Sep 24, 2013
Voodoo Funk: An Exotic Creature in West Africa
Voodoo Funk: An Exotic Creature in West Africa
(originally published @ hyponik.com)
Whilst most of us are slaves to the 9-5, Voodoo Funk’s Frank Gossner has been busy fulfilling his dream. Refusing to adhere to the norm, he’s dedicated his life to acting on impulse and travelling the world with an incredibly refreshing attitude that one can’t help but admire. Having previously lived in New York and Berlin, 2005 marked a landmark in Gossner’s life as he decided to give up everything and spend 3 years of his life living in West Africa with the direct intention of collecting records. 5 years later and one amazing blog later, he’s running one of the best re-issue labels around in the form of Voodoo Funk. The imprint brings you the best funk, soul and disco Africa has to offer to a Western audience, with a focus on the slew of superb and largely unknown music the area has to offer.
With a recent run of 12”s proving to be essential purchases for any aficionados of the genre, we caught up with Frank as he relaxes in his current location of Costa Rica to discuss politics, cockroaches and the pursuit of happiness…
Hey Frank, how’s it going? You’re in Costa Rica at the moment, what are you getting up to over there? Any digging?
No, I’m not doing any digging around here, I’m still 100% focused on West African music. I moved to Costa Rica with the intention to enjoy the country, do some surfing, hike the mountains and collect epyphitic orchids and bromeliads. I’m also still going to Africa at least once a year and working on various re-issue projects.
Going back to the beginning, how exactly did you get into African music?
I was friends with Phillip Lehman, the owner of Desco Records, when I lived in NYC back in the 90s and got to see some of the very first performances of Antibalas. It was then that I started listening to some Fela Kuti records. I was doing this Deep Funk night in Berlin from 2000 to 2005 and kept going over to the US to go on digging trips. Sometime in 2004 (I think) I was digging for funk 45s at this defunct old record store in Philadelphia and for some strange reason they had an few dozen mint releases from the Nigerian Tabansi label sitting in their office, amongst them the incredibly rare Pax Nicholas album that I would later re-issue on Daptone Records. At around the same time I bought the first few Soundway releases and it became clear that there must be much, much more exciting stuff out there than just Fela records.
What was the tipping point for you to go from a guy who just seeks what he can get his hands on in the Western market to going to the source? It’s a sign of dedication that few people have.
Well, if you’re anywhere outside of Africa, you are limited to reissues – which at around 2004 or 2005 wasn’t too much. Sure there was the occasional obscure looking original African record you could buy on eBay but those rarely had sound clips, often looked very intriguing but then the music wasn’t always what I was looking for. A lot of people have been going to Africa for records for years now, so there’s been a lot more African vinyl floating around on eBay. In fact, I think we’ve actually reached a threshold now as these records become increasingly harder to find in Africa itself.
I always love going places. Even when I was still collecting and DJing US deep funk 45s and bought loads of records online, it was still important to me to go get at least some of my records from the source. This way you can experience the culture out of which the music was born. You get to see the places, eat the food, maybe take in some live music. That’s a much more rewarding thing to do than staring at a computer screen.
In 2005 I had just unexpectedly run into a significant amount of money so I just decided to go for it and move to West Africa. I had originally aimed for Ghana or Benin but then my wife managed to get a job in Guinea which had, and to some extend still has, an incredible music scene. The capital Conakry is only a few hours by car away from Sierra Leone and it’s capital city of Freetown, which had just come to peace after a long and horrible civil war. Freetown was where Nigerian funk superstar Geraldo Pino had begun his career and there were several indicators that records could be found there and because of the long war it was clear that no other digger had been there in recent years. So we just went, packed our stuff and moved to Africa.
It’s admirable that you’re willing to drop everything to follow your dreams, whether it be moving to Africa to collect records or Costa Rica to collect orchids. How do you perceive the way you live your life? I think a lot of people would love to have the conviction to fulfill their ambitions like you do but maybe don’t believe it’s possible…
I’m a firm believer that anything is possible if you really want it, at least if you’re willing to put in the work and to accept the risks and possible consequences. Leading an impulsive life that focuses on enjoying myself to the fullest works for me because I don’t have a family to raise and never had any interest in pursuing a conventional career, owning a house or even having a retirement plan.
