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by Jochan Embley March 09, 2018
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The 16 tracks that make up the latest Habibi Funk compilation are a heady fusion of sound and fervour. There is some psychedelic disco from Egypt. Other songs are electrified by the carnival energy of Caribbean zouk. There’s even a raucous reworking of Beethoven’s Für Elise. And it all sits alongside smatterings of funk, soul and hip-hop. Some of the recordings are jagged and unrefined; others sound luscious enough to have been recorded yesterday.

And the stories behind how this compilation and the Berlin-based label that released it came to be are no less intriguing. For co-founder Jannis Stürtz, the journey started in 2012, with a chance visit to a hardware-store-cum-record-shop in Casablanca, Morocco, and has since taken him across the Arab nations, picking up rare LPs and dusty cassettes as he goes.

“As much as a lot of regions have been covered by a bunch of reissue labels that do similar work to us, the Arab world was kind of left out until very recently,” says Stürtz, who also runs the Jakarta Records label. “The thing in the beginning that triggered me was the fact that it was music I really, really liked, but I did not know a lot about it — and whoever I played it to usually had the same reaction.

“The quality of the music was really strong and I felt like there was a discrepancy between the availability of the music and the interest it created.”

And so, the idea for Habibi Funk, a reissue label focusing on eclectic, stereotype-busting sounds from the Arab world, was born. In that Casablanca shop six years ago, Stürtz came across a 70s cover of James Brown’s Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, sung in Arabic, by an artist called Fadoul. It’s the kind of song that needs to be heard rather than described, but Stürtz does a pretty good job of it: “Arabic funk with a punk attitude.”

“The Fadoul track was a good starting point,” he remembers. “It’s not very subtle, it’s full-on energy and very straight to the point. If it’s the first record you’re listening to, you get the idea straight away.”

After learning that Fadoul had passed away some years ago, Stürtz started trying to track down his family to license the music. The process took multiple trips to Morocco, drew in a team of musicians and helpers, and, after narrowing the search down to a certain neighbourhood in Casablanca, culminated in “running around with photos of the album cover and showing it to old men in coffee houses.” Eventually, Stürtz found the relatives.

While asking Stürtz about his adventures, I use the word “discovery,” and he is quick to point out — politely but assuredly — how he came to avoid the term.

“One of the things that quite quickly someone pointed out to me, and that I stopped using, was the word ‘discover,’ because it’s not music that hasn’t been there before I got to it,” he explains. “Especially when you’re coming from the West, and you’re dealing with cultural goods from the region, I guess ‘discover’ is a historically complicated term.”

This awareness and sensitivity is something that goes beyond a choice of words. “We are not an NGO (non-governmental organisation), we are not a political group — we are first and foremost a record label,” Stürtz says. “But, given the specific content and the context we are working in, it has political components and we are very well aware of it.

“We think that, in the context of post-colonialism, there is a historically complicated form of exchange that has been repeated and repeated, and we want to break out of repeating these mistakes and these exploitative patterns.” And that’s why all of Habibi Funk’s music is licensed directly from the artists or their families, and with any profits split 50/50.

But it’s not just about the financial exchange, as Stürtz stresses: “It’s also about how we represent these cultural goods. This is why, in our artworks, you won’t find any pyramids or camels, or any of the very stereotypical visual language.” Instead, the album covers are often developed using photos from private family collections, and are invariably fascinating snapshots. Each of Habibi Funk’s official releases (there are seven to date) come with extensive booklets, featuring liner notes, photos and interviews.

In fact, Habibi Funk is to run its very first exhibition, “A Spotlight on Arab Grooves,” at Dubai’s East Wing gallery this March. It’ll feature vintage prints, handwritten composition sheets, turntables for people to listen to the music on and more.

The supplementary material gives all the information on the artists that Stürtz was desperate to find, because, according to him, telling these stories “is something that is equally as important to us as the music.”

The Independent

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