Tag Archives: Strut Records

Album of the Day: Various Artists, “Alefa Madagascar”

Alefa Madagascar plays like a highlight reel of Malagasy sounds from the ‘70s and ‘80s—a combination of salegy, soukous, and soul. Album-opener “Jean Kely Et Basth” by Andosy Mora begins with the kind of plush organs that would be fit to score a Sunday sermon. But when the hard drums hit and a fuzzed-out guitar snakes its way in and the organ begins to stutter, the song goes from solemn reserve to a vision of bodies suddenly catching the Holy Spirit.

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Celebrating 20 Years of Strut, Whose Compilations Span the Globe

Photography by Tim Craig

“When we started out we always wanted to relate our releases to dance music in some way,” says Quinton Scott from the London headquarters of his label Strut. “But that could mean anything from disco, soul, funk, and African music to post-punk and industrial.”

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Album of the Day: Mulatu Astatke, “Afro Latin Soul”

The discography of Ethiopian jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke has become the stuff of legend. Following the 2017 reissue of Astatke’s brilliant Mulatu of Ethiopia, stories spread of the musician’s early days in America in the 1960s and ‘70s. With Strut’s newest reissue, Afro Latin Soul Vols. 1 & 2, we hear Astatke’s first forays into the pioneering sound that would become his trademark.

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How Orchestre Les Mangelepa Changed the Course of East African Music

Ochestre Mangelepa

Ochestre Mangelepa in the 1970s.

For over 40 years, Orchestre Les Mangelepa have been a dominant force in East Africa’s music scene, making people dance all across Congo, Tanzania, and Kenya with their energetic live performances and signature sound. They’ve helped evolve East African rumba—the musical art form that has come to define East Africa—and have kept it alive in Kenya’s busy capital, where they still play weekly gigs in local clubs.

Their story takes place mostly in Nairobi, which was a magnet for musicians from all over the East African region in the 1960s. Artists from far-flung cities and villages traveled to the city and brought with them the melodies of Tanzania, the traditional Taarab sounds from the Kenyan coast and the aching vocal harmonies of Congo’s rumba.

Noticing its nascent music scene, and attracted by a growing economy, international music labels invested in the city, and by the 1970s, Nairobi boasted state-of-the-art recording studios, pressing plants, and hundreds of music venues. As Kenya’s tourism industry flourished, new international hotels promoted local bands to play nightly gigs, covering versions of American funk, soul and West African afro beats, as well as weaving in elements from East Africa’s contemporary genres.

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Mulatu Astatke’s “Ethiopia” Is A Love Letter To His Homeland

Mulatu Astatke

When Mulatu Astatke created his now-famed take on Ethio-jazz, his intentions were simple: to shine a light on himself and other musicians from Ethiopia, a country whose sound had been neglected far too long. To do this, Astatke took his favorite parts of other genres—Latin music, funk, and fusion—and concocted a fresh recipe. Before Astatke released Mulatu of Ethiopia in 1972, he still hadn’t found the right blend of genre and musicians to realize his vision. It finally clicked on that release.

Full of layered drums, floating horns, and infectious rhythms, with Astatke’s vibraphone fluttering across scales, the sound was considered revolutionary. “This music hadn’t been done before, so there were no reference points,” Astatke recalls.

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Searching For Sugar Man: How Nigeria’s Joe King Kologbo Lived The Highlife

Joe King Kologbo

From the dapper highlife rhythms of Aba to the fiery psychedelica forged in Lagos, funky guitarist and composer Joe King Kologbo was a senior figure in Nigeria’s happening rock scene of the 1960s and ‘70s. Yet, like a lot of music forged in the West African nation, his name almost slipped through a crack in time forever.

Music became a casualty of a bloody Civil War that broke out in 1967. During the conflict, records were eradicated. Bands fractured as their members were forced to scatter and flee for their lives. A lot of the music that was cut in Nigeria during that era has never been released outside of the country. LPs were boxed up and left to decay in abandoned lock-ups and warehouses.

But in that period of relentless sonic inventiveness, Kologbo never stood still. His axe got hips swaying on the hotel and nightclub dance floors across Nigeria’s most vibrant cities. He hit the studio with a diverse clutch of artists, and used his position as an elder statesman of highlife to mentor younger musicians.

Still, Kologbo’s name has been scarcely mentioned outside of his home nation. His songs are rarely featured on the reissues that have streamed out of Africa over the last 15 years. But with three-track solo album Sugar Daddy recently reissued by London-based Strut Records, Kologbo’s work is deservedly enjoying brand new shine.

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How Sun Ra’s Definitive Singles Catalog Finally Saw The Light of Day

Sun Ra. Photo by Alton Abraham.

