louisiane

Yeterian himself appears several times across the Bongo Joe catalog. His band Cyril Cyril (comprising himself and his friend, also named Cyril) are powerfully energetic and undefinable. Here though, Yeterian makes something humble and touching. Born of a love of Disney storybook LPs, this is a 7” for kids (though by no means not enjoyable for adults) with a wonderfully colorful story about a musical crocodile on the A-side, and gleeful slice of ramshackle creole silliness on side B.

The Mauskovic Dance Band
Repeating Night

The Bongo Joe 7” series is a particular source of pride for Cyril. Endearingly described as his “little biscuits,” the singles spread across the Bongo Joe catalog, their simple but striking artwork creating a kind of river that ties this eclectic mix together. The series began with early releases from The Mauskovic Dance Band, Altin Gün, Cyril Cyril, and Yīn Yīn. With a sound that traverses ’80s New York new wave and ’70s Afrobeat by way of Columbia and Amsterdam, The Mauskovic Dance Band have only stated goal: “to make people dance!”

-Henry Boon

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