Already at the controls of the label Jakarta, Jannis Stürtz takes us behind the scenes of his latest project, Habibi Funk, intended to reissue forgotten North African musical treasures. From Morocco to Sudan via Libya and Algeria, each release prompts an exciting investigation. And, on top of that, chance encounters and as yet unreleased tracks.
Pictures by Fabian Brennecke
In the alleyways of Casablanca, a man is walking around with a photo in his hand, questioning the locals sitting on cafe terraces, in the hope that one of them recognises the mysterious singer whom he discovered by chance on a ‘45 turntable, hidden behind broken electronic devices and stacked in a second-hand shop. This man is Jannis Stürtz. He is stomping through Medina in search of the foundations for what would eventually become Habibi Funk in 2015: ‘In the beginning, it was way more difficult. For example, trying to find Fadoul was like a one-year process. We found someone who recognised the photo and then we only knew where his family used to live ten years ago, and we just had the name of a neighbourhood in Casablanca, not the street name or anything.’
The symbolic Al Zman Saib by the Moroccan, Fadoul, then became the label’s second release, laying the foundations for the signature sound that Jannis wanted – raw and atypical, when North African music is inspired by sounds from elsewhere, so long as it’s funky. A sub-label of the Jakarta structure, and a cradle mostly for hip-hop artists like Anderson.Paak, Suff Daddy, or Blitz the Ambassador, Habibi Funk takes its name from a comment posted by a listener to a mix online:
‘We were never good at finding names. Jakarta records got its name because of holidays I spent in Indonesia. I am aware that the name “Habibi Funk” is not super deep. It obviously doesn’t mean anything because it’s the Arabic word for “darling” mixed with a genre name. But then again, I think that the topic and the music is so special that I think that the introduction to it by a name that, right away, catches your attention and that you can remember, makes perfect sense.’
To justify this, Jannis draws an analogy with ‘krautrock’, a term that has no concrete meaning, but serves a similar idea. As for the required conditions for obtaining a place in the catalog, those are based on feeling – the compilation of Kamal Keila being a good example as it borrows from both Ethiopian and Congolese palettes. Without actually setting a style barrier, Jannis says that, ‘the musical influences might come from anywhere in the world, but whenever there is this type of blend, there is a high probability that this is something we may be interested in. We don’t attempt to give an idea of what Algerian music was in 1970 for example. We are focusing on a very particular and special-interest niche type of music. The selection is linked to what we really like.’
The sound frame being drawn, it is difficult to establish precisely the geographical area that will serve as a field of action in order to find new treasures. Today, reissues on the label come to us from Algeria, Morocco, and Sudan. In short, countries that are labelled a bit too quickly as being in the ‘Arab world’ just because Arabic is spoken there. Yet, says Jannis, ‘one of our next releases is an album from the Kabyle region of Algeria, where people don’t speak Arabic. I am very well aware that whatever we call the “Arab world”, it is very much a reduction of complexity because within that region there are a lot of cultures that might not primarily identify as Arabic, and there are many different languages being spoken. Speaking about an “Arab world” may be an issue, but it is an attempt to make people understand quickly what it is about.’
Love at first sight in Rabat
This love for hybrid ‘Arab’ music soaked with rustic funk comes from a coincidence, unknowingly provoked by Blitz the Ambassador, a Jakarta artist who played at the festival Mawazine in Rabat, Morocco six years ago. Jannis, who accompanied him on his tour, tells us a story of this discovery that would change his life as an artistic director.
‘I found some records which I really liked, and then I realised that whether you searched in Latin or Arabic letters in Google, there wasn’t anything on the internet about them. I realised that there is a lot of great music out there which is in danger of being forgotten about. That was the starting point – the idea to make really great but not particularly accessible music, available again. ‘
Jakarta is an eclectic label that uses soul and rap as the common denominator of its releases, without working on re-releases. Proposing a new showcase was key for the Berliner and his team, who realised at the same time that, ‘up to this point, there were some labels doing reissues from Arabic music here and there, but there was no label really dedicated to the music from the Arab world with this particular sound. It made sense to give it its own entity and its own channel.’
At the time of starting the label, Jannis had already posted some mixes made of old sounds, yet which sounded completely new in the ears of those curious enough to listen. With growing success and an indisputable potential to revive the flame of a musical wealth close to extinction, the DJ has still never worn a businessman’s suit, fully trusting in the passion that drives his work.
‘We didn’t anticipate that it would work in the way it does right now. But even with Jakarta, we never had a very strategic approach about working – in the sense of being economically successful. We always enjoyed being able to release the types of music we like, and having the luxury of not thinking twice about whether this particular thing is gonna sell. As long as we feel this is something we are musically interested in, we put it out. In the end it was the same for Habibi Funk. There was no strategic decision.’