Did you get any strange reactions being a white Western guy who’s obviously really into African music? Did some of the locals have a bit of trouble getting their head around it?
Not really. Away from the bigger cities, just by being white you already stand out as an exotic creature and get lots of attention. Once you explain that you’re looking for records the first reaction is never surprise or disbelief but people immediately start thinking how they can help you and you find yourself being led though alleyways, from one house to another on a never ending string of wild goose chases. Older people often revel in remembering their youth and seeing these bands live and just love hearing their old records being played again on your portable turntable. And after all, collecting old records is probably the least alienating white man eccentricity they might have experienced or heard of.
Of course, your trips are about far more than just collecting records. What is it about Africa that you really love and makes you keep coming back?
It’s hard to explain, I’m sure everybody who’s ever been to West Africa knows what it is though. There’s the feeling that just about anything, good or bad can happen at pretty much any time. I mean taking an overland bus in Nigeria for one example is pretty much like playing Russian roulette. Traffic anywhere in West Africa can be pretty mind-blowing but Nigeria is on a whole other level. There are huge potholes everywhere that would snap an axle right in half and yet everybody’s driving at break neck speed like they are on the Autobahn. The unbelievable speed, the condition of the road and vehicles and the added constant danger of being stopped by armed highway robbers make for a pretty intense adrenaline rush. Then you have the serenity of some of the smaller towns you stay at where time just appears to stand still, the intensity of the heat, cold beer and good conversation with people you just met. Each different area of every country can be extremely different to anything you’ve seen before, it’s hard to put it in words but it’s all very addictive.
Fela Kuti is probably the most prominent artist in West African music, with a real focus on the political. How far do you think that the political message is important in African funk?
Political messages are always bogus regardless how they are packaged. I’m not a believer in any form of political system. To me, they’re all flawed and all men who are in any position of power are evil. They don’t all start out that way but that’s what they become. Some hide it better than others of course but they are all full of shit.
There is actually very little African music besides Fela that is openly political. Fela’s lyrics can be amazing descriptions of the flaws and the problems Nigeria has had at the time (unfortunately today it’s even worse) but when it comes to his own political aspirations I’m more than skeptical. Most African dictators had originally started out as freedom fighters, liberators, rebels and the like…
I have to tell you that while of course I’m a huge fan of Fela’s music and especially of his earlier lyrics, especially Shuffering and Shmiling, ITT, Yellow Fever, to name a few, I don’t at all like the way he’s being portrayed as some sort of freedom bringer or messiah by people in America or in Europe. Generally I don’t support the glorification of any person. People are always flawed. There’s always a dark side. Glorification distorts and simplifies a person and insults the complexity of human nature. Fela surrounded himself with some pretty hardcore street thugs that he had hired as security at his compound. Some of the EMI producers talked about having received death threats if they don’t do what they were told and Fela treated his musicians mostly pretty badly and I also don’t think they enjoyed being beat up by police and thrown in jail because of Fela’s antics. That’s one of the reasons why they refused to go back with him after that ’78 show in Berlin, that and the rumours he was going to use the proceeds for the European tour to fund his presidential campaign.
Politics in Africa is an incredible topic. There is a ton of material online for anybody who’s interested can read up on. I don’t think pop music is the adequate forum though.
A lot of the places you went digging in Africa didn’t have the best conditions. It seems that pretty much everywhere was crawling with cockroaches and caked in mud. Is there anything that would stop you looking through a crate?
No, I would never be stopped looking though a crate for any reason, I always found amazing stuff just towards the bottom of the most un-promising looking vessel. With time I’ve grown completely indifferent to cockroaches. In coastal West Africa they’re everywhere, you’re in their natural habitat. After moving onto our house in Conakry I dug up a small field to plant vegetables and the soil was literally crawling with roaches, there were whole nests of them.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
To not expect too much. Unfortunately, countries like Ghana, Togo and Benin have been pretty much run dry by now. I still have a steady stream of records coming from Nigeria but over there you need a network of local diggers otherwise the chances of finding anything worthwhile are fairly slim.