Sun Ra. Photo by Alton Abraham.

Sun Ra departed Earth on May 30, 1993, just days after the 79th anniversary of his arrival. (One doesn’t talk about Ra in terms of “birth” and “death,” but more on that later.) He left behind a massive, convoluted musical legacy—including at least 120 full-length albums, one of the world’s largest known discographies—and perhaps an even bigger mystery. Who was this jazz composer/arranger/bandleader/pianist, who insisted that he was a native of the planet Saturn and espoused a philosophy that blended science fiction, Biblical texts and ancient Egyptian history and mythology (wearing costumes that also expressed that combination)? And what were we to make of his music, which ranged from big-band swing to bebop to avant-garde and fusion?

Twenty-three years later, we have some answers. It’s only in that time, for example, that Sun Ra has been revealed to be the former Herman Poole “Sonny” Blount, born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914. A small army of researchers has made some sense of his discography as well, assigning session dates and personnel to previously un-annotated tracks. Many of the Sun Ra Arkestra’s albums were ex post facto compilations of disparate sessions and lineups. Still, there are a number of holes and gray areas, and perhaps always will be. But with Strut Records’ release of Singles: The Definitive 45s Collection—an assemblage of one of Ra’s most overlooked bodies of work—the picture becomes a bit more complete.

“It’s a very interesting and singular perspective on the Sun Ra story,” says Paul Griffiths, the London-based music writer who compiled Singles. “It will be a huge listening experience, and, I think, quite a revelation.”

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A 10 Song Italo-Disco Starter Kit

Italo Disco

Italo disco—or simply the abridged Italois one of the most unabashedly fun and enthusiastically brainless strains of dance music to emerge in the past fifty years. Often reviled by rockists and critics alike, the style has proven tremendously resilient and, thankfully, has never really gone away. From early ’80s classics like B.W.H.’s “Stop” and Mr. Flagio’s “Take a Chance” to contemporary takes on Italo by the likes of Sally Shapiro, Lovelock and the Italians Do It Better roster, it’s stayed the course and outlasted other genre fads, all the while proving influential on pop and electronic producers of today.

Italo is somewhat tough to pinpoint as it wasn’t codified to a specific scene or movement. It was concurrent with punk rock, though in most respects—from the fashion to the music to the ethos—it’s the antithesis of punk. While much of it originally did come from Italy, there’s a sort of pan-Euro-ness to it, and it was highly indebted to the work of Giorgio Moroder and John Carpenter, in particular. A German imprint called ZYX was the first to coin the term Italo in a seminal compilation of Italo disco tunes in 1983, though producers had been churning out this music for years already by that point. There was no clean dividing line between disco-disco and Italo; rather, Italo was a more synth-laden, ESL mutation of classic disco with a Europop twist. The golden era of Italo was the late ‘70s through the mid ‘80s and By 1991, ZYX would have issued around twenty compilations of Italo music. Much of it was commercialized crap (which goes for most compilations for any genre), but some of it was timeless.

Defining Italo characteristics include bright arpeggios, slinky synth basslines, basic tinfoil drum machines, big pop vocals, and a healthy serving of cheese. There’s a streak of amateurism that, at least for fans of the style, is endearing. Italo enthusiasts have fought the stigma that it’s the most uncool dance music of all time, and a wide range of Italo producers have proven that Italo isn’t necessarily one dimensional. It comes in several different sub-flavors: darkwave (think Farah, Chromatics, and many records off Italians Do It Better), cosmic (Charlie’s “Spacer Woman”), full blown pop (Roisin Murphy’s Lucio Battisti covers, Valerie Dore’s “Get Closer”), electro boogie (Kano’s “Another Life” and “It’s a War”), and on and on. Italo is part of the same continuum that connects OutRun, space/cosmic disco, house, Hi N-R-G, electro, freestyle and Miami Bass. Italo embraces wonkiness, futuristic ESL poetry, heart-on-sleeve hooks, but is unapologetically pulpy music for party people. That’s a good thing. It’s cheesy, chintzy, and child-like, and you’ll certainly know it when you hear it.

Kano, Charlie, Gaznevada, Mr. Flagio, Casco, Gino Soccio, and Alexander Robotnick are just a few of the stars of the golden period of the early ’80s. But Italo has influenced the world over and is now quietly being made everywhere from America, Europe, Australia, Asia, and probably some other places we’re not even hip to yet.

Its modern disciples are keeping the genre quite healthy by unearthing undiscovered classic gems, releasing new productions and throwing Italo-themed DJ nights. So here are two handfuls of mostly contemporary, Italo-inspired records across space and time that put you on some kind of Mediterranean boat party time machine. Cue the lasers.