A painstaking job
To achieve his ends, Jannis doesn’t shy away from hard work and patience in order to find original recordings and new talent. Without this, nothing would see the light of day. Thus, the globetrotter goes at least once a month to North Africa to DJ, taking advantage of the moment to seek out new music or to try to get in touch with an artist sometimes just discovered on Youtube, or members of their family or tribe. Although the task was long and arduous, he sees the Fadoul episode and those first adventures as real investments: ‘Now we have quite a good network and we’ve become very efficient. In most of the countries where the music we release originates from, we have colleagues and people who help on a project-by-project basis. And once you know some of the old musicians, it is much easier to find other musicians, because quite often they were running on the same scene, and know one another from back then, so there is some sort of connection.’
On the other hand, when you set foot in a new country, you have to start from scratch. But most of the time luck smiles on him, as on the occasion when he was looking for a Libyan reggae artist: ‘The guy was sharing the same scene, and he was usually the background singer or playing in some of the bands. He also has kind of a good memory! It is a classic example of when you start establishing a network in a country, finding other people becomes much more easier.’
Also, whenever Jannis comes into contact with an artist, he likes to ask if – on the off chance – they know of any other artist from the same era playing the same type of sound. With ‘if’, we could probably put Algiers and Paris in the same boat, but the fighter definitely works on instinct, convinced that establishing relationships can provide a valuable source of discovery.
‘Usually, all of these artists have been influenced by similar things and therefore created similar music that was very special, even back then,’ he says confidently with this example: ‘I met Kamal Keila without having heard a single track by him. I just met him based upon people telling me that he was someone I should meet. Luckily, he had two sessions of some of the recording he did in the early 90s for Sudanese radio. There is no blueprint, every project is different.’
For a project to work, mutual trust must be established. ‘I have been told that a lot of artists in west-Africa of the same generation have had a lot of bad experiences and become very suspicious because a lot of reissues have been done in a bad way. But up to this point, everyone has been really excited and up for working on the project.’
The cassette, an object of desire
Unlike some of his bandmates, Jannis does not consider himself a ‘hardcore digger’, preferring human contact to the long hours spent in record stores listening to piles of vinyls. Moreover, vinyl is becoming more and more popular as a collector’s item and so Jannis turns today to another medium: ‘I feel like tapes allow an access to music that is unlike records. Finding sounds that I am looking for becomes harder and harder because a lot of people are looking for the same thing, and the records that potentially interest me are impossible to find. The chance of finding something that musically excites me just gets higher on cassette tapes.’
Indeed, tense political situations and economic crises experienced by some countries have sometimes made it impossible to press LPs, forcing artists to find a more democratic means of distribution. ‘The ability to just copy the tapes at home and make a private press of your own allowed a lot of bands to release music. For releasing vinyl, they would have had to go through a label, through a vinyl manufacturing company, maybe outside the country they were living in. For example, during the Lebanese war in the ‘80s, there was a boom in the privately pressed cassette tapes market. Often, these tapes would only come up in a round of 200-300 copies, because most of the time they were only distributed in one particular neighbourhood that might have been shut off due to the war. It was a very productive scene that might not have existed if releasing on vinyl had been the only option for releasing music.’
Based on this experience, Jannis concentrates his efforts in the search for these rare musical relics from a very productive scene that might have never existed had vinyl been the only option for getting music out into the world.
When music also tells stories
But a Habibi Funk record isn’t just about musical resurrection. The sound is enveloped in context, particularly through stories told on Instagram and a rich booklet of information that accompanies each release. ‘This whole idea of contextualising the music is something that has always been really important to us, in order to give the people an understanding of the artists’ influences, what was the political situation when the music was created, and why the music sounds the way it does.’
In addition to the stories accompanying each record, Habibi Funk also produces documentaries about the catalog’s artists (Ahmed Malek or Kamal Keila and the Scorpions, which will be released in the coming months), and has taken up residence in museums in order to install exhibitions, such as the one that took place this summer in Algiers at the public museum of modern and contemporary art, which follows another organised in Dubai. In ‘Malek Planet’, it is an Algerian composer who was in the spotlight in his own capital, and Jannis is happy with how his baby is growing.
‘We were really lucky that the national museum was interested in joining forces with us. Ahmed Malek is interesting because he produced the soundtrack music for a lot of Algerian movies of the post-colonial era. His name might not ring a bell for a lot of people in Algeria but a lot of the music he produced is now part of the collective memory, and people would easily recognise a lot of the songs he composed.’
At the same time, the one who already has two releases to his name among the ten of the label, has also represented Algeria on many occasions, traveling a lot to play at electro festivals, and regularly playing at World Fairs in Osaka, Montreal, and Spain. It would have been a shame to let this rich heritage fester in a drawer somewhere.
‘Luckily, Malek’s family were really good in keeping a lot of the material, so we were able to put together an exhibition. We are screening a documentary, we are also screening a collage of old interview material and live performances of him, and there are a lot of old photos. A part of the exhibition is about his connection to Algerian cinema. In general, there were a lot of layers to him as an artist, and we tried to expose and show these different stories.’
The exhibition will probably next stop off in Paris in 2020, in between two releases as surprising as they are funky…