You’ve found a lot of unique records on your travels, do you ever think there’s an issue of the rarity of a record over-shadowing the actual quality of the music? Sometimes in record collecting I get the feeling that people just want a record because no-one else owns it, rather than because they truly love the music.
I don’t know, I think that’s a matter of your own personal decision. If somebody wants to collect rare records why not? Of course there is an appeal in owning unique things. If a DJ wants to put together a box of records that nobody else has then this puts him at an advantage towards the competition and it offers other people the chance to hear music they haven’t heard before. Every consumer has the option to buy or listen to whatever music they want and I wouldn’t want to judge over their motives. At least they’re listening to music and listening to music is always good for you.
There’s a bit of a jump from collecting records to running a label. What’s your vision behind Voodoo Funk as a label?
I’m not sure if I have a vision. I’m a very impulsive kind of person and never really have a long-term plan for anything… For now I’m in the middle of a series of 5 Nigerian Disco and Boogie 12″s and there’ll be an amazingly deep Afro Funk album by the Martin Brothers coming out in a couple of months. Once these 6 releases are on the market we’ll see what the numbers look like and if this seems like a sustainable venture there might be more or maybe I’ll decide to spend more time surfing the beaches and hiking the cloud forests of Central America.
You must have an absolutely huge collection of music, how did you manage to decide what records you wanted to reissue?
At this time most my entire collection is in a storage facility on Berlin. I decided to not move my records to Costa Rica with me because of the high risk of house robberies, earthquakes (we had a 6.5 a few months ago and a 4-5 every couple of weeks) and mould because of the tropical humidity. Right now I’m selecting my reissues from whatever new stock I have coming in from my friends in Ghana and Nigeria.
How do you process the sheer volume of music that must come into your hands. Do you have a system to make sure every record you receive is listened to, or is it a bit more relaxed than that?
I don’t have much of a system. When I have new records coming in, I always clean them up as best as possible. Then I wait for a good day to listen to them, put aside what goes into the DJ pile and decide what to keep for my own, personal collection. Everything then usually gets stored away in my record room and whenever I feel like listening to a certain record, I go in there and usually emerge an hour or so later with a stack of stuff that more often than not doesn’t include what I initially set out to find… I’m not really a librarian. Right now I actually don’t have too many records at the house because I shipped everything off into storage last year so I basically started again from scratch. It’s going to be interesting once I’m reunited with my main collection.
You seem to be a fan of the aesthetics of African records, at least judging from the time you’ve put into the presentation of the latest 12″s. Would you say that’s true?
Yes, of course. It was important to me to do something special with the packaging, I wanted to put them into company sleeves to give them that typical Disco Maxi Single look but then I also wanted to represent the look of the original record the songs were taken from. I figured the best way to do this would be to add a poster. Nobody puts out records with bonus posters anymore and I just love posters.
I’m a big admirer of the artwork on African records from all musical genres and eras. For years I’ve been planning on doing a coffee table book with my friend Uchenna Ikonne from Comb & Razor, who’s also been facilitating the licensing for most of my releases and some day I’m sure we’re going to do it. You’ll need a strong coffee table because this thing is going to be heavy…
What’s your plans for the future of Voodoo Funk? The last two 12″s came out in a pretty short period of time, can we expect to see this rate maintained?
Oh yeah, we’re going to keep knocking them out one after the other. All 5 should be out before the first snow.
Finally, what’s your most prized possession? I assume it might be a record?
I actually prize my freedom and the joy of living much higher than any object. Records are just pieces of plastic and cardboard. Don’t get me wrong, records are great things as far as things go. They provide a unique thrill when you try to hunt them down and finding a great record that you never knew existed can be quite exhilarating. It feels really good to play them for people and to get a crowd to dance to music they’ve never heard before. I also love to listen to music all by myself and I also can’t deny that it’s nice to have objects around that mean something to me but I can be just as content while sitting down with a book or drinking with a good friend.
Thanx for an interesting interview,