Various Artists “Disco Italia—Essential Italo Disco Classics 1977/1985”

The great Strut Records of London is one of the finest re-issue labels on the planet, and this compilation is an excellent primer for the Italo novice. The first track, “Wojtila 5. Disco Dance” by Freddy the Flying Dutchmen & The Sistina Band, exemplifies how Italo emerged from disco-disco with its live bass, sax solos, and arpeggios all gelling together. Many of the selections on this comp underscore the more uptempo, disco-ier side of Italo, but the backend features some of the weirder, slower curios like the classic “The Line” by High Fi Bros or Valentine’s “Tina, Are You Ready?”

Beppe Loda “Karolina” (Slow Motion Records)

Speaking of classics, Beppe Loda—a DJ and producer in his 60s—was one of the Italian DJs to develop the Cosmic style of playing records popularized in Italy during the late ‘70s, and Loda is still one of the most adroit, experienced DJs working today. In “Karolina”, he uses a flute solo and a dementedly giddy bassline to capture that vintage oddball Italo feeling. It’s robust and fully mastered (read: plenty of low-end) for a modern dancefloor.

Sally Shapiro “If It Doesn’t Rain (Tony Carrasco Remix)”

Sally Shapiro isn’t a person but, rather, an imaginary pop star, the brainchild of Johan Agebjörn and an anonymous Swedish singer who is allegedly too bashful to have ever performed live. Though Sally Shapiro is now a defunct project as of recently, it was probably the most complete and consistent project of the Italo revival wave from roughly a decade ago. This eleven minute rework by classic Italo producer Tony Carrasco hits all the proper (bitter)sweet spots and breezes by like a cool summer zephyr.

The Unknown Cases “Masimbabele (Headman/Robi Insinna Rework)” (Headman reworks)

Keeping it in Northern Europe, Swiss-born Headman (Robi Insinna) has been making classy, analog-heavy records since the beginning of this century. In his series of remixes, we find Headman at his Italo headiest. This whole record is overflowing with wonky midtempo numbers like this one that constantly threaten to slip off the tracks.

Sfire “Sfire 2 (Kris Baha Remix)”

Jeffrey Sfire “is a fag that plays 80’s italo, high nrg, chicago house, and everything WBMX. He’s real real real,” as his official bio tells it, and this might be a good point to recognize that many queer DJs are responsible for keeping Italo music alive for the past thirty years and keeping its classics in the consciousness and electronic canon. The Berliner via New York and Detroit hasn’t released a ton of material but everything he has done—including this remix package—has been high quality, part pastiche and part his own take on Italo. This remix is courtesy of Melbourne’s Kris Baha and feels almost like early Ministry with its industrial patina. The original Sfire records (released on Cocktail D’Amore) are fetching princely sums on Discogs.

Lauer “Sanger”

Here’s another release off Emotional Especial, who especialize in all modern Italo and associated sounds. Germany’s Phillip Lauer consistently rides that line between acid and Italo and somehow always comes out with a feel-good tune that is suitable both for the club and for home listening, which is no easy feat. The Italo-house stylings of “Sanger” has noodly synths in spades, which punch the already meaty beat along.

Evanton “Save the Night”

Greece’s Evanton is a group with a very deep well of Italo-inspired tunes to its credit. The prolific group has dozens of releases under their belt. Their LP Italo Disco in particular (and not surprisingly) is chock full of saucy synth-led songs and all the warm nostalgia fuzzies which proper Italo is known for conjuring up.

Chris Paladin “Alpha Zone

England’s Chris Paladin makes music that is part Tangerine Dream Druid incantation, part cosmic, part Italo. Mild Peril 2012-2013 (Volume I) is a space Italo opera that hits many dramatic peaks and valleys. It should satisfy the ravenous, nostalgia-hungry Stranger Things fans out there.

Danger Mode “Timeless”

Philadelphia’s Danger Mode makes neon-tinted pop jams that technically may lie more on the OutRun side of the yard (thanks to all the racecar imagery of course), but listen to “Timeless”. It shimmers like a French house take on Italo, perfect for a dip in the pool or a drive through the desert.

Khidja “Never Seen the Dunes (Discodromo remix)”

Khidja is a DJ/production duo from Bucharest. Discodromo is a DJ/producer duo—from Italy by way of Berlin—that holds the torch high for Italo and are behind Berlin’s infamous Cocktail d’Amore party and label. When the two teams trade services here, you’ve got some multi-culti, psyched out whirling dervish of a heater with a deep Italo backbone that has the drama and tension required to move a peak-time floor.

Jonny Coleman